The Middle East Channel

Veil of ignorance

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 ...

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."

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