REVIEWS

Leila Ahmed
A Quiet Revolution: The Veil's Resurgence, from the Middle East to America
New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011 (ISBN 978-0-300-181432)
Reviewed by M. Christian Green, 2017
Included in the Contested Terrains: Women of Color and Third World Women, Feminisms, and Geopolitics Special Issue, edited by Ranjoo Herr and Shelley Park

Leila Ahmed's book, A Quiet Revolution, is an important and compelling historical and cross-cultural study of the rise of contemporary Islamism and Muslim women wearing the veil. The veil has received wide attention in politics, law, sociology, religious studies, and other fields in recent years. A Quiet Revolution joins Katherine Bullock's Rethinking Muslim Women and the Veil, Saba Mahmood's Politics of Piety, and Joan Wallach Scott's Politics of the Veil as a book worth consulting to understand issues related to the veil and Muslim women in modernity (Bullock 2002; Mahmood 2005; Scott 2007). In the field of feminist philosophy, the veil and the right of women to wear it were notably defended by philosopher Martha Nussbaum in a widely read New York Times editorial published in 2010 just days before France passed its "burqa ban" (Nussbaum 2010)--most recently exemplified in the "burkini ban" enforced on French beaches in the summer of 2016. Nussbaum has also recently written on the veil and related issues in The New Religious Intolerance (Nussbaum 2012). The meaning and implications of the veil remain an important concern for feminist philosophy.

Amid this literature on Muslim women and the veil, Ahmed's main contribution is to provide a nicely layered, personal, historical, and ethnographic study of social and political transformations of the meaning and significance of the veil in Egypt, and, more recently, in the United States, that lends itself to comparative study of the veil around the Muslim world. As a bonus, the reader gets an excellent account of the recent political history of Egypt, a locale that continues to be as much a site for the negotiation of gender advancement as it was in the time of Hypatia herself!

Ahmed takes up the topic from the perspective of her long and bicultural experience as an Egyptian by birth and a leading American scholar of women and feminism in the Muslim world. Her account plays on the tensions between her memories from Egyptian girlhood at a time in which the veil had a highly political meaning, and was known for being worn "only by women of the Muslim Brotherhood" (3), to the present, particularly in America, in which the veil can indicate piety or Islamism. She notes that by the late 1990s--well before current concerns about Islamist terrorism and Muslim immigrant assimilation--"events were fueling my sense of wariness and unease with respect to the hijab's spread" in Egyptian society, particularly the veil's correlation with an "escalating number of acts of militant Islamic violence [that] were occurring in the country in a growing atmosphere of intellectual repression" (4). A number of "possibilities, fears, and questions" are raised, Ahmed observes, "by the sign of this distinctively modern-looking hijab" (5).

The hijab, of course, refers to the open-face veil worn over the head and sometimes upper body by some Muslim women--followers of veil controversies in recent years have become well-acquainted with the taxonomy of the myriad styles and practices of veiling. For Ahmed, the veil raises questions that are historical and sociological, but also spiritual, political, and philosophical. She asks of the recent trend toward veiling, especially in Western Muslim communities:

What history was this that I was living through and witness to? Was some kind of extremist, militant Islam taking root in the West, including the United States?. . . Where were these young women getting their ideas that they should wear hijab? And, most intriguingly, since they lived in a free country where it was quite ordinary for women to challenge patriarchal ideas, why on earth did they feel bound to accept whatever it was they were being told? (5)

Visits to certain Muslim mosques and institutions prompted further questions: "What kind of Islam was this, exactly, that was gaining ground here, and how had it gained institutional dominance? And how would it evolve and develop in American society? Would it move toward blending and accommodation, or were we heading toward clash and confusion?" (7).

But against this institutional backdrop of rising Islamism in Egyptian society and in the American Muslim community, women who wear the veil articulate other motivations of a distinctly feminist and justice-seeking nature. These women report wearing the veil to call for "gender justice" and "justice for minorities," or as one woman put it, as "a way of openly identifying with a group that people have prejudices about and as a way of saying 'yes, we're here, and we have the right to be here and to be treated equally'" (8). These rationales prompt Ahmed to ask further: "By what means . . . had this emblem supposedly of Islamic patriarchy and oppression of women emerged today in America as an emblem of a call for justice, and even for gender-justice, no less?" (8).

The first part of the book tracks the veil's emergence, resurgence, and migration in Egypt and America--a process that includes both Islamist rationales and more personal ones. The second part of the book, focused on twenty-first-century American Muslims, asks: "How would Islamism adapt to its new democratic environment, and how would it evolve and develop in relationship to women in particular? Or would it perhaps fail to adapt, or even actively resist adapting to its new environment? Were we embarked on a course that would inevitably lead to clash and collision?" (13). From a feminist perspective, Ahmed notes, it is significant that these questions are emerging in a context in which "Islamic feminism in America is more lively today than at any other time in my own lifetime" and coincides with "lively activism that has been taking place among American Muslims around issues of women and gender" (14, 15).

