Leila Ahmed is one of the world’s foremost authorities on Muslim women. Her new book A Quiet Revolution (published this month) is a probing study of the Muslim veil’s recent return that reaches surprising conclusions about contemporary Islam’s place in the West today. This week Leila Ahmed is visiting the UK to promote the book.
If the recent ban of the Muslim burqa in France has taught us anything, it is that Western countries are still unsure how to handle the resurgence of the veil. As a result, a binary argument has arisen, fuelled mainly by the media, who offer a series of competing narratives on this issue. Those that support a ban include women’s rights campaigners and conservatives concerned about security; those opposing it include advocates of religious freedom and egalitarian liberals. It seems that disparate sections of society normally at odds with each other are finding themselves on the same side of this debate, whilst those that normally see eye-to-eye are finding themsevles opposed. The problem is that the mainstream view of the veil (whether it be full burqa or otherwise) is still one of inherent suspicion. In her book A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence, from the Middle East to America Leila Ahmed seeks to provide some much-needed historical and political context, as well as an alternative view on the veil’s role within Islamic culture.
Leila Ahmed was raised in 1940s Cairo 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. The aim of Ahmed’s book is to question why this change took root so swiftly, and what it 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. Ahmed discovered that 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. As a result A Quiet Revolution is insightful, intricately drawn, and passionately argued, telling an absorbing story of the veil’s resurgence, from Egypt through Saudi Arabia and into the West. Contrary to much of the contemporary writing on this topic, Leila Ahmed’s work suggests a dramatic new portrait of contemporary Islam.
Leila Ahmed’s UK visit
This week Leila Ahmed is visiting the UK to promote the publication of A Quiet Revolution. You can listen to her speak at the following events and interviews:
Wednesday 25 May
Leila will be talking to the Iranian writer Azadeh Moaveni at the Frontline Club tonight
Friday 27 May
Interview with Jenni Murray for BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour