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”

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Hijab-less by Choice, Muslim Women in Their Own Words

NPR: Lifting the Veil

It’s always so powerful and inspiring for me to hear people tell their own stories in their own words. Included in the multimedia presentation for this NPR story are 12 Muslim women explaining their choice to unveil. So many of the themes of doubt and questioning and negotiating recounted in their stories resonate with me even as I choose to continue wearing hijab.

Kim Joseph, a convert to Islam, remembers that before she even took her shahada, the phrase which one utters to enter into the faith of Islam, the Muslim women around her put a hijab on her head. She wasn’t even Muslim! It seems the priorities were mixed up. And Joseph now says without hijab, she is able to “develop her faith from the inside out rather from the outside in.” I don’t think there needs to be dichotomy between the external and internal parts of faith, yet when the internal meshes with the external, they seem to reinforce each other. Before I converted to Islam, when I was simply delving into learning about the faith, I test drove several mostly unorthodox hijab styles. I just wanted to see what it’d be like to wear hijab were I to convert to Islam.

Sana Javed looked familiar to me, she attended the University of Maryland and was involved with the on-campus Muslim events so I’ve probably have seen her around. She expresses a sentiment that is felt by many, that as long as you look the part of the ideal muslimah, hijab and demeanor, it’s all good but once you challenge those stereotypes, you can expect a wave of negativity directed at you to force back into the orthy box. Hijab in  that sense, is seen as a “litmus test” for one’s piety. Which brings up the issue of the assumptions and expectations that go along with wearing hijab.

Hijab is a religious, political, and social statement. It means different things to different people but no doubt those many statements, assumptions, and expectations come to the fore. People, both Muslim and non-Muslim often see the hijab before the woman. For some, this is preferable and desirable and for others it becomes a burden, a hindrance, and brings much unwanted attention. And for some of us, hijab is a little bit of both. Samia Naseem mentions how she actually feared for her safety while wearing hijab in this sometimes hostile environment post 9-11. And I think it’s important not to diminish these voices, a garment that is supposed to offer a form of protection does also quite visibly at times put women at risk of physical harm and abuse. Despite her own choice, Naseem doesn’t want her unveiling to be used as support or encouragement for other Muslim women to unveil. The choice, which every woman should be free to make is deeply personal.

For Rasmieyh Abdelnabi, wearing hijab is akin to being forced to be a public and visible representative of the Muslim community at all times, which is not a role every woman wants to assume for herself. It’s remarkable how easily many Muslim men can blend in and are even encouraged to blend into society, to not stick out, and live public lives nearly indistinguishable from the non-Muslims around them. For Muslim women, one of the only ways to do that is by choosing not to wear hijab.

Nadia Shoeb expressed that she felt naked the first time she went outside without her hijab as if she had gone shirtless. I think this is something many of us can relate to, either being asked to remove our hijab in public or having a man unexpectedly walk in on us without our hijab. Such an experience can be deeply embarrassing or humiliating. Shoeb also noted something interesting, that the experience of these Muslim women chronicled in the story is “distinctly American.” Continue reading “Hijab-less by Choice, Muslim Women in Their Own Words”

I Do Not Support the Burka/Niqab Ban

So France has banned the burqa/niqab. I blogged about showing some niqab solidarity way back in 2006. That post, which I had forgotten about is now trending on my blog so I decided to re-read it. So many promises made, ones that should be kept:

I promise not to judge people by their clothing. I promise to defend the right of women to decide for themselves how they wish to dress. I promise to not take any positive or negative experiences I have had with sisters dressed a certain way to extrapolate and make generalizations about them or others with similar fashion choices. I promise to not sit idly by while people try to force you to uncover or cover to fit their perceptions of modesty.

More than four years later, my views on niqab have shifted. At some point after my conversion, I flirted with the idea of wearing niqab but ultimately decided against it even though I had purchased several Saudi-style over-the-head abaya/niqab outfits. I never wore them outside of my house. I tried them on but found them completely unwieldy. My peripheral vision was diminished, it would have taken some getting used to the everyday walking, sitting, driving, and praying, especially getting up from prostration. And certainly, my family already not particularly enthused with my decision to wear hijab would not have been pleased. Oh, but isn’t it about pleasing God, first and foremost? Perhaps, and yes, ideally, but there’s often a great deal of people-pleasing that goes into our clothing choices, and this is true for Muslims and non-Muslims, both secular and religious.

I believe my decision to wear hijab and abaya was primarily motivated by a desire to increase in my God-consciousness. The decision wasn’t well-received by those closest to me and at that time my main contact with Muslims was through online forums. When I was thinking about wearing niqab, I asked some other niqabis for their advice and input, I was curious about their experience and feelings regarding their choice. One sister in particular, who no longer wears niqab, advised me not to wear it out of the communal pressure that sort of “niqab is better and more pious” talk that permeates many conservative communities.

In the end, I didn’t feel then and don’t feel now that niqab is obligatory or even preferable. I don’t think it would bring me closer to God nor do I think it’s necessary go to such an extreme (for me) level of covering in order to simply exist as Muslim woman in society. The struggle for some of us is to blend our cultural identities with our clothing choices. We want to dress modestly but  neither wish to look “weird” nor assume cultural practices alien to our own culture.

However, my personal feelings are beside the point. To force a woman to cover or uncover has nothing to do with justice and liberal values. Yes, women are forced to cover and they are also forced to uncover every single day by other Muslims and by non-Muslims and that’s really very sad and something we should all strive against. But the way to do it, is not by limiting choice and freedom, even if we disagree with those choices.

I’ve been in several situations (renewing my driver’s license, working in a hospital, working for TSA) where I was asked or rather told that I needed to take of my hijab. That’s never a pleasant feeling and if you’re not strong or you do not know or feel able to defend your rights, you may give in to that pressure. In a similar way, I’ve been in positions where women that may not wear hijab have asked me for advice about whether or not they have to or should wear hijab in specific social situations. I tend to say, “no, you do not have to wear it” and to emphasize that it is their own personal choice and comfort which is paramount. And that I will support them in whatever they decide.

It is this support that I think is critical and often missing. The support to choose for oneself despite the pressures, which seek to remove that choice. Nice clip on CNN of a debate between Hebah Ahmed, a niqabi,  and Mona Eltahawy. For me, seeing Hebah and Mona is a victory of sorts, two Muslim women with two different ideas about dress comfortably explaining for themselves why and what they believe. I find it disturbing for someone who believes in women’s rights to try to deny women the right to choose a manner of dress for themselves. And I also find it equally disturbing that some of those who claim to support the right of women to choose for themselves in this case would quite happily deny women the right of choice if empowered in other settings.

I know there are many women who continue to wear hijab or niqab simply out of the pressure to conform despite their wishes to not wear it. And I’ve seen women forced to take off their hijab or niqab for reasons of employment or safety or unjust laws like those in France or Turkey or elsewhere. I’m for choice, yours and mine.

Previously,

Hijabi Monologues Review

Drop-Top Convertible Hijab

Caryle Murphy, Yasir Qadhi, & the Headscarf