Leila Ahmed is a professor at the Harvard Divinity School and in her latest book A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence from the Middle East to America she delves into the history and reasons why the veil or hijab has once again become a prominent symbol of not only Islamic modesty but also more surprisingly of social change and activism for many Muslim women. Ahmed’s book while academic and well-researched is not dry and is wholly readable. Her voice is observational and fair in stark contrast to some of the more abrasive commentary about Muslims popular today from voices like Irshad Manji, Ann Coulter, Glen Beck, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
One evening in the late 1990s as Ahmed and a friend were walking past the Cambridge Common, they unexpectedly came across a group of 40-50 women engaged in a private event. Ahmed describes, “what was arresting was that all the women were in hijab-the veil or headcovering that some Muslim women wear.” It would be this event and subsequent discussions over the seeming reemergence of the veil amongst Muslim women in America that would serve as the catalyst for Ahmed’s book.
In order to more fully trace the complex history and relationship with the veil, Ahmed turns to Egypt at the dawn of the 20th century, still firmly under British colonial rule and influence. Among the elite and middle class of Egyptian and Arab society, imitation of Western norms and culture including European dress was gaining ground. Muslim fashions embodied in traditional dress including the hijab were considered “backward” although these views were not widely shared by the working class or farmers in the more rural countryside. Influential Arab writers of the day like Qasim Amin argued that for Muslim societies to advance, women would need to “cast off their veils” and this Amin argued, was “not contrary to the principles of Islam.”
As these ideas continued to spread throughout the Middle East, more and more women stopped wearing the veil or were born, as Ahmed was in 1940s Egypt, into societies where to be unveiled did not “signify their rejection of Islam or their secularism.” This is in marked distinction to the dominant view today amongst conservative Muslims that to be unveiled means one is a less pious and/or secular Muslim. According to Ahmed, up until the mid-1970s, when the veil first began to reappear amongst university students, “devout, mainstream Muslim women, and not merely secular women-had not worn hijab.” In the 1980s, Ahmed highlights the work of Arlene Elowe Macleod who interviewed Egyptian women and found “essentially no correlation” between wearing hijab and an increase in religious observance.
In the 70s and 80s, a number of anthropologists began to study the phenomenon of the reemergence of the veil in Egyptian society. The reasons women gave for beginning to wear hijab were diverse and largely personal but for some there were also larger political motivations. Among the reasons given by Muslim women were a renewed sense of religious commitment, as a means of protection on crowded public transport or in lecture halls, a feeling of inner peace, a rejection of Western values, as a sign of wealth for Egyptians returning from working in the Gulf, identification with the Palestinian resistance movement, in some cases women were pressured to wear hijab by charismatic preachers and some were even paid to wear hijab in order to promote the visualization of a specific ideology.
Another central component in the story of the veil’s reemergence comes from the conservative activist version of Islam or Islamism associated with groups in the Muslim world like the Muslim Brotherhood, Jamaat-i-Islami, and the Muslim World League. And in America, through closely related groups comprising the Muslim Students Association (MSA) and its offshoot the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), as well as the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA). Ahmed devotes quite a bit of time tracing the history of these movements and their ideas about Muslim women’s roles in society including their participation in Islamist movements and their clothing choices. These various movements with their shared commitment to an activist message of Islam on both a personal and societal level, which they promulgated through mosques, schools, health clinics, conferences, and publications gradually began to spread the message that a good Muslim woman was one that wore hijab, if not niqab, and also a long flowing outergarment.
In 1985, Zainab al-Ghazali, the unsung mother of the Muslim Brotherhood, in an interview with a non-Muslim journalist quite sternly explained the importance of hijab in her view, eyeing the interviewer’s short sleeve dress, she offered flatly, “If you don’t go back to your religion and dress as I do, you’ll go to hell. Even if you’re a good Muslim and you pray and do what is right, if you dress the way you do all your good deeds will be canceled out.” And as is so often the case, despite her stern views on what constituted appropriate clothing for women, Ghazali believed in that feminist notion of equality amongst the sexes, although, I’m sure she wouldn’t use the term as many are loathe to do even today stating that “Islam is best, because it makes women and men equal.” Ghazali also believed that women should be able to choose to marry, to work, or the utilize family planning and that this could be fully consistent with conservative ideas of women’s roles within the home as wife and mother.
