Book Review | Leila Ahmed | A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence from the Middle East to America

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. Continue reading “Book Review | Leila Ahmed | A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence from the Middle East to America”

The Muslim Link | Biased Against Pray In

Fatima Thompson and I were interviewed by Minhaj Hasan, editor of the Muslim Link, by telephone this past Monday about the Pray In movement, which seeks to counter the marginalization of women in the Muslim community as can be blatantly witnessed in the substandard accommodation and exclusion of women from public space, particularly in mosques.

The title of the article conveys the paper’s bias: Breaking the Ranks or Peaceful Protest? It is clear that the writer(s) using the generic pseudonym “Muslim Link Staff” believes that the Pray In movement is the former i.e. breaking the ranks and sowing seeds of fitna and dissension with the Muslim community. Thus, the article while trying hard to give off the appearance of fairness and while admitting that the Pray In cause is correct and “closest to the sunnah” does it best to try to discredit the Pray In movement and its members.

Shortly after this incident, Thompson set-up a Facebook page and founded a small movement now called “Pray In”. The purpose of the group is to “end gender segregation” in the masjid…

Small movement and an “end to gender segregation?” In fact, the movement is spreading and as more people hear about it, they are joining, sharing their own stories of encountering similar issues of lack of space, downright dangerous or shoddy conditions, and or exclusion entirely from the masjid and ask how they can begin their own Pray In movements in their localities.

The lack of explanation in the quote “end gender segregation” leaves open to the reader especially amongst conservative audiences like those targeted by the Muslim Link that Pray In seeks to have men and women pray side-by-side and female imams. This is connotation and implication is very familiar to those within conservative circles. What is meant, by Pray In, in terms of ending gender segregation is a return to the the practice “closest to the sunnah” whereby the rows are arranged as they were in the time of the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) and his closest companions and in many masajid up until today without recourse to degrading barriers, partitions, separate rooms, balconies, and basements.

Their first “Pray In” protest at the Islamic Center of Washington DC took place in late February. About ten women prayed outside the women’s space behind the men’s congregation; men who came in late formed lines behind the protesting women.

There were informal and independent pray in protests before the one at the Islamic Center of Washington in February. An eyewitness observing the protest from the back of the mosque on Mass Ave recalls that there were about 20 women not 10. Furthermore, this eyewitness discounts the claim that any of the men that arrived late formed a line behind the women. Continue reading “The Muslim Link | Biased Against Pray In”

Dr. Ingrid Mattson: Words of Wisdom

I’ve been re-listening to two lectures by Dr. Mattson today, they’re short but full of wisdom. I really enjoy listening to Dr. Mattson and wish she had a higher profile in the media because she is simply brilliant. Her lecture Heaven’s Gate: How Muslim Women Open or Close Doors for Their Sisters touches on many issues I have been turning over in my mind recently.

Between Extremism and Moderation: (17:47)


Changes within Us: (16:32)

Ingrid Mattson: Heavens Gate: How Muslim Women Open or Close Doors for Their Sisters (pdf)

The Example of Courageous Muslim Women

…Secondly, ‘A’isha was public in her corrections. Of course she corrected some people privately but she also corrected people in a public fashion when necessary. When she heard that someone was attributing to the Prophet Muhammad something she found reprehensible, she did not hold back. In doing so, she taught that it is perfectly acceptable and sometimes necessary to challenge power publicly.

It is because of the example that she set that we see her students demonstrating the same kind of strength and courage. For example, ‘A’isha bint Talha, who was one of ‘A’isha bint Abi Bakr’s students, is well known for very publicly refusing the demands of others that she cover her face in public. ‘A’isha bint Talha was the most beautiful woman of her age, but she was also a great scholar of hadith who learned religious knowledge from her aunt and had the same kind of confidence to articulate her convictions.

