Monday, March 19, 2018

In Memory of UC Berkeley's Pakistani-American Professor Saba Mahmood (1962-2018)

Dr. Saba Mahmood, professor of anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley, passed away on March 10, 2018.  She was only 56 years old when her life was cut short by pancreatic cancer.  She is survived by her husband Professor Charles Hirschkind and son Nameer Hirschkind. Born in Lahore, Pakistan in 1962, she came to the United States in 1981. She received her PhD in anthropology from Stanford University in 1998 and taught at the University of Chicago before coming to the University of California at Berkeley in 2004.

Professor Saba Mahmood. Photo Credit: Annette Hornischer
She lived only a few miles from where I live in Silicon Valley. But I was not lucky enough to get to know her personally. However, I developed immense respect for her based on her work, particularly her scholarship on secularism, feminism and Islamophobia in the post-911 world. Mahmood was the lone author of Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report (2015) and Politics of Piety: the Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject (2005), which won the Victoria Schuck Award from the American Political Science Association. She co-authored Is Critique Secular? (2011) and co-edited Politics of Religious Freedom (2015). She wrote several papers and articles related to her field of study. Examples include “Feminist Theory, Agency, and the Liberatory Subject: Some Reflections on the Islamic Revival in Egypt” and  “Cultural Studies and Ethnic Absolutism: Comments on Stuart Hall’s ‘Culture, Community, Nation’".

Mahmood was a student of Dr. Talal Asad, Pakistani-American professor of anthropology at the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center. Talal is the son of Austrian-born Muhammad Asad (born Leopold Weiss) who served as Pakistan's ambassador to the United Nations in 1952.

In discussing her book “Is Critique Secular? Blasphemy, Injury, and Free Speech” published  in 2009 when the Danish cartoons controversy was raging, Mahmood said that “struggles over religious difference cannot simply be settled by the heavy hand of the law.”  Adding that she was “puzzled by the fact that the kind of injury expressed by ordinary pious Muslims did not find any voice in the polemical debates in either the Islamic or the European press”.  She asked if it was because the “religiosity expressed by most Muslims in response to the Danish cartoons was incommensurable with the language of rights, litigation, and boycotts that came to dominate the debate.”

Mahmood saw many contradictions in modern secular governance. In spite of its claim to religious neutrality, the secular state does not hesitate to regulate and manage religious life in a way that is historically unprecedented.

Mahmood wrote that “the rights of minorities are actually framed by the norms of the larger community; it’s against those norms that minoritarian claims are judged and contested, and that is where the idea of religious liberty and freedom of expression as an individual right remains inadequate to grasping the situation.”  She saw the French ban on Muslim veil  being upheld in courts on a very similar reasoning that there is a freedom of religion but the public expression in the form of wearing the veil contradicts the national secular norm.

In a 1999 paper titled "Feminism, the Taliban and the Politics of Counterinsurgency" she co-wrote with her husband Charles Hirschkind, the couple criticized American feminists for focusing on Taliban's excesses while ignoring the US complicity in creating the miserable conditions for Afghan women. Here's an excerpt from it:

"The Feminist Majority's narrow focus on Taliban rule, and its silence regarding the channeling of US aid to the most brutal and violent Afghan groups (of which the Taliban were only one), seemed to cast an ominous shadow on the integrity of its campaign. At the very least it raised the question why conditions of war, militarization, and starvation were considered to be less injurious to women than lack of education, employment, and, most notably, Western clothes. The Feminist Majority's silence on these issues was coupled with a highly selective and limited representation of Afghan life under Taliban rule, one that filtered out all information that might contribute to a more nuanced understanding of Afghan women's situation."

As a Muslim woman born and raised in Pakistan, Dr.  Saba Mahmood's research and scholarship brought her unique perspective to the academic discourse on secularism, minority relations and the study of religion in the West. Her voice will be badly missed! May her soul rest in eternal peace!! Amen!!!

Related Links:

Haq's Musings

Pakistani-American Astrophysicist Dr. Nergis Mavalvala in Silicon Valley

Pakistani Woman Leads World Economic Forum's Gender Parity Program

Yet Another For Malala

Hindu Dalit Woman Elected to Pakistan Senate

Pakistani-Americans Make Up Silicon Valley's Largest Foreign-Born Muslim Group

Out-of-the-Box Thinking of Muslim Students at Berkeley

2017: The Year Islamophobia Went Mainstream


Abid F. said...

Wonder why some of us never heard of her?

