Leila Ahmed and Azadeh Moaveni: the resurgence of the veil

Why are so many Muslim women around the world choosing to cover themselves when previous generations had decided against wearing the veil?

This is the question Leila Ahmed sets out to answer in her book A Quiet Revolution, the veil’s resurgence from the Middle East to America

Having grown up in the 1940s in a family where the women did not wear veils and with the firm belief that to do so was "backward" Leila Ahmed looked beyond the discussions among the elites, speaking instead to "ordinary people" to discover why since the 1990s increasing numbers of women have been wearing the veil.

She will be discussing her findings with Azadeh Moaveni, an Iranian-American writer, journalist and author of Lipstick Jihad  tonight at the Frontline Club.

The practice of women’s covering in public has been a subject of fierce debate in Europe, with France banning the face-covering niqab and the burqa and Germany imposing a ban on headscarves among teachers. In Britain, where a "Burqa ban" has been ruled out, the subject has been hotly disputed.

Leila Ahmed’s book demonstrates the complex roots of this debate. Her book provides a fascinating account of the unveiling movement in Egypt in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, exploring its complex relationship with colonialism and its notions of the superiority of the European male.

The Harvard divinity professor shows how the assumption took hold that Arab societies needed to follow in the footsteps of the more "advanced" West and how the veil became a potent symbol of Islam’s "degradation" of women.

"Professor Ahmed’s study quickly goes to the heart of the veil’s resurgence," says Azadeh Moaveni:

Both in the early 20th century as well as today, women’s covering has been the flashpoint in political conflicts between the West and the Middle East. Liberating women served as the pretext for the British colonial presence in Egypt, just as rescuing women from the Taliban has provided moral cover for the West’s modern war in Afghanistan.

It is striking how 21st century debates about the rights of women under Islam echo those put forward by the elites at the turn of the twentieth century for political expediency: The burqa, French  President Nicolas Sarkozy said in 2009, represents "a problem of liberty and women’s dignity" and was a "a sign of subservience and debasement".

Azadeh Moaveni says she is also keen to discuss the role of Saudi Arabia in the rise of the veil:

The shadow of Saudi Arabia also looms long across this book. If Saudi money and ideology propelled Islamism and the veil across the Middle East and the world, then it’s resurgence is also Saudi Arabia’s quiet success story.

Professor Ahmed deftly shows us how the veil carries dramatically different meanings in various social and historical contexts. She argues that today, the veil has become unmoored from its old patriarchal associations. Is that really the case, and if so, must liberal and secular Muslims also embrace its resurgence?

Tomorrow night’s event is fully booked but you can watch it live here.