Veil of Ignorance

Have we gotten the headscarf all wrong?

My very first interviews began to unsettle my assumptions. “I wear it for the same reason as my Jewish friend wears a yarmulke,” said one woman; the hijab, she said, was required dress that made visible the presence of a religious minority entitled to justice and equality. Another said she hoped her hijab would raise other women’s awareness of society’s sexist messages about women’s bodies and dress. For many others, wearing the hijab was a way of rejecting negative stereotypes and affirming pride in Muslim identity in the face of prejudice.

Clearly, these women have a very different view of the veil here in the West, where they are free to wear whatever they want, than the old notion of the veil with which I grew up, fraught with ancient patriarchal meanings as it was and still is in societies where it is required by law or through ferocious social pressure. Listening to such women, I found it startling and moving to see how the Islamist emphasis on social justice had been transplanted to a democratic, pluralist society committed to gender equality and justice for all. This was certainly not an interpretation of the veil I had heard before, and it reflected a different Islam from the one of my childhood as well.

Indeed, I found that for all the alarmism sparked by episodes like the uproar over the building of a Muslim community center near New York’s Ground Zero, the West is exerting far more influence on Islam than the other way around. Especially after the 9/11 attacks, religiously committed Muslim American women were spurred into active engagement with Islam and women’s rights, propelled to action by the heightened scrutiny of their religion and community. The result, somewhat surprisingly, is that Islamic feminism is alive and well in America. And it is Islamists and the children of Islamists — the very people whose presence in the United States had initially alarmed me — who are now in the vanguard of the struggle for women’s rights in Islam.

I would never claim, of course, not to have heard chauvinistic views expressed among Muslim groups in the United States. But such voices have been drowned out by women like Khadija Haffajee and Ingrid Mattson, the first women to play leading roles in a key North American Muslim group, or Laleh Bakhtiar, whose recent translation of the Quran offers a new and radically different interpretation of one of its key verses regarding women.

These are just the first stirrings of a new era in the story of Islam in the West. Historically, religions undergo enormous transformations as one strain of belief and practice gains ascendancy over another. Living religions are by definition dynamic: Witness the changes that have occurred in the last decades as women have become pastors and rabbis. A similar process is now under way within Islam, as the veil, once an emblem of patriarchy today carries multiple meanings for its American and European wearers. Often enough, it also serves as a banner and call for justice — and yes, even for women’s rights.

Leila Ahmed

Foreign Policy

Leila Ahmed is Victor S. Thomas professor at Harvard Divinity School and author of A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence, from the Middle East to America.



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