Beyond “Liberal” Female Piety or “Women Read the Qur’an Too” by Amy Levin

I’m a teacher’s assistant for an undergraduate course at New York University called, “What is Islam?” The other day in class, my professor asked the students whether or not the Qur’an is considered a “book”. Fraught with anxiety over inheriting such a problematic scholarly tradition of defining and delineating what “religion” is, I kept quiet. While my professor was aiming more for something sounding like, “a book is read, while the Qur’an is recited,” I kept thinking about the physicality and sacrality of the Qur’an (among other authoritative religious texts) and the way it is handled, revered, preserved, loved, an constantly under interpretation. It was about a week later when news broke out that U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan were guilty of burning several copies of the Qur’an on their military base, followed by an unfortunate slew of casualties including at least 30 Afghan deaths and five US soldiers.

There is no shortage of media attention and political analysis over these incidents, as some are lining up behind Obama’s “apology” and others behind Santorum’s critique of said apology. While I support the impulse to apologize, I want to seize the chance to interrogate the source these incidents: a lack of awareness (or perhaps care) of the relationship between Muslims and the Qur’an, using accounts women and their often neglected experiences with this sacred text. The common secular-liberal ethos that pervades the Western media in many ways continues to interpret women’s Islamic practices as false-conscious embodiments of patriarchal agendas, whether it is wearing a hijab, or following Islamic law.

Many scholars and feminist theologians are engaged in projects devoted to the way women actively organize and negotiate their day-to-day lives around Islamic doctrine. Two important ethnographic accounts of women’s religious gatherings in the Middle East  in particular bring attention the importance of the Qur’an in the daily lives of many Muslim women. Saba Mahmood’s Politics of Piety analytically maps concepts and practices of moral agency, embodiment, and piety through a women’s mosque movement in Cairo, Egypt, while Arzoo Osanloo’s The Politics of Women’s Rights in Iran engages the way women perceive themselves as rights-bearing subjects in the Iranian Islamic-Republic.

Saba Mahmood argues that the mosque movement in Cairo is the largest movement in history whose participants are invested in the teaching and studying of Islamic doctrine, physical comportment, and social practices for the purpose of cultivating a virtuous self. Mosque participants said that the movement was in response to the perception that religious knowledge had been marginalized under secularization, and a concern with fashioning their everyday lives with accordance to religious observances.  Mahmood is particularly interested in the way women negotiate and cultivate their piety within Egypt’s secular environment. However, while governmental policy acts as an obstacle for these women at times, other conditions in the modern secular environment can be used to negotiate such qualms. On the one hand, government and public institutions do not operate according to Islamic law, making it difficult for women to uphold a pious comportment. On the other hand, modern Muslim citizens raised in a culture of public literacy and mass media now have access to Islamic texts that were once inaccessible and limited to religious scholars.  Pedagogical booklets, manuals, tape-recorders, and other accessible materials are available for straight-forward and readable religious rules and obligations. Such shifts are altering not only accessibility of knowledge, but the very authority over that knowledge.

Arzoo Osanloo’s ethnographic account of women’s religious gatherings also documents the newer ways that women interact with and understand their relationship to the Qur’an and Islamic doctrine. Oslanloo’s account is a political ethnography set in Tehran and some of its surrounding area. Her motivation for her research occurs during her law profession when she notices a continual universal invocation of human rights that privileges individual autonomy. Osanloo claims that this particular discourse of rights carries Western liberal markers, posing a methodological problem for how to study rights in non-Western countries. Her questions lead her to Iran, where she analyzes the women’s perception of their rights through looking at particular dialogical sites.

In Tehran and other urban cities in Iran, Quranic meetings, referred to as “jaleseh-ye Qur’an”, are gatherings in which women without previous scholarly background in Islamic theology are reading the Qur’an on their own terms. While the discussions fluctuate between topics relating to familial, religious, individual, and civil concerns, what is crucially at work is that these women are determining to what extent Islamic principles affect their rights and roles. Osanloo argues that the meetings are a new space for knowledge production in which they are using the Qur’an to subvert the system and gain control over their rights. Most of the women brought to the meetings their own Qur’an – this reflects the “institutionalization and rationalization” of Islam that has led to the mass production and distribution of the text, as well as greater accessibility due to its bilingual (Persian and Arabic) versions. This means the women can also explicate the verses given that their ability to read it directly does not necessitate an Akhund (traditional religious leader).

Both of these spaces are sites where women are gaining authoritative relationships with Islamic doctrine, leading to new types of knowledges and ways of negotiating their everyday lives. While these monographs are more ethnographic, there is a growing body of Islamic feminist theology. Amina Wadud’s work is quite provocative and important in understanding the intimate and important relationship between the Qur’an and women in various socio-political and regional contexts. Her book, Qu’ran and Women: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective is particularly reflective of the ways in which the sacred text holds authority while at the same time is debated, negotiated, and interpreted through a variety of ways.