Seems like a very accomplished person and sad to learn that she passed away at such a young age.

A very well written tribute to her. Thank you very much for sharing this, Riaz.

Ahmad F. said...

I had the impression she did not engage much with the Pakistani community. As I may have said earlier, she was the younger sister of a friend of mine when we were in high school in Karachi. Our Dads ran a carpool and she was in it.

Riaz Haq said...

Ahmad: "I had the impression she did not engage much with the Pakistani community."

Saba participated in some Pakistani events at Berkeley. She interviewed Faiz's daughter Salima Hashmi at a Berkeley event back in 2005.

Couple of reports here. One by Ras Siddiqui and the other by Ali Hasan Cemendtaur.

Z Basha Jr said...

Such intellectuals are the need of the hour in Pakistan..

Riaz Haq said...


The University of California at Berkeley is a global leader for the study of South Asia, and one of very few institutions in the United States to offer both undergraduate and graduate degree programs focusing on numerous aspects of this vital region. As an integral part of the South Asia curriculum at Berkeley, interest in the study of Pakistan's history, politics, and culture is growing rapidly. We are strongly committed to strengthening our engagement with this subject in the years ahead.

Faculty with a special interest in this region:

Asad Ahmed (Near Eastern Studies), Gregory Max Bruce (South and Southeast Asian Studies), Kiren Chaudhry (Political Science), Lawrence Cohen (Anthropology), Munis Faruqui (South and Southeast Asian Studies), Neil Joeck (Institute of International Studies), Asma Kazmi (Art Practice), Saba Mahmood (Anthropology).

Quaid-i Azam Chair in Pakistan Studies

UC Berkeley is one of two institutions in the country that houses the Government of Pakistan funded Quaid-i Azam Chair in Pakistan Studies. The ISAS in collaboration with the Government of Pakistan established the Quaid-i Azam Chair of Pakistan Studies at UC Berkeley in 1999. It is named after Muhammed Ali Jinnah, the founding father of Pakistan, who is often referred to by the title, “Great Leader,” or “Quaid-i Azam." The goal of this chair is to encourage increased knowledge of Pakistan in the United States and to help forge better ties between American academics and their counterparts in Pakistan. According to the terms of the chair, the chairholder, chosen from a college or university in Pakistan, will have a full-time teaching and research position at UC Berkeley for up to two years. The funds for the scholar's salary and other expenses are provided by the Pakistan government.

The first chairholder, in 2004-05, was Professor Tariq Rahman, a National Distinguished Professor and specialist in socio-linguistics. During his year on campus he taught a course titled “Language and Politics in Pakistan.” He also put together an Urdu reading group.
The second chairholder was Professor Ishtiaq Ahmad Choudhry, the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Sargodha. He served between 2009-10. At Berkeley, he taught a course titled "Current Political Trends in Pakistan."
Due to educational reforms and political turmoil in Pakistan, the chair has been empty since 2010.

BULPIP-AIPS Urdu Training Program

We are extremely proud to announce that after a 5 year hiatus -- thanks to a $3.1 million grant from the US government -- the Berkeley Urdu Language Program in Pakistan (BULPIP) will recommence training students. Originally founded in 1973 and based in Lahore, BULPIP's purpose was to provide intensive Urdu language training to American students, scholars, and teachers who had research and professional interests in Urdu language and literature, Pakistan, Islam, and the Muslim communities of South Asia. The program ran continuously until 2001, when due to a State Department travel warning prohibiting students from traveling to Pakistan, BULPIP was forced to first temporarily move to Lucknow, India, and then subsequently shut down in 2008. Under the terms of the revived program, ISAS will run BULPIP in conjunction with the American Institute of Pakistan Studies (AIPS). The program will award fellowships to i) up to ten US-based graduate students per year to spend fifteen-weeks in the fall semester undertaking intensive Urdu language training at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) in Pakistan and ii) train up to ten Pakistan-based Urdu teachers over the lifecycle of the grant in contemporary second-language teaching pedagogy through internship appointments (spanning two to four months) at US-based universities. Click HERE for further information on eligibility requirements or application procedures.

Riaz Haq said...

From New York Times:

By Maya Salam

It is often argued, she said at the 2016 conference, that the solution to religious extremism is more secularism, and that nations like Pakistan suffer from fundamentalism because the state and its people are not adequately secular. But the idea that secularism means the separation of church and state “is an old idea” that has been challenged by scholars for about the last 20 years, she said.


