Veil of Ignorance

Have we gotten the headscarf all wrong?

Karim Sahib/AFP/Getty Images
Karim Sahib/AFP/Getty Images

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." Pointing out that veiling was a fast-disappearing practice in most Arab societies, Hourani gave a brief history of how it was fading from modern society — and why it would soon become a thing of the past.

The trend to unveil, Hourani wrote, had begun in Egypt in the early 20th century, set in motion by the writer Qasim Amin. Amin had argued that "gradual and careful change in the status of women," including women’s casting off their veils, was now an essential step in the advancement of Muslim societies — and "not contrary to the principles of Islam." Although Amin’s ideas had been met with great resistance, Hourani recounted how they gradually gained acceptance and spread among the "more advanced Arab countries," first in Egypt and then "Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq."

By the 1950s, when Hourani was writing, the veil had virtually disappeared in Egypt, except among the "lower middle class, the most conservative of all classes," he noted. It was only in the Arab world’s "most backward regions," and specifically Saudi Arabia and Yemen, that the "old order" — and along with it such practices as veiling and polygamy — "still persists unaltered."

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?

Until recently, I thought, as Hourani did, that the disappearance of the veil was inevitable; I was sure that greater education and opportunity for women in the Muslim world would result in the elimination of this relic of women’s oppression. For decades, in books, op-eds, and lectures, I stood firmly and unquestioningly against the veil and the hijab, the Islamic headscarf, viewing them as signs of women’s disempowerment. To me, and to my fellow Arab feminists, being told what to wear was just another form of tyranny. But in the course of researching and writing a new book on the history of the veil’s improbable comeback, I’ve had to radically rethink my assumptions. Where I once saw the veil as a symbol of intolerance, I now understand that for many women, it is a badge of individuality and justice.

That was not always the case. Not long after I moved to Cambridge, Mass., in 1998, I recall walking past Cambridge Common with a friend who was visiting from the Arab world — a well-known feminist whom I will call Aisha. We were shocked to find a large crowd there, the women all in hijab. It was an arresting, unusual sight — and one that made both of us instinctively uncomfortable.

"To them," Aisha said as we stood observing the scene, "we are the enemy."

For Aisha and me, the hijab’s presence meant not piety — for we knew many women who were deeply devout yet never wore hijab — but Islamism, the very political form of Islam that had been gaining ground in Muslim societies since the Islamic resurgence of the 1970s, a religious revival fueled significantly by the activities of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. So for me the sight of women in hijab in America was a disturbing one.

I left Egypt in the late 1960s, by which time the Muslim Brotherhood had almost disappeared, many members having gone into hiding or fled the country because of the Nasser regime’s systematic attempt to eradicate the group. In the late 1960s hardly anyone in such cities as Cairo and Alexandria wore hijab.

But by the 1990s that had all changed. The Islamic resurgence had made extraordinary gains across Egyptian society even as escalating militant Islamist violence was shaking the country in a growing atmosphere of intellectual repression. In 1992, Farag Foda, a well-known journalist and critic of Islamism, was murdered. The following year, Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, then a professor at Cairo University, was accused of being an apostate; he was later forced to flee the country with his wife. In 1994, Naguib Mahfouz, the Egyptian novelist and Nobel laureate, was stabbed by an Islamist who claimed to be outraged by his blasphemous works. It all seemed a shocking gauge of Egypt’s drastic descent into intolerance, and for me it was very much connected to the spread of Islamism and its signature dress, the hijab.

All of this, then, was instantly brought to mind by seeing the hijab in Cambridge. Was some kind of extremist, militant Islam taking root in the West? Was that what the presence of the hijab signified? Could the Muslim Brotherhood have somehow managed to establish a foothold here and in other Western countries? Where were these young women getting their ideas? And because they lived in a free country where it was quite ordinary for women to challenge patriarchal ideas, why did they feel bound to accept whatever it was that they were being told?

My reading of that scene on the Cambridge street turned out to be accurate in that Islamism has now become a powerful influence in America, and yet it was also a misreading — as I would discover in listening to women who chose to wear the veil. My very first interviews began to unsettle my assumptions. "I wear it for the same reason as my Jewish friend wears a yarmulke," said one woman; the hijab, she said, was required dress that made visible the presence of a religious minority entitled to justice and equality. Another said she hoped her hijab would raise other women’s awareness of society’s sexist messages about women’s bodies and dress. For many others, wearing the hijab was a way of rejecting negative stereotypes and affirming pride in Muslim identity in the face of prejudice.

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.

Indeed, I found that for all the alarmism sparked by episodes like the uproar over the building of a Muslim community center near New York’s Ground Zero, the West is exerting far more influence on Islam than the other way around. Especially after the 9/11 attacks, religiously committed Muslim American women were spurred into active engagement with Islam and women’s rights, propelled to action by the heightened scrutiny of their religion and community. The result, somewhat surprisingly, is that Islamic feminism is alive and well in America. And it is Islamists and the children of Islamists — the very people whose presence in the United States had initially alarmed me — who are now in the vanguard of the struggle for women’s rights in Islam.

I would never claim, of course, not to have heard chauvinistic views expressed among Muslim groups in the United States. But such voices have been drowned out by women like Khadija Haffajee and Ingrid Mattson, the first women to play leading roles in a key North American Muslim group, or Laleh Bakhtiar, whose recent translation of the Quran offers a new and radically different interpretation of one of its key verses regarding women.

These are just the first stirrings of a new era in the story of Islam in the West. Historically, religions undergo enormous transformations as one strain of belief and practice gains ascendancy over another. Living religions are by definition dynamic: Witness the changes that have occurred in the last decades as women have become pastors and rabbis. A similar process is now under way within Islam, as the veil, once an emblem of patriarchy, today carries multiple meanings for its American and European wearers. Often enough, it also serves as a banner and call for justice — and yes, even for women’s rights.

Leila Ahmed is Victor S. Thomas professor at Harvard Divinity School and author of A Quiet Revolution: The Veil's Resurgence, from the Middle East to America.