Veil lifted on a potent symbol
A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence from the Middle East to America
WHEN Leila Ahmed was growing up in the 1940s and 50s, the veil was disappearing from Cairo’s streets. The women of her family went about bareheaded: the only time she saw her mother veiled was for formal religious occasions such as funerals. What’s more, women who did cover their heads were making a variety of fashion and theological statements rather than unthinkingly following tradition.
In The Quiet Revolution, Ahmed, now a professor of divinity at Harvard, traces the phenomenon through the often competing influences of international and national politics, feminism and Islamism.
At the end of the 19th century, wearing a veil was common among all women who lived in Egypt — Christians and Jews as well as Muslims — and was considered a cultural rather than a religious practice. It was not until the colonial era that the veil became contested terrain: by the early 20th century, Christians and Jews had all but abandoned the practice, considering it a sign of failure to get in tune with the times. That dissonance was considered to be holding Egypt back in the world and allowing it to be occupied, mostly covertly through a smokescreen of compliant local authority but sometimes openly and violently, by the British for more than 70 years until the 50s.
An influential British consul-general, Lord Cromer, carped at the medieval nature of veiling in Egypt; not that he was a feminist: he was an active member of the movement fighting women’s suffrage at home. Rather, he considered veiling a symbol of broader civilisational corruption. Christianity elevated women, he believed, by making their own sense of propriety the only constraint on their freedom. Islam, by contrast, imprisoned them and, when they had to leave their houses, shrouded them in a form of portable seclusion.
Far more influential than Cromer’s imperialist ravings was a book written in 1897, The Liberation of Women, written by Frencheducated Egyptian lawyer Qasim Amin, who admired all things Western and argued that unveiling should be part of a general ‘‘ catchup’’ of the Muslim world to the more successful West. Nationalists disagreed with him and an internal discussion began, beyond the authority of the colonial power, about the position of women.
The issue would come to a head in Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt after World War II. The sheer enormity of Nazi attitudes to race sped up the fight for decolonisation, though the European powers hung on desperately across the globe: in Vietnam, Malaysia, Kenya, Algeria and other places where total war was waged. In Egypt, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in opposition to the secular socialist government that followed Britain’s ouster would specifically affect attitudes to — and of — women. By the 70s, the veil was roaring back into vogue as a religious and antiWestern symbol.
In contemplating Islamism, we too frequently overlook its history in the confrontation between secular Arab nationalism — enemy of the West down the years through various incarnations in Nasser, the Egyptian co-founder of the non-aligned movement, the By Leila Ahmed Yale University Press, 352pp, $29.95 Baathist Saddam Hussein in Iraq and now Syria’s Alawite ascendancy — and religious traditionalism. The Muslim Brotherhood, though it always had its radical offshoots, usually disowned violence and focused on social welfare and bolstering Muslim pride in a world dominated by Western imperialism and neo-imperialism.
Nasser, who initially had the support of the Muslim Brotherhood, banned it just as the monarchy had before him, when he perceived the threat it posed to his secular brand of socialism and nationalism. Though he was frequently photographed in the mosque, just as American leaders compete to be seen in church, and even delivered key speeches, such as the one that triggered the Suez crisis, from the minbar (the mosque’s pulpit), he oversaw a formal separation of mosque and state that displeased the religious. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood, highly educated and in exile from Nasser’s Egypt, gained influential professional positions in Saudi Arabia, which was rapidly becoming oil-rich and using that wealth to subsidise an Islamic resurgence through the building of mosques and the training of missionaries that fanned out across the Islamic world preaching pan-Islamism over un-Islamic nationalism.
As ever in history, masculine ascendancies write their political programs on the bodies of women. Egyptian women gained the vote in 1956 and by 1962 were being appointed to senior government positions. Going about bareheaded was a powerful symbol of their equality with men.
In 1967, the mood in the Middle East changed after the Arab world’s military defeat by Israel. The Egyptian air force was wiped out in minutes and Egypt lost 12,000 men in that brief conflict. It was the ‘‘ end of Nasserism as a force in the Arab world’’, Ahmed writes. A wave of religiousness swept over Egypt as