Out now in paperback, Leila Ahmed’s A Quiet Revolution investigates the Muslim veil’s recent return. In this exclusive extract Ahmed, one of the world’s foremost authorities on Muslim women, provides a brief history of the ‘unveiling movement’ that began at the end of the 19th century. By drawing our attention to this movement, a movement dominated by Western thinking, Ahmed makes us reconsider the West’s contemporary reactions to the veil’s resurgence.
Extract from Chapter 1 of A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence, from the Middle East to America by Leila Ahmed
In 1956, Albert Hourani, the Oxford historian and best-selling author of The History of the Arabs, published a short article in the UNESCO Courier entitled “The Vanishing Veil a Challenge to the Old Order.” Pointing out that veiling was a fast-disappearing practice inmost Arab societies, Hourani gives a brief history of how and why the practice was disappearing and why, as he believed, veiling would soon become a thing of the past.
The trend to unveil, Hourani explains, had begun in Egypt in the early twentieth century, set in motion by the writer Qasim Amin. Amin had argued in his book The Liberation of Woman that “gradual and careful change in the status of women” was now an essential step in the advancement of Muslim societies. The changes he recommended, which included women’s casting off their veils, were, Amin emphasized, “not contrary to the principles of Islam.” While Amin’s ideas had been met with great resistance, Hourani writes, they gradually gained acceptance and spread first in Egypt and then to the “more advanced Arab countries,” among them “Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq.”
Hourani’s article is illuminating not only for its reporting about veiling in the 1950s but also for what it reveals about the views and assumptions about veiling that were common among intellectuals of the era. Hourani notes that the spread of education had been enormously important to unveiling. Educated women would not accept veiling and seclusion, and educated men, who wanted “their wives to be companions,” were similarly in favor of unveiling. As Hourani observed with respect to the 1950s, “In all except the most backward regions polygamy has practically disappeared and the veil is rapidly going.”
By this decade, Hourani wrote, the veil had virtually disappeared in Egypt, although, he admitted, veiling lingered among the “lowermiddle class, the most conservative of all classes.” Similarly, he reported, the veil was disappearing from most other “advanced” Arab countries. It was only in the Arab world’s “most backward regions,” he continued, and specifically “in the countries of the Arabian peninsula—Saudi Arabia and Yemen,” that the “old order”—and along with it such practices as veiling and polygamy—“still persist[s] unaltered.”
Clearly Hourani’s narrative is grounded in a worldview that assumed that the way forward for Arab societies lay in following the path of progress forged by the West.Within this narrative framework, the way forward for such societies entailed leaving behind their “backward” practices and adopting the “advanced” norms and practices of modernity and theWest.
Today, in our postmodern era, it would be almost unthinkable that an Oxford academic would casually use such terms as “advanced” or “backward” to describe cultural practices, but for Hourani, writing at midcentury and at the height of the modern age, these were simply the terms that were in common use for expressing the assumptions of the day, assumptions that, at midcentury, were in fact common to the dominant classes of both the Middle East and the West. As the British-born son of well-to-do Lebanese Christian parents who had settled in England, Hourani belonged by heritage and location to both groups. A rising young academic at the time he penned those words, Hourani also would be one of the first individuals of Arab heritage—maybe even the very first—to gain acceptance at the professorial level into the elite academic world of Oxbridge.
The notion that the presence or absence of the veil was a mark of the level of advancement or backwardness in a society—a notion that is assumed to be true in Hourani’s text—was an idea that first appeared in Arab societies in the late nineteenth century, in the very book, The Liberation of Woman, that Hourani cites as having launched the unveiling trend in Egypt and other Arab countries. In fact, the entire thesis underpinning Hourani’s assumptions in “The Vanishing Veil”—that Muslim societies are to be counted as advanced or backward by the extent to which they have abandoned their native practices, symbolized by the veil, in emulation of those of the West—is exactly the thesis that Amin puts forward in Liberation of Woman.
Amin’s text is grounded in the idea of the self-evident and comprehensive superiority of Europe and its societies and civilization. This idea is present not simply as the implied and underlying framework (as in Hourani’s text), but as the book’s explicit thesis. It is this thesis, in fact, that forms the basis of Amin’s argument for abandoning veiling and changing the status of women in Islam.
Amin’s admiration for European civilization and Europeanman is evident throughout his book, as is his dislike and even contempt for native ways. Arguing, for example, for the unveiling of Muslim women, Amin asserts that veiling had once been practiced in European societies, too, but as they had advanced they had left the practice behind. “Do Egyptians imagine,” Amin continues,
that the men of Europe, who have attained such completeness of intellect and feeling that they were able to discover the force of steam and electricity… these souls that daily risk their lives in the pursuit of knowledge and honor above the pleasures of life… these intellects and these souls that we so much admire, could possibly fail to know the means of safeguarding woman and preserving her purity? Do they think that such a people would have abandoned veiling after it had been in use among them if they had seen any good in it?