The chapters that comprise the book's lengthy first section are both an effective primer on modern Egyptian history and an account of rising Islamist forces that have coincided with the increased wearing of the veil by women in Egyptian society. Ahmed describes the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century colonial period in Egypt as one in which the "process of unveiling occurred initially because the Western meanings of the veil--as a sign of the inferiority of Islam as religion, culture, and civilization--trumped and came to profoundly overlay the veil's prior indigenous meanings . . . of proper and God-given gender hierarchy and separation" (45). Relevant to today's debates about gender and secularism, Ahmed also observes that there was "no suggestion in that era that women's unveiling signified their rejection of Islam or their secularism . . . [t]he idea that women who did not veil were secular, a common view today, was simply not among the meanings of unveiling in that era" (43).

At the same time, unveiling had its opponents, some of whom seemed to evince feminist rationales and motivations. For instance, Qasim Amin's book, The Liberation of Women, elicited charges from at least one female critic, who argued that Amin was "being as despotic about liberating us as he has been about our enslavement" (Guénif-Souilamas, 2013, 212). Ahmed notes that this argument is redolent today of what some Muslim feminist scholars--for example, Nacira Guénif-Souilamas (2013), Lila Abu-Lughod (2015), and Saba Mahmood (2005)--have described as an "anti-sexist patriarchy" in efforts to "save Muslim women" by liberating them from the veil in neo-imperialistic ways (221-31). Colonial authorities called for unveiling so that women could exercise power as wives and mothers over "the characters of their husbands and sons" (31)--drawing on a Victorian, separate-spheres, maternalistic morality of women as "angels in the house" that was likely similarly at odds with feminist aims.

In the 1970s, however, Ahmed explains, "the veil began to reappear, first among small groups of female university students, and then--taking contemporaries completely by surprise--in society at large" (46). As she describes it, "The entire era of Muslim women going bareheaded was being quietly erased from Muslim memory, and even Muslim history. . .  [T]hat era would be recast as a secular age, a time when women had given up veiling because they were no longer devout or even believing Muslims and had given up on Islam" (47). How this occurred is the subject of several chapters of analysis, but a key point that recurs is how young women of the Muslim Brotherhood movement that was a key force in the rise of Egyptian Islamism, particularly in departments of some of the country's most elite universities, consciously donned the veil to send a distinctly political message. Specifically, Ahmed notes, from the middle- to upper-middle-class social milieu of her own upbringing, "the women of the Muslim Brotherhood seemed to distinctly signal that they were definitely not 'like us' and perhaps were even opposed to 'us' and the Westernizing current that we--the dominant in society--were part of" (49).

These newly veiled Egyptian women of the 1970s were not the country people or conservative lower classes who had been the only ones to wear the veil when Ahmed was growing up. From their perches in the universities, they were women afforded the full array of tools of professional and social advancement. Ahmed cites studies of the period in which these women attested to undergoing "internal transformation" and being separated "physically and intellectually from mainstream society" (79). As Ahmed describes it, "The women's different dress and their observance of required rituals and prescriptions created a sense among them that they constituted a separate community from the broader society. Their dress enabled them to easily recognize each other as members of this separate, special community, a community living dispersed among the mainstream and committed to its own quite different mores, values, and ideals" (79). In this context, the veil served "to reinforce a sense of community and belonging" (82) and also of "erasing social and economic differences between wearers" (83). It was also a distinctly new and modern phenomenon that was "not something observers could easily understand or make sense of," since it was clearly "not a return to a traditional or old fashioned and vaguely familiar form of dress" (84). Denounced by feminists of the time, it nonetheless became the attire of modern and educated women who were "intending to become professionals, not stay-at-home wives" (87).

The veil was also, Ahmed argues, a means toward "resolution of problems" (88), including threats of sexual harassment in public and reconciliation of traditional Muslim women's roles as wives and mothers with work outside the home and professional identity. Ahmed's chapters on the period from the 1970s to the 1990s cite a number of sociological studies in which women reported that the veil brought "inner peace" and led to people treating them with "new respect" (89, see also chapters 5 and 6 for further discussion of these studies of women's motivations). In some determinedly secular societies, such as France, the veil has been described as a means of religious proselytization, particularly in schools and universities (see 146-47). While not showing direct efforts at proselytism, some of the studies that Ahmed cites are suggestive of a certain "representational" effect of the veil. As one proponent put it, connecting the veil to the Islamists da'wa mission of spreading Islamic education, "when you wear the hijab, you're no longer just representing yourself, you're representing Islam" (93).