In a preface to the 2012 edition of her book, Professor Mahmood described both the praise and criticism she had received from feminists. Her admirers saw it as tackling “feminism’s failure to come to terms with the viewpoints and lives of religious women, except as objects needing reform,” her husband wrote in an email.

“Saba’s work demonstrated that women could be agents within, and not just against, patriarchal religious traditions,” he added.

Her critics, he said, saw Professor Mahmood’s invitation to understand the perspectives of these religious women as “an abandonment of feminism’s emancipatory mandate.”

Professor Mahmood wrote that both these perspectives “ignore the fact that I was not interested in delivering judgments on what counts as a feminist versus an anti-feminist practice.”

She circled back to her point in 2016 at a conference at the Lahore University of Management Sciences in Pakistan.

“If I was to condemn those movements, that does not mean anyone has understood them any better,” she said. “My task as a scholar is not simply to denounce, but to try to understand what motivates people to be involved in such movements.”

“Politics of Piety” won a Victoria Schuck Award from the American Political Science Association.

These scholars now argue that the condition of secularism is in fact one in which the state has become “more and more involved in the regulation of religious life and religious institutions,” she said.

Thus, when Islamic movements struggle to make the state their means to Islamicize society, they’re in line with this modern conception of secularism, Professor Mahmood maintained.

“Even in America, Protestantism is a very crucial aspect that informs almost all laws and practices,” she said.

Professor Mahmood, was central in the formation of the Berkeley Pakistan Studies Initiative, which has been called the first academic program in the United States dedicated to the study of Pakistan’s history, politics and culture

Riaz Haq said...

Saba Mahmood and the Challenge to Liberal Thought
Saba Mahmood challenged progressive, secular and political certainties about religion and righteous politics. A professor of anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley, she passed away on 10 March 2018 at the age of 56 from pancreatic cancer. She specialised in sociocultural anthropology and was a scholar of modern Egypt. The following is a tribute to her life and work from her close friend and colleague, Raka Ray.

I know others have written, and will write, about Saba’s entire oeuvre, but let me dwell here on the work I know best, the watershed Politics of Piety. The book is an ethnographic study of groups of women in Cairo who pursue an understanding of Islam not as a form of worship relegated to specific times of the day or week, but as a practice that permeates every aspect of their lives. Thus, they attend prayer and discussion meetings led by women, they strive in their comportment, their practices, their daily lives, and their clothing, to live a life in accordance with Islamic precepts in a secular world. But, their actions are not, Saba warns, to be understood as tradition reasserting itself over their agency.

This movement could not have come about, after all, without fundamental transformations enabled by modernity; for example, the understanding that religious practice is not just a duty of rulers, but of ordinary Muslims. This could have also not come about without higher literacy and social mobility of women who came to lead the movement.

Through Saba’s work we came to see that these pious women could not be thought of as dupes of patriarchal culture but, rather, that they were actively engaged in what she called a project of self-making that could really be grasped only within the cultural and ethical parameters of Islam. The challenge Saba posed, that had us muttering disapprovingly when we first heard it, was to the core feminist understandings of agency, which assumed the universal meaning of both agency and freedom. How, after all, were we to think of women who debated the Quran, saw veiling as an aspiration, and sought to find the discipline to pray five times a day?

Challenging ‘Autonomy’

In the first instance, she reminded us that because of feminism’s politically prescriptive project the concept of agency was conflated with resistance. In other words, an act of reinscribing norms through embodied practices (such as veiling) could never be seen as agency, but an act of resistance, however small, would. In the second instance, she challenged the belief that there is, in all human beings, an innate desire for freedom; at least for a form of freedom understood as personal autonomy.

She wrote a book that asked us to take the time to reflect on that which occurred in lifeworlds that were not our own, without feeling compelled to rush to the rescue. Even more than a challenge to contemporary feminism, Politics of Piety is an anti-imperialist book, which challenges core Western certainties about religion, secularism and righteous politics.

This stance, however, meant neither that she was apolitical nor that she was completely at home with all religious assertions (as her detractors have often suggested). Rather, living in the United States (US), she felt that her task was to speak to audiences in the West and to its dominant liberal political projects that exerted such material and discursive power over the world, in the creation of which her audiences were often wittingly or unwittingly complicit. Through her writing and her public engagements, she sought to dispel dominant myths about the religious and the secular, and to draw attention to the sometimes fatal consequences of those myths.

Riaz Haq said...

Edward Said was really disappointed when he met Sartre, Foucault and De Beauvoir

Said was fascinated by French philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Michel Foucault.

