Islam and Cosmopolitanism: Expressions of religiosity and public engagement among Egyptian Women

By Dalia Abdelhady
Submitted to Session P2761 (New Perspectives on Women, Work, and Islam from recent field work, 2011 Annual Meeting
Gender/Women's Studies;
LCD Projector without Audio;
The objective of this paper is to investigate the ways that professional women in Egypt have embraced Islam to assert their interest in civic engagement and social change. My study focuses on highly-educated professional women, who are the least affected by desperate economic conditions, and examines the role religion plays in their public and professional lives. In some respect these women's narratives articulate a form of reactive identity in the face of global fragmentation and Western exclusion, particularly in the cultural sphere. However, respondents also emphasized that their religiosity informs their desire to shape their surroundings and to bring about the ideal Muslim society, thus participating in positive social change. To a large extent, these interests can be understood as specifically local and ethno-national, and possibly contradicting processes of globalization. However, my respondents also expressed strong interests in participating in global social changes and cosmopolitan forms of engagement that also were based on their religious values and identities. Women in my sample draw on their elite position and competence in Western culture to articulate their interest in global social changes and confidence in their leadership. Nonetheless, my respondents also expressed their awareness that the existing global culture is not open to their own culture, which provides many of them the basis for their global participation, such as providing alternative models for leadership, participation and identification that span the local and the global.

This paper will illustrate these positions and articulations of religious identities, and hypothesize ways Islam and cosmopolitan ideals are merged in the work lives and public engagements of Muslim women, grounding the analysis in sociological theories. The analyses are based on in-depth, multiple interviews with 25 women, all of who are college graduates, occupy managerial positions at their work, and self-identify as practicing Muslims (which in contemporary Egypt means wearing hejab). The respondents worked in various managerial and entrepreneurial positions, such as managers in businesses or non-governmental organizations, or owned their own businesses that provided a form of marketing or consulting to other companies and organizations. They all had at least a BA or BS degree, and many had graduate degrees. Their ages ranged from 30 to 45 years of age, and they were fluent in Arabic and English.