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Learning About Political Change from Pious Egyptian Women

February 18, 2014

Can an understanding of the agency of pious Muslim women teach us lessons about political change generally? Leslie Lewis thinks so.

Can an understanding of the agency of pious Muslim women teach us lessons about political change generally? Anthropologist Leslie Lewis thinks so.

Leslie Lewis reflects on the nature of women’s personal piety and how it can be an agent of political and social change in an article in the most recent issue of Anthropology News.

The pious Muslim women she studied in 2006 sought to discipline themselves, and one another, to make themselves better people in the eyes of God. Besides dress, comportment and prayer, many devoted time to caring for the poor. In the process, they transformed Egyptian society “toward greater gender segregation, public expressions of piety, and social conservativism.”

We can learn a lot, Lewis says, from thinking about such women, and what they accomplish.

Her conclusions:

  1. Agency is not synonymous with emancipatory goals. Many groups with many different goals and assumptions exert agency to change social norms and institutions.
  2. Understanding the social and economic conditions out of which movements arise is critical to figuring out what, at their very core, participants are trying to achieve.
  3. Religious ideas, commitments and practices are inextricably linked to politics in Egypt, and around the world.

How does this relate to current struggles in Egypt?

It is difficult to know which way the political winds will blow in Egypt. Rendering the present imbroglio in oversimplistic Islamist vs secularist terms (or the Muslim vs Christian variation) is neither accurate nor helpful. As with all complex human endeavors and phenomena, there is tremendous diversity of thought and action both across Egypt’s political, social and religious landscape, and among individuals within different categories of social and religious identity.

Her last sentence is central to how I teach International Studies here at Miami University:

Understanding not only the goals of a group, but the beliefs and assumptions undergirding those aims, is critical to any effective analysis and strategic plan.

You can read the entire article here:


Lewis, Leslie. 2014. When the Apolitical Is Political: What Pious Egyptian Women Can Teach Us About Social and Political Change. Anthropology News 55(1-2): 7, 13.

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