Real Sisterhood

…To have solidarity among women, therefore, we do not need to have a utopian sisterhood, where all women are joined in a mystical bond of love and caring. What we can learn from the sometimes strained relationships that ‘A’isha had with other women is that we can stand up for each other’s right, despite such strains.

The Myth of the Idealized Muslim Woman

…We can learn from ‘Aisha’s legacy that, all too often, the fullness of great Muslim women’s experiences is narrowed and appropriated by those wishing to present an “ideal” Muslim woman. Not only is it rare that we hear about the Companions’ weaknesses, as I have already mentioned, but all too often, the words or examples of the female Companions are drawn upon selectively to support a position that the women themselves would have been unlikely to support.

For example, one often hears those who wish to exclude women from the mosque citing a statement that ‘A’isha was reported to have made some decades following the Prophet Muhammad’s death: “If the Prophet had seen how women are behaving, he would have prohibited them from the mosque, as was the case with the Children of Israel.” Although A’isha uses a general term “women” in her statement, any reasonable interpreter would have to agree that it is evident that ‘A’isha did not mean all women. In the first place, ‘Aisha and her fellow widows lived in the mosque, so she obviously did not mean to exclude all women.

Rather than putting women down, ‘A’isha was simply holding women accountable for their behavior, and not expecting anything less from them than the high standard of conduct she expected of men. The fact that ‘A’isha’s words have been used to justify the exclusion of women from the mosque shows how important it is for women leaders to prevent their teachings from being appropriated to exclude women who do not conform to the sanitized, narrow image that others have constructed of them. Here, religious women have to be especially careful to avoid being set up as closed doors that keep other women from accessing the knowledge and sacred spaces they need.

…Another particular risk for Muslim women in our own time is our frequent reluctance to treat other women as individuals, rather than as exemplars of our collective feminine identity. Too often we seem to feel that obtaining a dignified identity for women in general is so vital that we need to sacrifice the rights of some women for the sake of us the group.

It is common in marginalized groups that there is pressure for individuals to conform for the sake of the good of collectivity. Many are afraid that if some of their peers make statements that are too challenging, then perhaps there will be a backlash. However, we need to remember that there is no general woman; there are only individual women, each with their own idiosyncrasies, values and beliefs.

An Act of Protest

…Certainly there is much values in respecting common norms of behavior and not acting counter-culturally simply to provoke a reaction. However, sometimes it is only outrageous behavior that will elicit a necessary reaction in the face of mindless complicity. Who is to judge when it is appropriate to sacrifice individuality for the sake of the common good and when it is necessary to fight for one’s rights, despite protests that one is creating discord (fitna)?

In the end, this is a judgment call that we can all make, but must not assume that any of our judgments are infallible. When it comes to women’s rights, we should not be so terrified of a backlash that we disown our sisters who take a more radical path. We might think that their behavior is outrageous, ridiculous, or over-the-line, and we can make that judgment. Still, we should support their right to be wrong.

You might say that now I have adopted a typical liberal stance on rights, despite beginning my talk with a recommendation that a more conservative path of transformation should be considered. Certainly, I believe that when it comes to gender relations in Muslim religious communities, that an ethical transformation based on spirituality, and drawing upon diverse resources of classical Islam will yield positive results. However, I also believe that this kind of transformation cannot occur today except in a social and political context in which the liberal notion of individual rights is upheld. Authoritarian and patriarchal tendencies run too deep in Muslim communities for any real transformation to occur without grounding our religious choices in a liberal political (in the small and large sense) framework.

The Prayer Space Example

…The Prophet Muhammad said, “Do not prevent the maidservants of God from the mosques of God.” What we have to understand is that women are not prevented from praying in the mosque only by words. They also are prevented when they are not afforded reasonable access to the prayer space and the opportunity to join the congregation.

The female companions of the Prophet Muhammad enjoyed this access during his lifetime; it cannot be anything other than disobedience to his teachings to deny such access. In order to open doors of spiritual opportunity for our sisters, it is, therefore, sometimes necessary to put aside our preferences.