Veil lifted on a po­tent sym­bol

A Quiet Rev­o­lu­tion: The Veil’s Resur­gence from the Mid­dle East to Amer­ica

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books Meadow - Miriam Cosic

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

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