Along with speculation about whether the veil is an ancient and regressive practice or a modern and progressive one for Muslim women, there is frequent discussion in veil debates of whether Muslim women today wear the veil out of compulsion or choice. These, too, are arguments that Ahmed addresses, mining the sociological studies for data that indicate a high level of control and choice over the decision to wear the veil by the women themselves, but also increased pressure by political Islamism and male leaders as Islamism gained ground (124-26). At the same time, rather than finding a moderating effect in the mainstreaming of Islamism, which could have happened through the compromise with other groups that typifies robust democracy, Ahmed argues that the rise of Islam, in the case of Egypt, led to a "growing atmosphere of repression" (145). This context of repression must also be understood as the context for veil wearing, even though one scholar cited by Ahmed observes that the social vision that many women seem to express in veil wearing "embodies many of the same hopes and aspirations--for freedom from dictatorship and for social justice and public accountability--that have inspired secular movements for democracy elsewhere around the globe" (153). Such aspirations would also be present in the contemporary American Muslim movement and its demographic and institutional growth in the latter half of the twentieth century, with increased immigration and growth among African Americans, before the terrorist attacks of 9/11 would inspire backlash against Muslims in America.

I have concentrated on the first two thirds of Ahmed's book in this review--on the Egyptian diaspora context--mostly out of a sense that American readers may be tempted to skip directly to the American chapters. This would be a mistake, given the rich contextualization that the Egyptian context, poised between East and West and a colonial past and postcolonial modernity, affords to understanding how Islamism and the veil can take hold in particular societies. But the American portion of the book, at times, also seems less fully fleshed out than the Egyptian portions, reading something like an American epilogue or postscript to the Egyptian account. Chapters 10 and 11 seem meant to contain Ahmed's ethnographic analysis of the rise of particular Muslim women's groups in America. It is a topic likely to be of more interest to specialists in the study of those movements than to readers attracted by Ahmed's central trope of the veil for understanding Muslim women's internal and external revolutions.

Notably, in post-9/11 American debates, the veiled Muslim woman would become a key symbol in rationales supporting the "global war on terror," which has so often had the contours of a war on Islam and the Muslim world (see chapters 8 and 9, especially 221-31). In the American context, both constitutional protections of religious freedom and feminist concerns for gender equality and justice would converge to afford a higher level of support for Muslim women wearing the veil in the United States than in many parts of Europe, for example (203ff). As Ahmed reports, in the immediate post-9/11 context, "women and feminists in support of women in hijab--from 'headscarf days' to offers of escort and shopping services, and the holding of candlelight vigils in support of Muslim women--occurred in many communities across the nation" (205).

Support of women's decision to wear the hijab was also high in the summer of 2015, when a young, veiled Muslim woman, Samantha Elauf, prevailed in the United States Supreme Court against the "Look Policy" of clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch, which had denied her a job as a sales associate because of her veil. The need both to "represent" Islam and to show "solidarity" with Muslim women around the world in the face of social and political prejudice looms large in the narratives of American Muslim women today (208-09), along with the importance of "signaling" calls for "justice" and recognition of "differences" in contemporary cultures increasingly premised on both religious pluralism and the centrality of identity (211-13). The point of Ahmed's cross-cultural study of the veil in Egypt and America is to illustrate both the "clear continuities" (210) in meaning, as well as the way in which the veil's meanings are not fixed or "static across histories and societies" (212). It succeeds in this task in ways that can importantly inform feminist contemplations of the veil's meaning and expression of philosophies that are both personal and political, but also contextual and varied in their manifestation as a statement of gender equality and broader religious and political equality and moral agency of women who wear the veil by choice.

 

References

Abu Lughod, Lila. 2015. Do Muslim women need saving? Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bullock, Katherine. 2002. Rethinking Muslim women and the veil: Challenging historical and modern stereotypes. Herndon, Va.: International Institute of Islamic Thought.

Guénif-Souilamas, Nacira. 2013. "On French Religions and Their Renewed Embodiments," in Linell E. Cady and Tracy Fessenden, eds., Religion, the secular, and the politics of sexual difference. New York: Columbia University Press.

Mahmood, Saba. 2005. Politics of piety:  The Islamic revival and the feminist subject. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Nussbaum, Martha C. 2010. Veiled threats? New York Times, July 11. https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/07/11/veiled-threats/?_r=0 (accessed January 23, 2017).

------. 2012. The new religious intolerance: Overcoming the politics of fear in an anxious age. Cambridge, Mass. Harvard University Press.            

Scott, Joan Wallach. 2007. The Politics of the veil. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 

M. Christian Green is a senior editor at the Journal of Law and Religion, based at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University. She is also editor and publications manager for the African Consortium for Law and Religion Studies (ACLARS). She researches and publishes on issues of law, religion, human rights, and global ethics.

"The point of Ahmed's cross-cultural study of the veil in Egypt and America is to illustrate both the 'clear continuities' in meaning, as well as the way in which the veil's meanings are not fixed or 'static across histories and societies.'"