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Soft Force:
Women in Egypt's Islamic Awakening
Ellen Anne McLarney

Paperback | 2015 | $27.95 | £19.95 | ISBN: 9780691158495
Hardcover | 2015 | $70.00 | £51.95 | ISBN: 9780691158488
336 pp. | 6 x 9 | 8 halftones.
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In the decades leading up to the Arab Spring in 2011, when Hosni Mubarak’s authoritarian regime was swept from power in Egypt, Muslim women took a leading role in developing a robust Islamist presence in the country’s public sphere. Soft Force examines the writings and activism of these women—including scholars, preachers, journalists, critics, actors, and public intellectuals—who envisioned an Islamic awakening in which women’s rights and the family, equality, and emancipation were at the center.

Challenging Western conceptions of Muslim women as being oppressed by Islam, Ellen McLarney shows how women used "soft force"—a women’s jihad characterized by nonviolent protest—to oppose secular dictatorship and articulate a public sphere that was both Islamic and democratic. McLarney draws on memoirs, political essays, sermons, newspaper articles, and other writings to explore how these women imagined the home and the family as sites of the free practice of religion in a climate where Islamists were under siege by the secular state. While they seem to reinforce women’s traditional roles in a male-dominated society, these Islamist writers also reoriented Islamist politics in domains coded as feminine, putting women at the very forefront in imagining an Islamic polity.

Bold and insightful, Soft Force transforms our understanding of women’s rights, women’s liberation, and women’s equality in Egypt’s Islamic revival.

Ellen McLarney is assistant professor of Arabic literature and culture at Duke University.


"Women’s roles in the intellectual, organizational and political development of Islamist movements have rarely received the attention they deserve. McLarney focuses in depth on the writings of a wide array of Egyptian women involved with Islamist movements, presenting a nuanced and careful reading of their religious and political thought."--Marc Lynch,’s Monkey Cage blog

"McLarney offers a different and highly important . . . perspective, refreshingly free of the shadows of neo-orientalism."--Caron E. Gentry, Times Higher Education

"McLarney (Arabic literature and culture, Duke Univ.) provides an intellectual history of women’s ideas within the Islamist movement in Egypt over the past century. . . . This work will be of interest to a wide variety of scholars in Islamic studies, women's studies, political science, and literary theory. It illuminates the essential role of women in the modern Islamist movement in a unique way."--Choice


"McLarney brings to our attention the thinking and life practices of women across the decades in Egypt who have used an Islamic discourse of their own making to strive for personal perfection and for a better social order. Appearing after the Egyptian uprisings and during a time when for many 'the revolution' continues, this book stands to provoke multiple readings and lively debate."--Margot Badran, author of Feminism in Islam: Secular and Religious Convergences

"This is an eloquent and carefully argued book. Clear, engaging, and sophisticated, Soft Force is crucial for a more complete understanding of the origins of contemporary and ongoing debates about women, Islam, and public life in Egypt."--Lara Deeb, coauthor of Leisurely Islam: Negotiating Geography and Morality in Shi‘ite South Beirut

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Table of Contents:

Acknowledgments ix
Introduction—The Islamic Public Sphere and the Subject of Gender: The Politics of the Personal 1
Part One: Women’s Liberation in Islam
1. The Liberation of Islamic Letters: Bint al-Shatiʾ’s Literary License 35
2. The Redemption of Women’s Liberation: Reviving Qasim Amin 70
Part Two: Gendering Islamic Subjectivities
3. Senses of Self: Niʿmat Sidqi’s Theology of Motherhood 103
4. Covering in the Public Eye: Visualizing the Inner I 143
Part Three: Politics of the Islamic Family
5. The Islamic Homeland: Iman Mustafa on Women’s Work 180
6. Soft Force: Heba Raouf Ezzat’s Politics of the Islamic Family 219
Epilogue—Fann wa-Fiṭra: Art and Instinct 255
Bibliography 271
Index 295


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