HTS' Bier Unveils the Status of Women Under Islam

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Rebecca Keane
Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts
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HTS' Bier Unveils the Status of Women Under Islam

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New work by School of History, Technology, and Society Assistant Professor, Laura Bier explores debates about the status of women in the modern Middle East and their implications for contemporary gender politics. Through an exploration of the secular modernization of Egypt during the 1950s and 1960s, Bier argues that what may appear to be a regression in the status of women under contemporary Islamitization are actually manifestations of a non-secular modernity.

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New work by School of History, Technology, and Society Assistant Professor, Laura Bier explores debates about the status of women in the modern Middle East and their implications for contemporary gender politics. Through an exploration of the secular modernization of Egypt during the 1950s and 1960s, Bier argues that what may appear to be a regression in the status of women under contemporary Islamitization are actually manifestations of a non-secular modernity.

Bier, a social and cultural historian who specializes in post-colonial Egyptian history, is in the final stages of a new book Fashioning the Egyptian Woman: Feminisms, Modernity and the State in Postcolonial Egypt 1923-1967. Her works examines how debates about the "liberation of women" in Egypt were linked to the development of a secular nation-state. While doing research, she found that state modernization politicized many aspects of Egyptian women's everyday lives""what they wore, how they organized their homes, how they related to male co-workers, how they behaved in public space. She notes that the " unveiled women' was an important symbol of the progressive promise of secular modernization for a state trying to overcome its long history of colonialism and Western domination.

Bier contends that calls for the re-Islamization of society in contemporary Egypt are not the result of a failed program of modernization, but in many ways a manifestation of its successes. Many of today's Islamic feminists in Egypt were women who came of age during the 50s and 60s. They were the beneficiaries of new opportunities offered to women by the modernizing state including access to higher education, the expansion of the work force and political participation. Talking with hijab-wrapped Egyptian women of that generation, Bier found that many of them have photographs of themselves and their female relatives wearing mini-skirts and swim suits.

In its attempt to counter the pervasive social and political effects of secularist state projects, today's Islamization has not abandoned the advancements of women, but rather attempts to prescribe ways that ordinary Muslims can live within a modern society within an Islamic framework. While proponents of Islamization in Egypt condemn certain aspects of secularization like unveiling as un-Islamic, other things which historically are products of secular modernity, like girls education and the importance of love and affection as a basis for marriage, are viewed as eminently compatible with Islamic values.

"What is important about this work," says Bier, "is that helps show that the gender politics of Islamism have important continuities with the gender politics of secular nationalism."

Bier's work joins a growing and vibrant body of work on women and nationalism in colonial and post-colonial Egypt. It is the first study to explore gender over the entire breadth of the presidency of Gamal Abdel Nasser, a pivotal moment in the development of the Egyptian nation-state.

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Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts

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Institute and Campus, Student and Faculty, Research
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Bier, Egypt, Gender, Islam, women
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  • Created By: Rebecca Keane
  • Workflow Status: Published
  • Created On: Aug 16, 2009 - 8:00pm
  • Last Updated: Oct 7, 2016 - 11:02pm