Feminism and Freedom_ Saba Mahmood

This week the Facilitators are discussing various scholastic materials regarding Feminism and sharing their thoughts and what Feminism means to them. 

In today’s session we read a passage from the politics of piety by Saba Mahmood. I must say that her words were not the easiest things to decipher (especially when you had to wake up at 7m in this cold south African winter). However, the session really came to life and I was really struck by some questions had not thought about. I read her essay as a freshman in Amherst College and her ideas were lost on me at first. However, I really caught on especially when she spoke of positive vs negative freedom. This is why I picked that chapter for our first seminal reading for the facilitator’s training, which started today. Mahmood’s essay is set as a critique of popular notions of liberalism using the veiled women of Cairo as an example of women who attain empowerment and resist subversion through their piety. The main of idea is summarized effectively when she says:


“If we recognize that the desire for freedom from, or subversion of, norms is not an innate desire that motivates all beings at all times, but is also profoundly mediated by cultural and historical conditions, then the question arises: how do we analyze operations of power that construct different kinds?”


Her ideas of negative vs positive freedom circulate around the question of how freedom cannot be based on a binary standard of the free vs the enslaved. Positive freedom assumes that humans can come to a self-realization of what they want while negative freedom is the type of freedom that people come to when they realize what they do not want within a set of norms. However, I find it difficult to separate the two because it could be a mix; I mean, can’t I realize that something is not for me because I have tried it and I just know. Have you ever known you w ant something different without knowing exactly what you want? I have had this feeling many times which means I came to realize I want something else by realizing that what existed did not appeal to me. Or did I realize what I wanted and felt less interested in what existed? How can we locate when one starts and one ends. More specifically, how can we bring this to the discussion about equality? Are we all clamoring for this goal because we do not like the inequality that exists or because we just know that we want to be equal? Is equality an end goal or a strategy to something bigger that we just don’t know? If it is any of these, how “free” will we be then?


Sheila Chukwulozie