Praising European civilization as one that had “advanced with the speed of steam and electricity” to conquer “every part of the globe,” Amin notes admiringly that wherever European man goes “he takes control of its resources… and turns them into profit… and if he does harm to the original inhabitants, it is only that he pursues happiness in this world and seeks it wherever he may find it.” When the European colonizers encountered “savages,” Amin writes, “they eliminate them or drive them from the land, as happened in America… and is happening now in Africa…When they encounter a nation like ours, with a degree of civilization, with a past, and a religion… and customs and… institutions… they deal with the inhabitants kindly. But they do soon acquire its most valuable resources, because they have greater wealth and intellect and knowledge and force.”
It was from within this framework of understanding—a framework that obviously saw European civilization as representing the pinnacle of human achievement in the hierarchy of civilizations—that Amin set forth his argument that Muslim societies urgently needed to pursue reforms that would enable them to emulate Europe and follow in its footsteps.
Among the most important of these essential reforms, Amin went on to argue, were changing the status of Muslim women and abandoning the practice of veiling. For what Muslim society needed above all, Amin insisted, was a profound transformation—not simply of outward practices, such as veiling, but of the very character of itsmen. “The grown man,” Amin explained, “is none other than his mother shaped him in childhood.” This fact, Amin stressed, was the very “essence” of his call for the liberation of women. For, he wrote, “It is impossible to breed successful men if they do not have mothers capable of raising them to be successful ”.
The publication of Amin’s book would provoke a furor in the press in Egypt, a furor that would resonate widely elsewhere in the Muslim world. In addition, The Liberation of Woman (Tahrir al-Mar’a) would come to be seen, as it is in Hourani’s article, as having introduced important new ideas, ideas that marked the beginning of the spread of unveiling and, along with it, the advancement of women across the Arab Middle East. In fact, the current of unveiling was already under way at a grass-roots level among women who were themselves carrying the movement forward.
Certainly, though, the publication of Amin’s book was an important event, introducing novel and provocative ideas to the world of Arabic debate and letters. Most importantly and influentially, the book brought together two quite different strands of thought, both of which were in wide currency at the time—but in different societies.
One noteworthy fact about the unveiling movement is how it originated not in pre-colonialist Middle Eastern notions of the meaning of the veil, notions rooted in Islamic, Christian, and Jewish local meanings, but rather in Western nineteenth-century ideas about the veil’s meaning.
With the rise of the West to global dominance, Western views of the world would come to supersede local meanings in a vast range of matters, including the veil. For even in such countries as Turkey, which never experienced direct colonial domination but which was nonetheless powerfully affected by the spread of Western ideas, the local meanings of the veil came to be superseded by Westerners’ view of the veil as a sign of the inferiority of Islam and Muslim societies and peoples, as well as of Islam’s “degradation” of women.
This, one could say, was at root the reason that Amin advocated the casting off of the veil in Egypt in 1899: to erase from Egypt and Islam this blot of inferiority. Similarly, it was in order to eradicate this sign of inferiority from his society that Kamal Ataturk, the leader and modernizer of Turkey, would declare in a speech in 1925: “In some places I have seen women who put a piece of cloth or a towel or something like that over their heads to hide their faces, and who turn their backs or huddle themselves on the ground when a man passes by. What is the meaning and sense of this behaviour?” Ataturk went on, “Gentlemen, can the mothers and daughters of a civilized nation adopt this strange manner, this barbarous posture? It is a spectacle that makes the nation an object of ridicule. It must be remedied at once.” By this time such opinions were becoming the norm among the middle and upper classes in theMuslim world. In the 1930s the shah of Iran banned the veil, and police were required to remove it from women who did not comply.
In much of the Arab world, the process, as Hourani described it, happened gradually and without enforcement. Women in the region (with the exception of the Arabian Peninsula) unveiled through the first half of the twentieth century for a plethora of reasons, among themas expression of their longing for the goods, opportunities, and amenities of modernity. All of these meanings, along with others, were simultaneously present and in the air in that era.
But it is noteworthy that the process of unveiling occurred initially because the Western meaning of the veil—as a sign of the inferiority of Islamas religion, culture, and civilization—trumped and came to profoundly overlay the veil’s prior indigenous meanings (common to all three monotheistic religions in the region) of proper and God-given gender hierarchy and separation.
Leila Ahmed was the first professor of Women’s Studies in Religion at Harvard University and is now the Victor S. Thomas Professor of Divinity at the university’s Divinity School. She is also the author of Women and Gender in Islam and A Border Passage: From Cairo to America – A Woman’s Journey.
A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence, from the Middle East to America is available now from Yale University Press.