Under the veil

not necessarily a story of repression

Professor Leila Ahmed during one of her talks

this post first appeared on the Frontline Club Forum

Few garments have been as discussed as extensively or emotively as the veil, which for many in the West has become a symbol of the repression of Muslim women.

But Harvard Divinity professor Leila Ahmed, who was at the Frontline Club to discuss her recent book A Quiet Revolution: The resurgence of the veil from the Middle East to America put forward a different view of the veil, which she discovered many women in the West who had freedom to choose were opting to wear for their own reasons.

Interviewed by journalist and author Azadeh Moaveni, the women’s studies professor gives in her book an accurate and compelling account of cultural and historical evolution of the unveiling movement at the turn of the 20th century and its recent resurgence.

As a feminist, I was initially very resistant towards the hijab. It took to me 10 years of studies and this book to admit that it is not necessarily a sign of constriction and repression.

In Cairo in the 40s when Ahmed was growing up, it was considered normal for women to go unveiled and it bore little relation to their religious attitude.

In the first part of the book Ahmed explores the origins of the western conception of the Arab dress as a tool of repression. Arching back to late 19th and early 20th century, she explains how colonial officials regarded traditional forms of veiling as a sign of seclusion and “backwardness” of a culture and evidence of the inferiority of Islam to Christianity.

We have to remember that once also Jewish and Christian women wore the veil. It is only now that it is considered as a characteristic sign of Islamic culture and of its conception of the woman. Believe me, if this book were about Christianity and Judaism it wouldn’t have been published.

To investigate the current social and political implication of the veil, Ahmed provides a detailed analysis of the contemporary relationship between America and Islam.

She also argued that the return to the veil both in Western and Arab society is a clear sign of reaction following the 9/11 attacks:

It is undeniable that in many occasions the veil represents a sign of protest and often of liberation. Just think about the many women who wear it in support of the Palestinian cause or against the banning of it by foreign governments.

Bans do not work, said Ahmed, who said there was a remarkable similarity between the language used by 20th century colonialists and French President Nicolas Sarkozy when he said the veil was “a sign of enslavement and debasement”.

Bans make people feel they are being discriminated against as a minority. Let people think for themselves, that is really the most effective approach, rather than a ban.

Asked if women she had talked to were conscious of those women living in countries such as Saudi Arabia where they are unable to go out in public without a covering, Ahmed said that the women she spoke to had been opposed to compulsory wearing of the veil.

In conclusion, Ahmed acknowledged that her suggestion that the veil had been released from its traditional moorings and had taken on a variety of meanings did not apply to those countries where women were not free to choose:

I don’t want to romanticise the hijab. The things I am saying only have meaning where there’s freedom to choose. Women are deciding what the veil means to them but not all women can choose. The freedom to make it mean what you want it to is western.

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