Women in the Egyptian Islamist Movements: Research and Reflexivity by Sara

Introduction: who and why?

A group of people that I am very interested in researching ethnographically are the women involved in Islamist movements in Egypt.  They would be a suitable subject for numerous reasons.  First, gender in Egypt is still an under-studied field with very little research on it that has not been completed before or during the colonial period.  Major changes have occurred since independence, and it is a field that still needs to be explored.  Second, Islamist movements are a relatively new phenomenon, especially in Egypt.  They came into existence in the 1930s and gained momentum in the 1980s.  They are increasingly popular and have a sizeable female audience.  It would be interesting to understand how women relate to the movement and how they envision themselves as part of it.  Finally, the reason the topic caught my interest was because of the apparent contradiction in the idea of a woman being part of a movement that is supposedly patriarchal.  This last reason is perhaps the most important one, and something I will focus on in this paper.


“Texts have ways of existing that even in their most rarefied form are always enmeshed in circumstance, time, place, and society – in short, they are in the world, and hence worldly” (Said: 35).  This quote from Edward Said is immensely telling: it shows that as a researcher, you are inevitably part of your context.  Your life will affect your research, and the best one can do is be aware of how in order to avoid it as best as possible.

Perhaps the most important issue to address in this ethnography is the issue of reflexivity.  For this section I will rely extensively on Saba Mahmood who discusses in detail the issue of reflexivity with regards to movements that appear to deny agency and equality to the participants involved.  Moreover, my position is a difficult one: I am Egyptian-Dutch and grew up in Zambia.  During my childhood I was exposed to predominantly “western” media and education.  Thus despite having an Egyptian father and being a Muslim, I often find myself reproducing certain stereotypes about Muslims that are in western media and western discourses on the Islamic world.  “As researchers, our social and political locations affect our research” (Guillemen & Gillam: 274).  Thus it is better to be aware of my position before entering the field.

I realize that in choosing the subject of women in Islamist movements, I am to an extent reproducing the Orientalist discourse of the subjugated Muslim woman as well as the discourse of the violent patriarchal Islamist man.  I am choosing to focus on this subject because I want to answer the question of why women would choose to participate in a movement that is patriarchal.  There are already several assumptions there: that the movement is patriarchal and that women could never choose to participate in patriarchal movements.  It is extremely important to always ask the question of why I chose this particular topic.  With regards to Islamists, it is a topic that has long fascinated and scared western academia, and this has certainly also made me curious.

In the article on the Makuleke restitution case in South Africa, the author skillfully shows how certain narratives about certain groups become the dominant narrative.  In the Makuleke case, because the story has been portrayed as a success story by so many, it has become a success story.  This may also be the case with the Islamist movement in Egypt. It has been written about for more than 50 years by academics who have portrayed it in a certain way, especially with regards to gender.  This is what piqued my interest in the group, but I must be careful not to allow these discourses to affect my actual research.  As Said wrote, “In every society the production of discourse is at once controlled, selected, organized and redistributed according to a certain number of procedures, whose role is to avert its powers and dangers, to cope with chance events, to evade its ponderous, awesome materiality” (Said: 47).  One must be aware of these discourses and their power before beginning the research.

On the other hand, another reason I was drawn to this topic was because very few researchers have given Islamists and especially female Islamists the chance to describe and articulate their own experiences and views.  “The critic is responsible to a degree for articulating those voices dominated, displaced, or silenced by the textuality of texts” (Said: 53).  Dominant discourses about Muslims, Islamists, and the Middle East in general more often than not portray these groups negatively.