Ahmed also points to the contradiction in some views held by Islamists such as Syed Qutb whose views on women were “systematically restrictive and confining” with the liberation many women felt within the Islamist movement. Zainab al-Ghazali and other women despite being firmly within the Islamist camp also felt that this movement freed and liberated them from traditional gender roles and allowed them to become leaders, teachers, professionals and activists. “Al-Ghazali considered the fact that she had no children a ‘great blessing.'”
One interesting observation noted by Macleod and other researchers is that for some Muslim women exploring nontraditional roles including working outside the home, hijab helped these women affirm their identities as “good” Muslim women “by presenting themselves as women who were conforming to conservative Islamic notions of women’s roles” through their dress. This is particularly important, Ahmed notes, as the strategy used by many Islamists to discredit feminists or activist women is to “portray them as un-Islamic and as culturally Westernized.”
Carrie Rosovsky Wickham, who conducted research into women’s veiling in the 1990s notes that wearing Islamic dress not only empowered young people with a “sense of moral authority” but that it also “enabled women to be freer to flout traditional limits on their autonomy.” I see this frequently in my own experience that through working with Muslim organizations women gain increased autonomy within their families and within the Muslim community. Thus Ahmed notes, “the veil of the post-1970s era is distinctly not the veil of pre-colonial times,” which signified specific notions of “gender hierarchy” and “gender segregation.”
Part of the Islamic resurgence here in America has led to increased mosque attendance for men and for women. Thus these women schooled in the activist form of Islam coupled with the social activism embedded in American culture have increasingly begun to agitate for their rights to fuller and more equal inclusion within the public sphere. “Mainstream Islamism, maintains Wickham, in contrast to militant Islamism, is not simply ‘against the status quo but also for a better alternative.'”
In America, with its history of social justice and activism and now in the midst of a the post-9/11 backlash and questioning, a new space has been created for critics of the faith to rise to prominence. An Islamophobic industry has gained a foothold with varying voices from Daniel Pipes to Ann Coulter to Ayaan Hirsi Ali using their platforms to malign Islam all the while emptily claiming to want to “save Muslim women from the oppression of Islam.” However, these same anti-feminist neo-con voices are apt to support the use of militarily force in Muslim countries, which disproportionately harm Muslim women and their families on a massive scale.
Leila Ahmed concludes her book with her observations on the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) and some biographical sketches of prominent Muslim women activists in America and Canada, many of whom have come to meld and forge a uniquely North American identity as Muslim women committed to their faith, yet questioning and challenging the status quo. Included in this section are diverse voices from Ingrid Mattson, the first woman president of ISNA to Tayyibah Taylor, founder of Azizah magazine to Laleh Bakhtiar who wrote a new English translation of the Quran with a controversial rendering of verse 4:34. Also mentioned are Asra Nomani and Zarqa Nawaz with their differing takes on challenging the Muslim community on women’s inclusion in mosques and Hadia Mubarak, the first woman and first American-born president of MSA National and many others.
Ahmed’s book is well researched and richly detailed and provides the reader with a more in-depth understanding of the historical and social currents, which have shaped the Islamic revivalist movements of the 20th century. Currents that continue to play an important role today in shaping an understanding of Islam and of veiling amongst Muslim women and the wider Muslim community. And Ahmed casts a hopeful eye to the future that from within the Islamist movement, which currently dominates much Islamic discourse, with its conservative, liberal and more progressive strains we will see new thought leaders arise.
For me personally, I am intrigued to see the rise of a new and thoroughly modern set of Muslim women with a firm command of orthodox Islamic scholarship seamlessly merged with Western scholarship. These women combine Islamist notions of an activist religion and American values of social change and justice while casting a critical eye toward understanding religious text and doctrine. They are finding new ways to reconcile issues of modern life, as Ahmed highlights, with the ever-changing notions of justice within the American context that continue to expand to include more women and minorities.