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The Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence, by Leila Ahmed.

November 29, 2014

The Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence from the Middle East to America, by Leila Ahmed. Yale University Press (2012),  Paperback, 360 pages.



Brilliant and important scholarship on Muslim women, their use of the veil, and the innovative ways they are shaping their own tradition in America.

Leila Ahmed is a highly regarded scholar teaching at Harvard in their renowned Pluralism in Religion program. As she describes in her fine memoir, Crossing the Border, she grew up as a Muslim in Egypt, obtained her Ph.D. in Britain, and taught in the Middle East before coming to America. Her book, Women and Gender in Islam, is a major history of the topic from its beginnings to the present. She has always been quick to recognize alternative traditions within Islam, including some more supportive of women than those stated by Muslim male leaders. I highly recommend her writings to anyone interested in this subject.

In Women and Gender in Islam, Ahmed briefly discussed the increased use of the veil by young Muslim women. She notes that veiled college women who are Egyptian Muslim, like unveiled ones, were deeply committed to professional goals and gender equality, but she worried that they were not adequately apprehensive of the restrictive goals of the men in their movement. In her new book, she has studied in depth the changing attitudes of Muslim women, often symbolized by veils. In the process, she discovers something she did not expect to find. In an American setting, some young Muslim women are introducing new ideas and concerns to the Islamic tradition, braiding together Islamic and American commitments to justice, equality, and tolerance for diversity.

Because she is foremost a scholar, Ahmed devotes the first half of her book to background for her findings. Here she focuses primarily on Egypt, the site of some of the important internal thinking about Islam in the past century. When the British colonized Egypt in the 1800s, they attacked Islam as a backward tradition. Although not interested in educating or assisting women, they claimed that veils were proof that Muslim men abused women. With the spread of Westernization, women stopped wearing veils, and by the 1950s and 1960s they were seldom seen in cities.

Meanwhile, an “Islamist Resurgence” had begun challenging colonial rule and urging a reform within the Islamic faith. Leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood and others claimed that pious worship was not enough to be a good Muslim. A person must engage in teaching others a more active faith devoted to social justice and ending the gap between rich and poor. Those advocating such ideas were strongly anti-British and viewed themselves as a self-righteous elite. Militant, but divided on the use of violence, they were in and out of favor with Egyptian leaders throughout the middle of the twentieth century, especially after the establishment of Israel by the British. During times when they were exiled from Egypt, some of these men worked for the Wahhabi movement in Saudi Arabia, where they became a more disciplined, conservative, and an organized force for change.

In the 1970s, Muslim women began using veils again, and various scholars tried to discover why. Ahmed summarized their findings, often establishing patterns beneath their surface contradictions. On one hand, wearing a veil was a means of showing support and membership in the Islamist community, but the veils women wore were not the traditional ones of their ancestors. On the other hand, women also had personal reasons for choosing to be veiled, especially as they stepped out of traditional roles to attend college or take employment. Veils became a means of showing a traditional commitment to home and family and diverted male attention from the fact that the women were taking new roles outside the privacy of their homes. Male leaders encouraged the use of veils along with other measures to bring women into the movement. For example, college girls disliked the aggressive crowding on college buses and in classrooms. Islamists started running girls-only buses and instituted a rule that men and women should sit on separate rows in lecture halls. They offered peer support and practical reasons for being veiled.

With changes in US immigration laws in 1965, Muslims began coming to America in larger numbers. Many came as families and raised children in America. While some sought to assimilate as quickly as possible into American society or to continue a private piety, a significant minority shared the reform orientation of the Islamist regeneration. Their organizations began to offer a measure of unity among US Muslims. By 2000 the children of the Islamists were in college and active in the national organizations.

After 9/11, life for Muslims in America changed radically as they became the objects of attacks and violence. When the US government sought war in Afghanistan and Iraq, they seized on the veils worn by Muslim women as an excuse for their attacks. Political leaders and their appointees who had never shown an interest in women’s needs began to speak out against veils as an example of how Muslim men “abused their women.” Some within the Muslim community joined those who defined their faith as negative toward women.

At the same time, some American Muslims and their non-Muslim allies began new inter-religious discussions. The Islamic Society of North American (ISNA) took the lead in fostering alternative images of Islam and of Muslim women. Some American Muslims spoke out about a variety of alternatives existing within Islam, and of the values often proclaimed as “American” which overlap with Muslim support for tolerance of diversity.  Gradually women’s public roles in leadership were increased in ISNA. Discussions began about the need for women to have space within mosques, the problems of domestic violence, and women’s right to choose for herself about marriage, employment, and wearing the veil.

Ahmed is careful to note that such changes were not universal, but she also affirms that some American Muslims were moving in new directions. She tells the individual stories about some of the women leading the changes. Never claiming that these women were typical, she sees them as introducing radical new developments with their faith.  Some of these women have entered academia and leadership roles where they are challenging the ways that Islam has traditionally restricted women.  Their work resembles the research that Christian and Jewish women have pursued within their own traditions in recent decades. For example, scholarly evidence some have introduced argues that the Quran does not support Muslim men beating their wives, as has been traditionally claimed.

Within the Islamic Progressive community, women are experimenting with prayer groups that are not segregated by gender and with women leading prayer. Attitudes toward the veil are diverse. While some women wear or have worn the veil to affirm their faith or to limit harassment, others who are professionals or academics have chosen to put it down. Frequently, they do not identify themselves as feminist, but the issues they address fall within that category. In general they work to bring together their identities as both Muslims and Americans. They see themselves as preserving a tolerant, woman-affirming type of Islam as an alternative to the narrow, conservative one being advocated by many Islamist male leaders. The “quiet revolution” that they and Ahmed advocate has begun within Islam, not from outside.

Ahmed urges her readers to be supportive of Muslim women seeking to bring about change within their religious tradition, rather than attack them or demand that they give up their faith in order to be good feminists. She has written an important book that I hope is widely read. If those of us who are not Muslim expect to join with all women, we need to listen to authors like Ahmed who can help us understand how Muslim women understand themselves.

I enthusiastically recommend The Quiet Revolution to all readers. It is a clear, enjoyable book offering much to think about.

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