My position as a feminist also brings up a range of questions.  “Women’s participation in, and support for, the Islamist movement provokes strong responses from feminists across a broad range of the political spectrum.  One of the most common reactions is the supposition that women Islamist supporters are pawns in a grand patriarchal plan, who, if freed from their bondage, would naturally express their instinctual abhorrence for the traditional Islamic mores used to enchain them” (Mahmood: 1-2).  I have realized that my position as a feminist has also been molded by the western influence I have had in my life.  It was only when I moved to Egypt that I realized how many liberal feminist ideas I had unconsciously accepted and reproduced, including the idea that it is natural for every human being to want to be free.  As Mahmood points out, there is also the possibility that some will freely choose to be subordinated, or, as in this case, choose to be part of a movement in which they are subordinated.  “The pious subjects of the mosque movement occupy an uncomfortable place in feminist scholarship because they pursue practices and ideals embedded within a tradition that has historically accorded women a subordinate status. Movements such as these have come to be associated with terms such as fundamentalism, the subjugation of women, social conservatism, reactionary activism, cultural backwardness, and so on – associations that, in the aftermath of September 111, are often treated as “facts” that do not require further analysis” (Mahmood: 5).  One of the biggest difficulties would be to acknowledge the stereotypes and pre (mis) conceptions I may have about the group I want to study.  Although objectivity is never possible, it is certainly possible to be reflexive about one’s ideas and one’s findings: what do I think about women who participate in Islamist movements, and how does this affect my methodology and my findings?

I realized that one of my research questions is already biased and aims at moving the research in a certain way.  The question about how the women in Islamist movements relate to gender already brings up a number of issues.  Why am I assuming that these women had to think about the relationship between gender and Islamism – does this not assume that there must be something to think about or resolve?  It is also possible that for the women in the mosque movement, it is not gender that influences the way they relate to the movement and its activities.  Religious perceptions may be a more important factor.  Finally, Mahmood argues that women in these movements are subordinated, both by a “patriarchal religion” (i.e. Islam) and by men who uphold a patriarchal system of gender relations.  I would question whether these women see themselves as subordinate to the men in the movement, or to God.  I would also question Mahmood’s assessment of Islam as patriarchal.

It also became clear to me that it was perhaps an added advantage that I was already familiar with the discourses produced about Islamist women.  It is important to know dominant discourses before embarking on any research, as these could have effects on both the way the researcher sees the participants and the way they see themselves (Burke: 720).  Understanding the way Islamist women are portrayed is especially important for me as a researcher as it will affect the way I approach the participants and the way I analyze and frame questions.  Moreover, it is also important to be aware of the way the participants may view me – as not fully Egyptian, as westernized, and perhaps not Muslim in the way they are.  However, the fact that I am Muslim may be an advantage, as it gives me familiarity with concepts and also may make them more comfortable.

Reporting the results – audience and speaking to power:

My audience for the ethnography would likely be made up of fellow social scientists, academics, and development workers.  Each group would be looking for different things in my research.  For example, I would expect social scientists to be especially interested in reflexivity and in the cultural aspects; development workers to be interested in the findings and possible implementation strategic, and the academics to be interested in methodology and objectivity.

As mentioned previously, the Islamist movements are sensitive ones that have been studied intensively and that have been exposed to many stereotypes and misconceptions.  It would thus be important to address these before reporting the results.  If the audience is western, for example, it would be important to address dominant representations of Islamists and Muslim women in general in mainstream media and academia.

Anonymity would be very important in reporting the results, since the Islamist movements are under surveillance in Egypt.  Thus it would be important to ensure that the participants’ identities are concealed.


“It is argued that, since all reading is misreading, no one reading is better than any other, and hence all readings, potentially infinite in number, are in the final analysis equally misinterpretations” (Said: 39).

Possibly the most interesting part of this ethnography would be the self-reflexivity aspect.  It would be a chance to critically engage with the participants and to challenge myself in terms of prior beliefs and preconceptions.  Women in the Islamist movement are an interesting group to study, as they are a group that have been repeatedly portrayed as submissive, subordinated, and powerless.  Through an ethnography, I would aim to allow their voices to speak and explain their reality.


Burke, P. J. (2006) ‘Men accessing education: gendered aspirations’, British Educational Research Journal 32/5: 719-733. Accessed 18 March 2011 <http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/content~db=all?content=10.1080/01411920600895759&gt;

Geertz, E (1993) The Interpretation of Cultures. London: Fontana Press.

Guillemen, M. and L. Gillam (2004) ‘Ethics, reflexivity and “ethically important moments” in research’, Qualitative Inquiry, 10/24: 261-280. Accessed 18 March 2011 <http://moodle.iss.nl/file.php/458/Guillemen%26Gillam(2004)Ethics,%20reflexivity%20pp261-278%20ca9050.pdf&gt;

Kelle, U (1997) ‘Theory building in qualitative research and computer programs for the management of textual data’, Sociological Research Online, 2/2: <http://www.socresonline.org.uk/socresonline/2/2/1.html&gt;

Laws, S with C. Harper and R. Marcus (2003) Research for Development: a practical guide. London: Sage/Save the Children.

