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Leila Ahmed: A Quiet Revolution PDF Print E-mail

images/stories/WSJ_logo.gif April 25 2011
The Return Of the Veil
Young American Muslim women have come to view the hijab as a symbol of liberation rather than repression.
Newspapers are full of stories about European governments debating whether to ban women from wearing some version of the Islamic veil­on April 11, France outlawed the niqab, or full-face veil­but such efforts only confirm how prevalent the veil has become in the 21st century, not least in Western countries. Its resurgence over the past 30 years is the subject of Leila Ahmed's "A Quiet Revolution." Ms. Ahmed, a professor at the Harvard Divinity School, focuses in particular on the veil's history in Egypt, the country in which she grew up, and on its contemporary appearance in the U.S.

The Islamic custom of a woman covering her head is an old one but became widespread­in North Africa, Central Asia and the broader Middle East­only when Islam burst out of the borders of the Arabian Peninsula in the eighth century. The religious logic was that headwear, for women, imposed modesty and helped to regulate the relations between the sexes in public settings.

The desire to "unveil" caught fire in Egypt more than a thousand years later, during the colonial era, when local women, for the first time, saw bareheaded Western women traveling up the Nile. Before long, Ms. Ahmed argues, the decision not to wear the veil became more than a matter of imitating a Western style of dress. It became a symbol of various longings within Egyptian culture ­ for a newly transparent social order, for a less oppressive traditionalist society, for a resurgence of Egypt's diverse national identity and for the liberation of Egypt from colonial rule.

Ms. Ahmed's narrative deftly captures the mood of the era, registering the range of ironies surrounding the status of the veil. Evelyn Baring, the British administrator who ran Egypt from 1883 to 1907, firmly opposed women's suffrage in London ­ he sneered at the idea of "the unsexed woman voting at the polling booth" ­ yet in North Africa he championed the cause of unveiling as a civilizing reform. Little could he have imagined that unveiling would later become an emblem for untethering Egypt from Britain itself. In 1919, Ms. Ahmed notes, a Cairo sculptor pushing for independence depicted "The Awakening of Egypt" as a young peasant woman throwing off her veil.

images/stories/QuietRevolution_cover.jpg A Quiet Revolution

  • By Leila Ahmed
  • Yale, 352 pages, $30

Egyptian women went uncovered right up to the 1970s. The only veiled women Ms. Ahmed saw as a child in the 1940s were the wives of members of the Muslim Brotherhood. But it was around that radical organization that Egypt's opposition politics coalesced, centering on Islamic revivalism. The veil thus became, in the postwar years, a symbol of hostility to the perceived materialism of mainstream society. (The Nasser government's crackdown on the Brotherhood only added to the group's popularity.) The Brotherhood's rise was part of a religious fervor that swept through the Arab world in the 1970s, helped along by Saudi Arabia's longtime promotion of the fundamentalist Wahhabi doctrine.

Ms. Ahmed gives us a fascinating portrait of the Muslim Brotherhood, especially of its "unsung mother," Zainab al-Ghazali. Groomed by her father to become a Muslim leader, she founded Egypt's Muslim Women's Association at age 18. She helped re-organize the Brotherhood after the assassination of its founder, Hassan al-Banna, in 1949 and served six years in jail for her political activities. The same woman who looked with cold disapproval at the "pink, short-sleeved dress" of a Western interviewer divorced her husband only after she made sure that her marriage contract gave her the right to do so. Her contradictions­she described her childlessness as a "blessing" while insisting that a woman's main role in life was as a wife and mother­are part of her legacy, showing the complicated nature of female leadership in an environment of male-dominated Islamic activism.

As for the meaning of the veil in contemporary Western societies, Ms. Ahmed is very much a disciple of the French scholar Olivier Roy, who argues that Muslims living in the West ­ where religion is not imposed by a social authority­will anchor their identities less in nationality or even ethnicity than in solidarity with the "ummah," the universal community of Muslim believers. Mr. Roy doesn't say whether this feeling of affiliation is a good or bad thing, but Ms. Ahmed suggests that it is empowering. She sees educated, religiously committed Muslims taking the lead in making America a more open, pluralistic society.

Parts of "A Quiet Revolution" are taken up with stories from conferences organized by Muslim Americans in the post 9/11 world. The theme is always "America, Our Home," with speakers articulating, often with amused wonder, the realities of their immigrant experience. ("Just listen to the [American] accent of your kids," one panelist says, "then you'll know that you're not going anywhere.") What is most striking is how many young American Muslim women view the hijab­the traditional Muslim veil that covers the head but, unlike the niqab, leaves the face open to view­as a symbol of liberation rather than repression. Alert to the surrounding society's prejudice, they are choosing to go veiled, Ms. Ahmed says, precisely as a way of affirming their derided identity. The veil is, for them, a way of insisting on their equal place in American culture.

But Ms. Ahmed is too optimistic. Even if the veil in America is being disentangled from many of its traditional meanings, it remains a theological symbol, tainted by a long history of religious traditions that fall harder on women than on men. The good news is that American Muslims ­ unlike their counterparts in France ­ have the freedom to decide what the veil means and whether they would like to use it or set it aside. This is a freedom that Ms. Ahmed exercises: A secular Muslim feminist, she herself does not wear the veil.

Ms. Sethi is the Journal's assistant books editor.