Eager to discover the three philosophers’ perspectives on the Arab region's issues, Said was thrilled when he received an invitation from de Beauvoir and Sartre in 1979 to attend a conference on the Middle East in Paris.

“It might just as well have been an invitation from Cosima and Richard Wagner to come to Bayreuth, or from T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf to spend an afternoon at the offices of the Dial,” he recalls in his diary.

When Said reached Paris, he was surprised to learn that the proceedings had been shifted to Foucault’s house for ambiguously unexplained security reasons. The next few days continued in the same chaotic manner.

The themes of the event had been chosen by an acquaintance of Sartre without consulting with any of the participants. None of the Arab scholars were happy with the selected topics “covering more or less familiar ground, with no real meeting of minds” and neglecting the struggle of the Palestinians.

“It soon enough became clear that Israel’s enhancement was the real subject of the meeting, not the Arabs or the Palestinians,” Said wrote.

Such was the attitude of Sartre, de Beauvoir, and Foucault, Said discovered.

Even though Said and Foucault chatted amiably - and Said was pleased to see one of his books on the latter's bookshelves - Foucault was reluctant to discuss anything regarding the Middle East.

Stories of Foucault leaving Tunisia - where he was a professor in the philosophy department at the University of Tunis - were never proven completely. A fellow professor told Said that Foucault left after anti-Israel riots filled the streets in Tunisia, while others suggested his homosexual activities with students was the reason he was deported from the country.

Pro-Palestine French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze, had also told Said that he had fallen out with Foucault because of the latter’s Zionist views.

Based on such accounts, Said assumed that Foucault’s reluctance to discuss Arab affairs was due to his anti-Palestinian sentiments.

As for de Beauvoir, Said remembers her as “lecturing anyone who would listen about her forthcoming trip to Teheran with Kate Millett, where they were planning to demonstrate against the chador."

To the Palestinian-American writer, who had been looking forward to discussions with her, the idea seemed “patronising and silly” and he soon realized that she was vain and beyond arguing with.

Despite the disappointment in de Beauvoir and the strange encounter with Foucault, Said still maintained high expectations of his hero Sartre.

After all, he had opposed his own country’s occupation of Algeria, a position that “as a Frenchman must have been harder to hold than a position critical of Israel.”

However, he was wrong. Sartre was a staunch supporter of Israel. In fact, his pro-Zionist views had ruptured his friendship with the pro-Palestine French novelist Jean Genet.

The Existentialist thinker showed up late and contributed little to the seminar. Sartre praised the former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who had just signed the Camp David Accords - a peace agreement between Egypt and Isreal - with no mention of the Palestinian struggle.

Said was “shattered” to discover that “the justice of the Arab cause simply could not make an impression on [Sartre] … whether that was because he was afraid of seeming anti-semitic, or because he felt guilt about the Holocaust, or because he allowed himself no deep appreciation of the Palestinians as victims … or for some other reason, I shall never know.”

Riaz Haq said...

Sara Suleri Goodyear Dies at 68; Known for Memoir of Pakistan
Her 1989 book, “Meatless Days,” is viewed as an important work of postcolonial literature.

Sara Suleri Goodyear, a scholar who vividly evoked her upbringing in Pakistan in “Meatless Days,” a 1989 memoir often cited as a foundational work of post-colonial literature, died on March 20 at her home in Bellingham, Wash. She was 68.

News of her death was posted on the web page of the Yale English department, where she was an emeritus professor and had taught since 1984. A friend and fellow scholar, Fawzia Mustafa of Fordham University, said the cause was chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

“Meatless Days” took its title from the decision by the government of Pakistan, shortly after the country was formed in 1947, to declare two days a week as “meatless” to conserve the country’s supply of cattle and goats. The book is an unconventional memoir, with Professor Suleri Goodyear telling the story of her own life in Pakistan, Britain and the United States through chapters focused on other family members, including her father’s mother, Dadi.

“By the time I knew her,” Professor Suleri Goodyear wrote, “Dadi with her flair for drama had allowed life to sit so heavily upon her back that her spine wilted and froze into a perfect curve, and so it was in the posture of a shrimp that she went scuttling through the day.”

The author Kamila Shamsie, who, like Professor Suleri Goodyear, was born in Karachi, Pakistan, and who first read “Meatless Days” as a teenager, described her reaction to it in a 2005 essay in the British newspaper The Independent.

“What dazzled me most was the book’s structure and style,” she wrote. “It was like nothing I had ever encountered: a memoir that proceeds through metaphor rather than linear narrative, in prose so tightly coiled you must prod certain sentences repeatedly to allow meaning to spring forth.”

