Leila Ahmed: The Quiet Revolution – women and the veil

Throughout the early part of the 20th century there was a trend towards unveiling.

In 1923 the Egyptian feminist Hoda Sha’rawi removed her veil,declaring it a thing of the past. Thirty years later in 1955, Albert Hourani, the Oxford historian and bestselling author of A History of the Arab Peoples, published a short article called “The Vanishing Veil: A Challenge to the Old Order."

In it he discussed how the Egyptian writer Qasim Amin’s arguments took hold from Egypt to Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq.

If the Muslim world was to advance, he argued, then "gradual and careful change in the status of women" including an end to the wearing of veils was vital.

Writing in  Foreign Policy, Leila Ahmed, Victor S. Thomas professor at Harvard Divinity School , Leila Ahmed, says:

But Hourani’s article has proved spectacularly incorrect. Fifty-six years later, we live in a world where veiling among Muslim women, after steadily gaining ground across the globe in the last two decades, is incontrovertibly ascendant. How did we get it so wrong?

Ahmed, author of Women and Gender in Islam, began her research in the 1990s when she noticed more and more younger women were wearing the veil in America. Her new book A Quiet Revolution: The Resurgence of the Veil, traces the trend back to the 1970s and reveals how her assumption that it was a backward step was challenged by the women she met:

Clearly, these women have a very different view of the veil here in the West, where they are free to wear whatever they want, than the old notion of the veil with which I grew up, fraught with ancient patriarchal meanings as it was and still is in societies where it is required by law or through ferocious social pressure.

Listening to such women, I found it startling and moving to see how the Islamist emphasis on social justice had been transplanted to a democratic, pluralist society committed to gender equality and justice for all. This was certainly not an interpretation of the veil I had heard before, and it reflected a different Islam from the one of my childhood as well.

 Leila Ahmed who can be heard speaking in the video above about women and Islam and how the veil has become a symbol in the western media of the oppression of Muslim women,  points out that the topic of women and Islam carries “a tremendous undertow of political significance” in America and in Europe in the post 9/11 era.

The debate over the banning of the niqab in France is one example of the way that the issue of oppression and women in Islam “now often figures in the media under a variety of guises usually via a reference to the veil”.

Leila Ahmed talked to a wide range of women who wear the veil – from young Muslim feminists to Arab nationalists, violent jihadists, and peaceful Islamic activists.

What she discovered about the veil, women’s rights and activism not only challenged the media’s prejudices “as to the perils of veiling” but also her own assumptions as a woman who had grown up in the 1940s when women were abandoning the veil.

Leila Ahmed will be at the Frontline Club on Wednesday, 25 May to discuss her work.