ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Saba Mahmood and the Challenge to Liberal Thought

Saba Mahmood challenged progressive, secular and political certainties about religion and righteous politics. A professor of anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley, she passed away on 10 March 2018 at the age of 56 from pancreatic cancer. She specialised in sociocultural anthropology and was a scholar of modern Egypt. The following is a tribute to her life and work from her close friend and colleague, Raka Ray.

I first encountered Saba Mahmood in the late 1990s when she was a postdoctoral scholar and I was an assistant professor. I attended a talk she gave at a time when, as a progressive Indian feminist, my understanding about religion was driven by the events that had unfolded around the destruction of Babri Masjid, and the rise of Bharatiya Janata Party and its attendant organisations. At that moment, religiosity had become equated in my mind with Hindu fundamentalism, and I had begun to doubt the Indian government’s claim to be secular. I had also learnt enough about Hindutvavadi women to be particularly suspicious of discussions about religious women.

And here was Saba Mahmood, talking about pious Muslim women with understanding, challenging most of the audience’s notions about the pious versus the secular, and about agentic women versus oppressed women. With an acute sense of discomfort I listened to her speak that day, and I was not the only one. A murmur of dissatisfaction spread through the room, and even as I was part of that murmur, my eyes were riveted by that taut figure at the podium, at the very beginning of her career, who, despite what must have been a considerable level of anxiety, held her ground against senior feminists of every stripe with courage. She never knew that she had set an example that day as a Muslim woman, an intellectual at the beginning of her career, hiding her fears behind her convictions as she attacked what were then feminist shibboleths.

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Updated On : 30th Mar, 2018

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