The book is full of loss, including the deaths of the author’s mother and sister Ifat, killed when she was hit by a car under mysterious circumstances. It also ponders the search for identity that comes with being born in such a young country, and with being the child of a Pakistani father and Welsh mother, as Ms. Suleri Goodyear was.

And it considers these matters from the perspective of a woman. At one point she wrote of teaching a class at Yale on “third world literature” and being quizzed by a student on why the course didn’t include more women writers.


She married Austin Goodyear, who owned a building supply company, in 1993. He died in 2005. She recently moved to Bellingham to be closer to her sister Tillat Khalid, who survives her along with a brother, Irfan Suleri.

Professor Suleri Goodyear’s other writings included a 2003 book about her father, “Boys Will Be Boys: A Daughter’s Elegy.” She also wrote numerous scholarly articles. Her memoir, though, is her most enduring work.

“‘Meatless Days’ remains the most extraordinary book I’ve read of/from Pakistan,” Ms. Shamsie wrote on Twitter last week. “It blew the top of my head off when I read it at 17. Still does the same to me now.”

Riaz Haq said...

Sara Suleri, American-Pakistani author who said ‘dream on’ about India-Pakistan Aman ki Asha
Sara's name is on Sapan’s Founding Charter, and she was known for vouching for India-Pakistan peace. But I knew a different side to her.

By Beena Sarwar

Aur bataiye – ‘Tell me more’ is a polite invitation to keep talking. I can hear Sara Suleri’s voice, naturally husky, made deeper with years of cigarette smoking, and perhaps more recently, with pain and other medications.

She’d send her love to Pakistan whenever I’d call before flying out from Boston, where we had both ended up around 10 years ago – she after retiring as Professor Emeritus of English from Yale University. I had transplanted myself from my home city Karachi, where I was editing Aman Ki Asha or ‘hope for peace’ between India and Pakistan.

“Dream on!” I hear Sara say. And yet, she had agreed, it’s important to keep on going. She was 100 per cent supportive of this, and the push for a regional approach – the South Asia Peace Action Network, or Sapan, the more recent endeavour, launched last year with a wonderful group of intergenerational, cross-border peacemongers.

Sara’s name is on Sapan’s Founding Charter calling on South Asian nations to institute soft borders and a visa-free South Asia, to allow freedom of trade and travel to each other’s citizens, ensure human rights and dignity for all, and to cooperate in all areas, including public health, culture and legal reform, education, and environment.

Her South Asian roots remained strong despite all the years away. If asked, she’d identify herself as Pakistani, “never American-Pakistani”.

Knowing Sara Suleri from her roots
When I’d call Sara after returning from Pakistan, she’d be eager to know what I did, where I went, who I met. On my return in February 2020 ‘B.C.’ — Before Covid – I flew back from Islamabad, having recently visited Lahore where Sara grew up and where I lived for a little over a decade in the 1990s. She was 23 when she left the city in 1976. I was just a little older when I moved there from Karachi in 1988.

Sara spent most of her adult life in America but made frequent visits to Pakistan until health issues prevented her to travel back to her home country. Her last visit may have been at the Second Karachi Literature Festival in 2011, guesses her sister Tillat, younger by five years.

There’s a recording of the event online. A more filled-out Sara than the gaunt one I know read from her chapter on her older sister Ifat from her iconic book Meatless Days.

Walking across the Charles River Bridge on a cold February afternoon, I called Sara. With Covid rampant, meetings were impossible. Over the landline – she had stopped using her cell phone – I sent her the fragrance of the Lahore spring and nargis flowers.

In September 2020, Sara sold her Boston apartment and transplanted the contents to Bellingham, a suburb of Seattle. She made it a point to call before leaving. There was a finality about the goodbye. We wondered when we’ll meet again.

It was a big move, but she could now be near Tillat in Vancouver, Canada, an hour-and-a-half drive away. They were excited about being so close to each other. Earlier, Tillat could visit Sara in Boston only a couple of times a year.

There was no way of knowing when the pandemic would end or that it would drag on for so long. Soon after the move, the borders closed again. Sara and Tillat, so near, and yet so far.

Since the border reopened last summer, Tillat could be with Sara every week for several days. Comfortingly, she and other family members were by Sara’s side when she took her last breath at home on 20 March. She was 68.

It was Asma Jahangir’s passing in Lahore that brought me close to Sara Suleri in Boston.