The Politics of the Veil in Medieval Christianity

Saba Mahmood and the Practice of Feminist Historiography

In: Sociology of Islam

Saba Mahmood begins Politics of Piety with a question: ‘[H]ow should issues of historical and cultural specificity inform both the analytics and the politics of any feminist project?’ She notes that while many forms of ‘difference’ have been integrated within feminist theory, ‘religious difference’ has received comparatively little emphasis. She attributes this to the ‘vexing relationship between feminism and religion,’ arising from feminism’s firm situation within ‘secular-liberal politics.’ In this essay, I explore how Mahmood’s insights might enrich the study of premodern Christianity. My particular focus will be a central, yet highly contested, aspect of medieval women’s piety: the practice of nuns taking the veil during consecration, marking them as ‘brides of Christ’. I hope, with Mahmood, to consider how an analysis of ‘the particular form that the body takes might transform our conceptual understanding of the act itself’, offering new possibilities for the practice of feminist historiography.

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