Reinventing the veil

I grew up in Cairo, Egypt. Through the decades of my childhood and youth – the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s – the veil was a rarity not only at home but in many Arab and Muslim-majority cities. In fact, when Albert Hourani, the Oxford historian, surveyed the Arab world in the mid-1950s, he predicted that the veil would soon be a thing of the past.

Hourani’s prophecy, made in an article called The Vanishing Veil: A Challenge to the Old Order, would prove spectacularly wrong, but his piece is nevertheless a gem because it so perfectly captures the ethos of that era. Already the veil was becoming less and less common in my own country, and, as Hourani explains, it was fast disappearing in other “advanced Arab countries”, such as Syria, Iraq and Jordan as well. An unveiling movement had begun to sweep across the Arab world, gaining momentum with the spread of education.

In those days, we shared all of Hourani’s views and assumptions, including the connections he made between unveiling, “advancement” and education (and between veiling and “backwardness”). We believed the veil was merely a cultural habit, of no relevance to Islam or to religious piety. Even deeply devout women did not wear a hijab. Being unveiled simply seemed the modern “advanced” way of being Muslim.

Consequently the veil’s steady “return” from the mid-1980s, and its growing adoption, disturbed us. It was very troubling for people like me who had been working for years as feminists on women and Islam. Why would educated women, particularly those living in free western societies where they could dress as they wished, be willing (apparently) to take on this symbol of patriarchy and women’s oppression?

The appearance of the hijab in my own neighbourhood of Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the late 1990s was the trigger that launched my own studies into the phenomenon. I well remember the very evening that generated that spark. While I was walking past the common with a friend, a well-known feminist who was visiting from the Arab world, we saw a large crowd with all the women in hijab. At the time, this was still an unusual sight and, frankly, it left us both with distinct misgivings.

While troubling on feminist grounds, the veil’s return also disturbed me in other ways. Having settled in the US, I had watched from afar through the 1980s and 1990s as cities back home that I had known as places where scarcely anyone wore hijab were steadily transformed into streets where the vast majority of women now wore it.

This visually dramatic revolution in women’s dress changed, to my eyes, the very look and atmosphere of those cities. It had come about as a result of the spread of Islamism in the 1970s, a very political form of Islam that was worlds away from the deeply inward, apolitical form that had been common in Egypt in my day. Fuelled by the Muslim Brotherhood, the spread of Islamism always brought its signature emblem: the hijab.

Those same decades were marked in Egypt by rising levels of violence and intellectual repression. In 1992, Farag Foda, a well-known journalist and critic of Islamism, was gunned down. Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, a professor at Cairo University, was brought to trial on grounds of apostasy and had to flee the country. Soon after, Naguib Mahfouz, the Egyptian novelist and Nobel Laureate, was stabbed by an Islamist who considered his books blasphemous. Such events seemed a shocking measure of the country’s descent into intolerance.

The sight of the hijab on the streets of America brought all this to mind. Was its growing presence a sign that Islamic militancy was on the rise here too? Where were these young women (it was young women in particular who wore it) getting their ideas? And why were they accepting whatever it was they were being told, in this country where it was entirely normal to challenge patriarchal ideas? Could the Muslim Brotherhood have somehow succeeded in gaining a foothold here?

My instinctive readings of the Cambridge scene proved correct in some ways. The Brotherhood, as well as other Islamist groups, had indeed established a base in America. While most immigrants were not Islamists, those who were quickly set about founding mosques and other organisations. Many immigrants who grew up as I did, without veils, sent their children to Islamic Sunday schools where they imbibed the Islamist outlook – including the hijab.

The veiled are always the most visible, but today Islamist-influenced people make up no more than 30 to 40 per cent of American Muslims. This is also roughly the percentage of women who veil as opposed to those who do not. This means of course that the majority of Muslim American women do not wear the veil, whether because they are secular or because they see it as an emblem of Islamism rather than Islam.

My research may have confirmed some initial fears, but it also challenged my assumptions. As I studied the process by which women had been persuaded to veil in Egypt in the first place, I came to see how essential women themselves had been in its promotion and the cause of Islamism. Among the most important was Zainab al-Ghazali, the “unsung mother” of the Muslim Brotherhood and a forceful activist who had helped keep the organisation going after the death of its founder.