9 thoughts on “Beyond “Liberal” Female Piety or “Women Read the Qur’an Too” by Amy Levin”

  1. Thanks for writing this. I learned from it. I still do not, however, understand a god that is offended by the sight of a woman’s hair or arms or skin. What kind of “modesty” is this? It sounds more like ownership, the male relatives covering up their property. But it’s good to know what women are reading the holy book they believe in.


    1. Thanks Barbara! I think that like any mix of patriarchy and religion, the question of modesty/purity is one that is difficult for religious women. However, the Western obsession with Muslim women’s dress is one that many Muslim women and scholars are trying to push back against, especially Mahmood. Like Katrina explains below, I think many Muslim women feel that they are respected more when they cover up, and for many of them it is not a matter of oppression or lack of agency, but feeling closer to the divine through virtuous acts and proper comportment.


  2. The way that my best friend in undegrad, who was an amazing woman–both confident in herself and in her religion– explained it to me was through a story. She told me that a group of men were walking through the desert with the prophet when they came across a woman bathing. The men all stared at her and lusted over her until the prophet commanded them not to look at her body. He said that men should only look women in the eye or at their palms. Told in this way, I understood it as a sign of respect and a lesson on sexualizing/objectifying the human body. I understand that this leads some sects of the religion to have the women cover themselves, and in my opinion, this is personal choice and I respect individual freedom and interpret it as such, unless proven to be otherwise. We cannot assume that because a woman is covered, it is done so by force and oppression. I have known Muslim women who, despite their family’s disapproval, choose to cover themselves as an expression of their devotion to God.


  3. Amy you are very right that attitudes toward women’s bodies have been used in colonialist discourse by the colonialists as a way of “proving” how backward a culture is using the example of how “they” treat “their” women. Just yesterday, I found a particularly disgusting example of this. The British were campaigning to stop dedication of girls to the temples in India because this “promoted prostitution.” At the same time the British were encouraging (non sacred) brothels to be situated near their compounds for the “use” of British men. They were not objecting to prostitution per se.

    This kind of thing complicates dissussions of covering in Islam. Listening to Muslim women one does learn that many of them feel covering promotes respect of their bodies. We could add in a patriarachal context where men abuse women’s bodies at their will. Amina Waddud adopted covering because she thought it would promote respect. She has changed her position on this. Somewhere she angrily llsted all of the abuses of female bodies that still go on when women are covered, and concluded that covering wasn’t working…as promised. Muslim women also criticize the way women dress in the west, provoked by the media, and though I have worn the shortest of skirts and skimpiest of clothing in my time, I wonder if they have a point. At minimum the point is that women’s bodies are violated in all patriarchal countries including our own and that women’s bodies are “contested” territory in all patriarchal countries in ways that men’s bodies are not.


    1. Thank you for your comment, Carol. I did not realize that Amina Wadud changed her position on veiling! As to questioning your/mine/our “Western” style of dress, this is also something I grapple with, even daily. While so much of my feminism is based on my belief in choice/autonomy/agency, I never knew how to respond when my host mother in India asked why “we” in the West dress the way we do and how we can gain respect when we show off skin. While I do think some cultural specificity does need to be taken into account here, I wonder if there is something inherently affective/emotional about the way we embody our image and don/perform our identities. I tend to dress modestly, but often I admire women who do not.


    2. Hi Carol and Amy: I am a student at McGill University writing a paper about this subject.. I have definitely encountered your statement “attitudes toward women’s bodies have been used in colonialist discourse by the colonialists as a way of “proving” how backward a culture is using the example of how “they” treat “their” women.” but I am having trouble finding direct quotations about the topic… any suggestions?

      Greatly appreciated and keep up the great discussion!



    “Those who reduce women to their sexuality will continue to do so. In reality the hijab of coercion and the hijab of choice look the same.”

    “If a man respected a woman as an equal human being and not as an object of his sexual fantasies, then even a naked woman should be safe from male abuse.”

    also see:


    1. I agree 100% with you! I came from Muslim country, I’ve know a lot of woman wearing hijab and they still get sexual abuse from male, one thing that I’d love to say is “no one can hold a responsible for other person acts” here one of the example, husband abuse his wife and said.” I hit you because you make me angry, if you stop making me angry I will stop hitting you!” after all this is about self control, blaming woman for male bad behavior is like justify their wrong doing! and why I said “blaming” because mostly that’s what they did to justify their action and sadly in Muslim country woman always the one to blamed!


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