Synopses & Reviews
In Cairo in the 1940s, Leila Ahmed was raised by a generation of women who never dressed in the veils and headscarves their mothers and grandmothers had worn. To them, these coverings seemed irrelevant to both modern life and Islamic piety. Today, however, the majority of Muslim women throughout the Islamic world again wear the veil. Why, Ahmed asks, did this change take root so swiftly, and what does this shift mean for women, Islam, and the West?
When she began her study, Ahmed assumed that the veil's return indicated a backward step for Muslim women worldwide. What she discovered, however, in the stories of British colonial officials, young Muslim feminists, Arab nationalists, pious Islamic daughters, American Muslim immigrants, violent jihadists, and peaceful Islamic activists, confounded her expectations. Ahmed observed that Islamism, with its commitments to activism in the service of the poor and in pursuit of social justice, is the strain of Islam most easily and naturally merging with western democracies' own tradition of activism in the cause of justice and social change. It is often Islamists, even more than secular Muslims, who are at the forefront of such contemporary activist struggles as civil rights and women's rights. Ahmed's surprising conclusions represent a near reversal of her thinking on this topic.
Richly insightful, intricately drawn, and passionately argued, this absorbing story of the veil's resurgence, from Egypt through Saudi Arabia and into the West, suggests a dramatically new portrait of contemporary Islam.
"Though Ahmed's second book is a history of the practice of veiling among Muslim women, it covers 'the extraordinary transformations that religions-in this case Islam-undergo as to the way they are lived, practiced, understood and interpreted.' Ahmed's history is at once deep (dates, names, and events tumble out it multitude) and specific (the book's first section focuses on the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in the 20th century), and she justifies what might seem like meandering by claiming that 'There is no extricating the story of Muslim women from this larger story: to leave men and the broad political situation out of the picture would leave us with a history...quite unintelligible.' What will make this interesting to a wide readership, however, is Ahmed's coverage of recent U.S. history, where anecdotes and personal experience (she lives in Mass.) abound; she makes a convincing case for how the Bush White House claimed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were partially fought to aid oppressed (i.e. veiled) Muslim women. Ahmed explores many aspects of women and Islam, a discourse that is admirably broad, but her effort lacks a clear thesis and Ahmed the writer, not the academic, seems ill equipped to forge a work of either greater meaning or tighter focus.
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"Around the world past and present, women cover their heads before God and man. That is, they veil. A dispassionate list of veils would include nuns' cowls, saris, lace mantillas for Mass, peasant babushkas, brides' veils, church ladies' Sunday hats, the wigs and headscarves of Orthodox Jews, and the headscarf my mother (middle class, Midwestern, Protestant) threw on in the 1950s when she ran across the street to the corner store. All these forms of veiling refer, religiously or secularly, to the old idea that women have something that should be hidden. Call it modesty, or propriety; but at heart it is about the sexual shame that women incur if they reveal themselves in public. In this regard, culture and tradition may be more decisive than religious belief: my mother wore a scarf because 'ladies' didn't go bareheaded in public, not because the Apostle Paul told women in the early Church to cover." Christine Stansell, The New Republic
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About the Author
Leila Ahmed was the first professor of Women's Studies in Religion at Harvard University and is now the Victor S. Thomas Professor of Divinity at the university's Divinity School. She is the author of Women and Gender in Islam and A Border Passage: From Cairo to America — A Woman's Journey. She lives in Cambridge, MA.