For these women, adopting hijab could be advantageous. Joining Islamist groups and changing dress sometimes empowered them in relation to their parents; it also expanded job and marriage possibilities. Also, since the veil advertised women’s commitment to conservative sexual mores, wearing it paradoxically increased their ability to move freely in public space – allowing them to take jobs in offices shared with men.

My assumptions about the veil’s patriarchal meanings began to unravel in the first interviews I conducted. One woman explained that she wore it as a way of raising consciousness about the sexist messages of our society. (This reminded me of the bra-burning days in America when some women refused to shave their legs in a similar protest.) Another wore the hijab for the same reason that one of her Jewish friends wore a yarmulke: this was religiously required dress that made visible the presence of a minority who were entitled, like all citizens, to justice and equality. For many others, wearing hijab was a way of affirming pride and rejecting negative stereotypes (like the Afros that flourished in the 1960s among African-Americans).

Both Islamist and American ideals – including American ideals of gender justice – seamlessly interweave in the lives of many of this younger generation. This has been a truly remarkable decade as regards Muslim women’s activism. Perhaps the post-9/11 atmosphere in the west, which led to intense criticism of Islam and its views of women, spurred Muslim Americans into corrective action. Women are reinterpreting key religious texts, including the Koran, and they have now taken on positions of leadership in Muslim American institutions: Ingrid Mattson, for example, was twice elected president of the Islamic Society of North America. Such female leadership is unprecedented in the home countries: even al-Ghazali, vital as she was to the Brotherhood, never formally presided over an organisation which included men.

Many of these women – although not all – wear hijab. Clearly here in the west, where women are free to wear what they want, the veil can have multiple meanings. These are typically a far cry from the old notions which I grew up with, and profoundly different from the veil’s ancient patriarchal meanings, which are still in full force in some countries. Here in the west – embedded in the context of democracy, pluralism and a commitment to gender justice – women’s hijabs can have meanings that they could not possibly have in countries which do not even subscribe to the idea of equality.

But things are changing here as well. Interestingly, the issue of hijab and whether it is religiously required or not is now coming under scrutiny among women who grew up wearing it. Some are re-reading old texts and concluding that the veil is irrelevant to Islamic piety. They cast it off even as they remain committed Muslims.

It is too soon to tell whether this development, emerging most particularly among intellectual women who once wore hijab, will gather force and become a new unveiling movement for the 21st century: one that repeats, on other continents and in completely new ways, the unveiling movement of the early 20th century. Still, in a time when a number of countries have tried banning the hijab and when typically such rules have backfired, it is worth noting that here in America, where there are no such bans, a new movement may be quietly getting under way, a movement led this time by committed Muslim women who once wore hijab and who, often after much thought and study, have taken the decision to set it aside.

Occasionally now, although less so than in the past, I find myself nostalgic for the Islam of my childhood and youth, an Islam without veils and far removed from politics. An Islam which people seemed to follow not in the prescribed, regimented ways of today but rather according to their own inner sense, and their own particular temperaments, inclinations and the shifting vicissitudes of their lives.

I think my occasional yearning for that now bygone world has abated (not that it is entirely gone) for a number of reasons. As I followed, a little like a detective, the extraordinary twists and turns of history that brought about this entirely unpredicted and unlikely “return” of the veil, I found the story itself so absorbing that I seemed to forget my nostalgia. I also lost the vague sense of annoyance, almost of affront, that I’d had over the years at how history had, seemingly so casually, set aside the entirely reasonable hopes and possibilities of that brighter and now vanished era.

In the process I came to see clearly what I had long known abstractly: that living religions are by definition dynamic. Witness the fact that today we have women priests and rabbis – something unheard of just decades ago. As I followed the shifting history of the veil – a history which had reversed directions twice in one century – I realised that I had lived through one of the great sea changes now overtaking Islam. My own assumptions and the very ground they stood on had been fundamentally challenged. It now seems absurd that we once labelled people who veiled “backward” and those who did not “advanced”, and that we thought that it was perfectly fine and reasonable to do so. Seeing one’s own life from a new perspective can be unsettling, of course – but it is also quite bracing, and even rather exciting.

Leila Ahmed is the Victor S. Thomas professor of divinity at the Harvard Divinity School. Her new book, ‘A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence, from the Middle East to America’ (Yale University Press), will be published on May 26.

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