Mahmood, Saba (2005). The Politics of Piety. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Mikkelsen, B (2005) Methods for Development Work and Research. New Delhi: Thousand Oaks/London: Sage Publications.

Robins, S. And K. Van der Waal (2008) ‘‘Model tribes’ and iconic conservationists? The Makuleke restitution case in Kruger National Park’, Development and Change, Vol 39/1:53-72. Accessed 18 March 2011 <http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-7660.2008.00468.x/abstract;jsessionid=F50D4561741D0D9B9CC50C847FE8E620.d03t01&gt;

Said, E.W. (1991) The World, The Text and The Critic, Cambridge: Vintage.


12 thoughts on “Women in the Egyptian Islamist Movements: Research and Reflexivity by Sara

  1. […] “Women in the Egyptian Islamist Movements: Research and Reflexivity” is the title of the paper by Sara of  Cairo, Lusaka, Amsterdam. Sara explains why and how she wants to conduct an ethnographical study into the women involved in Islamist movements in Egypt. In the conclusion she writes why such and ethnography would be beneficial to Muslim women. […]

  2. Zuhura says:

    I have enjoyed reading Mahmood’s research and am excited to see yours progress. What gaps in Mahmood’s research do you see your work filling?

    I’m curious about your assumption that women wouldn’t choose to participate in a movement that is patriarchal. We do so all the time. Marriage, for example (not a movement, but an institution). Rather than asking why we do so, perhaps the question is, are their feminist benefits to doing so? Or do all the benefits go to patriarchy?

    • Sara says:

      Thanks for your comment 🙂 In the piece I meant that it is a liberal feminist assumption that women would not choose to participate in a movement that is patriarchal, which is why so many western feminists do not understand women in Islamist movements.
      Also, even if there are no feminist benefits in doing so, does that mean it is unadvisable for women to still participate? In terms of Islamist women, I think the benefits are spiritual/religious, not feminist. There may also be patriarchal beenfits that happen inadvertently, but the primary goal is spiritual.

      • Zuhura says:

        I think from a feminist perspective, it is inadvisable for women to participate in institutions that buttress patriarchy. But obviously we do so all the time, for personal (including but not limited to spiritual/religious) and survival reasons. I think the feminist critique of such groups is a response to a simplistic pro-women argument that any women’s groups must be empowering of women. The feminist response is that, no, women may actually be teaching one another things that facilitate their own oppression.

  3. Lat says:

    This is an interesting topic! I assumed that women who participate in these Islamist movements are driven more by piety than just trying to revive a dying culture.But I’ve always been uncomfortable to their voices joining those who proclaim for caliphate/polygamy clauses etc. It’ll be interesting to know the results from this research.

    • Sara says:

      You’re exactly right – these women are driven by piety, not other reasons.
      Just to clarify, I don’t think I’ll be doing the research…I just had to write this paper for a class in which we were asked who we would do ethnographic research on if we had to choose a marginalized group. Who knows, perhaps I will do the research one day – it’s fascinating! But you should definitely check out Saba Mahmood, whose research is very similar and extremely important to the field of Islam and gender.

  4. Metis says:

    Sara, this would make a swell study! I really hope you do this research if you haven’t already. Egyptian women are some of the strongest I have known and those involved in Islamist movements are certainly very powerful and convincing.

    Good luck!

  5. susanne430 says:

    Seems like an interesting topic. I liked what you said about these women — are they doing it for men or God because that would make a huge difference.

    • Sara says:

      Exactly! Intentions are often under-studied when it comes to religious women, even though they make a huge difference.

  6. Metis says:

    Sara, what do you mean by “Through an ethnography, I would aim to allow their voices to speak and explain their reality”? Interested to learn since I’m working on a small ethonography.

    • Sara says:

      I think ethnographies are the best method to use if you want to let the voices of your participants come out. It’s comprised of a lot of things like interviewes, group discussions, participant observation, fieldwork, etc that all make you see many sides of the lives of the people you’re working with.

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