Despite extensive social science research on Palestine, the literature on the religious life of Palestinians is still modest, especially with respect to contemporary female piety. On 25 January 2006, the Islamic party Hamas won a decisive majority of seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council. This landslide victory has drawn most media and scholarly attention to the political Islamisation programmes of Hamas. Remarkably, little research has investigated the wider diversity and more complex nature of grassroots religious activism in society. For example, no previous study, so far, has examined the growing female da’wa (piety) movement, which has become a dominant feature in the Gaza Strip.
The study presented here is the first investigation focusing specifically on the female subjects of the piety movement—the da’iyat. These are pious women activists who carry out an extensive array of Islamic da’wa classes among women who seek religious education, guidance, and advice. The main aim of this study is to explore four questions: how female pious conviction is understood and produced, how the formation of the da’iyat’s agency is facilitated and restricted, how pious agentic tensions and da’wa (un)intended consequences exist within the local socio-political power structures, and to what extent dialogical perspectives on the question of women can be achieved between pious women and secular feminists.
The literature review on Muslim women’s agency reveals a polarisation that reduces women’s agency to resistance to or compliance with male domination and Islamic traditions. My research suggests that women’s agency and the subject formation (at the level of the individual and collective) constitute a much more complex process and that the pious/feminist polarity constricts the enhancement of women’s agency, women’s rights, and gender justice. Based on an in-depth remote ethnography (a survey and mobile calls over the internet) in the Gaza Strip, this thesis provides a contextualised analysis of three agentic manifestations of women’s pious agency. In particular, this thesis goes beyond Saba Mahmood’s (2005) model of the pious subject in the Cairene women’s piety movement. It offers a detailed analysis of the multiple and contradictory aspects of the subject’s pious agency in the Gazan women’s piety movement. It also provides an important opportunity to investigate the relevance of Rachel Rinaldo’s (2013) model of pious critical agency among some Indonesian Muslim women and the scholarship of Islamic feminism to Gazan Muslim women. Significantly, the final research question situates women’s pious agency within the broader pious/feminist relationship.
Firstly, in terms of the construction of pious conviction, I argue that the da’iyat’s meanings of piety are reflected in two interconnected terms: religious duty and self-realisation. These pious meanings are shaped by various structures, institutions, and relationships at the micro, meso, and macro levels of social systems. Secondly, I present three distinct, though sometimes overlapping, models of agency for pious women: moral, political, and interpersonal. Thirdly, this research provides a detailed discussion of the data that highlight sites of tension in these three pious modes of agentic expressions. Drawing together key findings from pious and secular feminist narratives, the analysis also offers a deeper insight into the da’wa’s (un)intended consequences on reinforcing hegemonic gender norms. Finally, this project shines a light on the importance of understanding these agentic positions and consequences within the larger context of the relationship between pious women and secular feminists. The case of the Gaza Strip shows a lack of exposure or attention to the possibility of developing pious feminist, or “pious critical agency” to use Rinaldo’s words, and key obstacles to go beyond the pious/secular divide.
Overall, the analysis of the da’iyat’s subjective formation, models of female pious agency, and women’s relationships in the Gaza Strip helps not only expand our understanding and theorising of Islamic female piety, but also demonstrates more possibilities, visions, and challenges for pious/feminist women to collaborate and act upon shared interests.