Saba Mahmood was born in 1961, in Pakistan, and grew up in Saudi Arabia. Her father was a professor of English Literature at King Abdulaziz University (KAU).
Mahmood received her BA in Anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley in 1984. She then attended Stanford University (1984–85) as a Fulbright Scholar before moving to Columbia University, where she completed her PhD in Anthropology in 1991.
Saba Mahmood – Fieldwork and Academic Career
Mahmood began her academic career as an assistant professor at Columbia University, but she is best known for her work at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, where she was a tenured professor of anthropology until her death in 2018. In 2005, she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship.
She conducted fieldwork in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Egypt. Her work focused on kinship networks among families in the Middle East. Mahmood is best known for her book “Unveiling Traditions: The Women’s Movement in Egypt”. However she also authored many other books, including “Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject” (2005) and “Religious Difference in a Secular Age” (2015).
Books and Ethnographies
In “Unveiling Traditions: The Women’s Movement in Egypt”, Mahmood argues that the women’s movement is not simply a struggle for equality with men, but a challenge to patriarchal power structures within Egyptian society. She claims that many of the goals and strategies of the women’s movement are actually quite conservative, and that the ultimate aim is not to achieve equality with men, but rather to uphold traditional values and maintain social stability.
Mahmood’s book, “Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject” (2005), is based on her ethnographic work in Cairo, Egypt. The book explores how women participate in the Islamic revival movement in Egypt. Mahmood argues that the movement empowers women by giving them a sense of agency and purpose. She examines the Islamic revival movement in Egypt through the lens of feminist theory. She argues that the resurgence of Islamism is not simply a reaction against secularization and modernity, but a response to the failure of liberal feminist movements to bring about gender equality.
In the book “Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report” (2015), Mahmood examines how religious minorities navigate secular society. The book is based on her fieldwork with Coptic Christians in Egypt. She argues that the Coptic community has been able to maintain its identity and thrive in spite of discrimination and persecution. The book explores how religious minorities can live peacefully in a secular society. Mahmood explores the phenomenon of religious conversion in Egypt. She argues that the desire to convert to Islam is not simply a matter of individual belief, but is also shaped by social and political factors.
In “Ethical Politics of the Suffering Body: Race, Gender and Culture” (2015), Mahmood investigates the relationship between pain, ethics and politics. She argues that the experience of pain is not just a physical phenomenon, but also a social and political one.
A Strong Legacy
Mahmood’s work has been influential in the field of anthropology. She has been credited with bringing a critical perspective to the study of Islam. Her work has also helped to challenge dominant narratives about the role of religion in society. She was a major contributor to the “anthropology of religion”, and her work has helped to shape the field of “postcolonial anthropology,” feminist theory, and Middle Eastern studies.
Mahmood died in 2018 at the age of 57. She is survived by her husband, anthropologist Dimitris Papadimitriou, and her two sons.
For Further Reading
- Jane Goodall – a pioneering primatologist
- Marshall Sahlins (1930 – 2021) – Race is a Social Construct
- Saba Mahmood – a strong voice in the anthropology of religion and post-colonialism
- Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Structuralism and its Influence on Anthropological Thought
- Clifford Geertz – the man who pioneered “thick description” in anthropology
- Ruth Benedict: The anthropologist who believed that cultures have personalities
- Michael Taussig – Doctor and Anthropologist
- Bronislaw Malinowski: The Father of Field Research
- Margaret Mead: A Pioneering Anthropologist
- Franz Boas: The Father of American Anthropology
- Émile Durkheim: The Father of Sociology and His Contributions to Anthropology
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