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Supplement I

[Article ID: SIM-0643]

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Ablution and Purification: Prayer, Fasting, and Piety: Central Arab States and Egypt
Subject words: prayer fasting piety Islamist influence Egypt Levant
In the central Arab states and Egypt, it is commonly believed that women are more likely to be
pious than men and, indeed, this appears to be the case. Women have fewer opportunities for
learning and status than men; religious practice is one of the few blameless means through which
women can pursue such accomplishments. This is the case because most people in the central
Arab states and Egypt are predisposed to view activities undertaken for religious reasons
positively, even when they might condemn similar non-religious activities. Further, while many
types of outings can be cast as offering the potential for illicit romantic encounters, religious
meetings and study circles are far less likely to arouse such suspicions. The high value placed on
domesticity by many in the central Arab states and Egypt is conducive to women's religiosity, as
many religious activities can be performed in the home. Finally, women may be more religious
than men because they are less likely than men to be distracted from their religious intentions by
other goals.
Because unmarried women tend to have more free time, less freedom, and lower status than
their married counterparts, a disproportionately high percentage of them are devout. Young
women anticipating marriage usually spend many free hours at home every day. While they do
often work for pay, they generally do not have the freedom of movement granted to their
brothers. Whereas men may spend their evenings socializing in coffee shops or internet cafes,
such activities are often considered inappropriate for women. At home, women are easily able to
make all five of their obligatory prayers, read religious materials, or leave their televisions tuned
to religious television programs as they cook or clean.
Religious practice offers some women their only chance for quiet contemplation. Many women,
especially the young, spend much of their time at the beck and call of others. Their mothers or
mothers-in-law might dictate when and how they should do their housework; their brothers,
fathers, or husbands may order them to fetch or cook something at any moment; their small
children may call for them; their elders are entitled to criticize their choice of television programs.
Religion offers an acceptable excuse for women to assert their own needs at the expense of
others. While religious practice is often framed as an obligation, it is an obligation that benefits
the individual, granting peace of mind in the present and salvation in the hereafter. Nevertheless,
a woman has a strong basis to defend any religious practice she chooses to undertake: it is
service to an agent more important than any in her family, God. This justification is strongest for
compulsory religious practices such as prayers or fasting during Ramadan. Few necessities can
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warrant a family member's interference with a woman's prayers; once she begins to pray she
should not be disturbed until she finishes. Similarly, a woman who is participating in the Ramadan
fast is often excused a certain degree of slackness in the performance of her normal chores.
Piety can also increase a woman's personal freedom. Women are often expected to stay at home
unless they have a defensible reason for going outside it. Religious lessons or prayer at a
mosque can provide a legitimate but also social engagement. Further, if a woman is known to
be devout, her family is less likely to be suspicious of her movements. Many families live in
constant fear that their daughters will inspire gossip. Being seen talking regularly to the same
man could damage a woman's marriage prospects. If a woman is devout in her prayers and
fasting and is religiously committed to avoid talking to men, her family is more likely to allow her
to engage in innocent social activities such as visiting her female friends or carrying a mobile
Being pious enables women to claim status within the family. Most Muslims in the central Arab
states and Egypt have a high respect for religion. By regularly performing her religious
obligations, a woman constructs herself as good. She earns the right to criticize the religious
practice of others in the family and to encourage them to become more devout. If she regularly
reads religious books, she can advise both her peers and her elders on religious questions.
It is perhaps this latter benefit that appeals most strongly to older, unmarried women, who are
usually marginalized within their communities. Marriage and motherhood remain critical
components in defining and marking femininity and social status in the central Arab states and
Egypt. Women are familiarly addressed as Mother of their oldest boy (or girl if they have no
boys.) It is even believed that marriage is half of religion. Whether or not they work outside the
home, most women expect to derive their primary identity from their families. To grow old without
a family of one's own, then, is difficult. Unmarried women may find themselves estranged from
their peers whose lives are oriented toward their husbands and children; they may even fail to
attain the respect of others. They are viewed as lacking in accomplishments. An identity as
devout offers unmarried women a purpose, a way of meeting friends, and a source of respect
and status.
The question of how piety should be expressed is currently the subject of widespread attention
and negotiation, especially among women (Deeb 2006, Mahmood 2005, Pearl 2006, Wickham
2002). This contestation originates in popular Islamic revivalist movements, though its influence is
widely felt. Revivalist ideas have spread through inexpensive and readily available books, tapes,
and videos; the recent popularization of satellite television has brought them inside the home on
religiously oriented channels. Because contemporary young women are much more likely than
their mothers to be literate, they have easier access to popular tracts and classical religious
texts. Government schools introduce an increasingly educated populace to modern religious
understandings (Starrett 1998). The rapidly growing population of female university students is
exposed to both popular and scholarly religious ideas and to organized Muslim student groups;
many of the Egyptian Islamist women studied by Wickham (2002) first claimed this affiliation
while they were university students. An increasing number of women now have various types of
access to new ways of framing religious ideas. These new ideas have become widely accepted,
particularly among the young.
Much religious media discourse addressed to women is focused on pious practices such as the
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proper forms of ablution and prayer. These forms differ slightly from those which were
traditionally performed. While revivalists often lament the decline of traditional religiosity in the
Arab world which they attribute to Western influence the practices which they have defined as
correct are also spreading. Universities and even shopping malls now often provide prayer
spaces. Islamic dress, manufactured in accordance with both religious rules and global fashion
trends, is steadily gaining in popularity. Traditionally, mosques were considered the preserve of
men, but an increasing number of women now attend both daily prayers and Friday sermons. On
Ramadan evenings, the women's sections of many mosques are crowded with worshippers
performing the extra Ramadan prayers.
In addition to the required prayer and fasting, the Islamic revival encourages women to engage in
many supererogatory forms of piety. Revivalists study the traditional vocalization of the Qurn,
add repetitions to their required prayers, and fast at times other than Ramadan. Highly devout
women work to incorporate the Prophet's example into every aspect of their daily lives: they drink
their water in three sips as he did; greet one another with his preferred greeting, Peace be upon
you and the mercy and blessings of God; and use his headache remedies. Ramadan is a time
for even greater displays of faith as many women aim to read the whole Qurn during that month
and to follow the Prophet's example of even-temperedness, generosity, and religious devotion.
Recent changes in the central Arab states and Egypt, such as increased literacy and education,
greater mobility, and the introduction of new media, have given women unprecedented access to
religious information. Revivalist movements, themselves partly enabled by such changes, have
helped to shape the content of this information. Individual women have incorporated new
religiosity into their lives as both a strategic response to social pressures and an expression of
their own intellectual interests and personal pious sentiments.
Laura Pearl
L. Deeb, An enchanted modern. Gender and public piety in Shii Lebanon, Princeton, N.J.
A. Macleod, Accommodating protest. Working women, the new veiling, and change in
Cairo, New York 1991.
S. Mahmood, Politics of piety. The Islamic revival and the feminist subject, Princeton, N.J.
L. Pearl, The girls from the prayer room. The women's Islamist movement at Yarmouk
University, Jordan, Ph.D. diss., Ann Arbor 2006.
A. B. Rugh, Reshaping personal relations in Egypt, in The fundamentalism project, ii,
Fundamentalisms and society. Reclaiming the sciences, the family, and education, ed. M.
E. Marty and R. S. Appleby, Chicago 1993, 15180.
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G. Starrett, Putting Islam to work. Education, politics, and religious transformation in Egypt,
Berkeley 1998.
C. Rosefsky Wickham, Mobilizing Islam. Religion, activism and political change in Egypt,
New York 2002.
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