chapter  5
The purest pearls
Pages 61

In Shubra’s Salafi circles, it would never have been permitted for me to talk to the women sharing in the lives of my respondents. It was not until teaching a group of female students at the American University in Cairo in 2006 that I was able to learn something of the experiences of the thousands of women attending Cairo’s Salafi circles. Not surprisingly, and despite listening attentively to the voices of these women, this chapter lacks much of the detail of the previous two chapters. Because I could not attend their classes, or watch them (re)learn how to perform wudu’, its eventual conclusions reflect little of the processual nature of these women’s ritual educations.1

Rather, in more dedicated fashion than previously, my discussion here follows these women’s reports about what matters most to them about the subject matter. While their social backgrounds and experiences are very different from those of the men in the preceding two chapters, there are obvious overlaps in terms both of social motivation and legal argument. In any environment, modern Salafism, ultimately, is a discourse of empowerment. By the end of the present chapter, we should be in a better position to understand how both men and women are empowered by a specifically Salafi reading of tahara law. The chapter begins with an introduction to these women; for convenience,

I shall refer to them as the “Salafiyyat” (Ch. 5.1). It should be noted from the outset that these women were all born to upper-class and upper middle-class Egyptian households. There is little doubt that this fact significantly influences my findings, particularly when these are compared with the influential works of several recent scholars, who by and large have tended to focus on the lower-class and lower middle-class neighbourhoods.2 In contrast to women from these neighbourhoods, the decision of my respondents to wear not only the hijab, but the full abaya/khimar and, in many cases, the niqab is often perceived by family and friends as a form of class betrayal – a choice to become “ignorant” or “backward” (gahla/mutakhalifa). As we shall see, a rupture from their original social contexts significantly influences the ways in which these women perceive their new religious identities. An integral part of their quest to become better Muslims is rooted in their understanding that specific wrongs must be fought and overcome.