You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Hidden in Plain Sight

AROUND THE WORLD past and present, women cover their heads before God and man. That is, they veil. A dispassionate list of veils would include nuns’ cowls, saris, lace mantillas for Mass, peasant babushkas, brides’ veils, church ladies’ Sunday hats, the wigs and headscarves of Orthodox Jews, and the headscarf my mother (middle class, Midwestern, Protestant) threw on in the 1950s when she ran across the street to the corner store. All these forms of veiling refer, religiously or secularly, to the old idea that women have something that should be hidden. Call it modesty, or propriety; but at heart it is about the sexual shame that women incur if they reveal themselves in public. In this regard, culture and tradition may be more decisive than religious belief: my mother wore a scarf because “ladies” didn’t go bareheaded in public, not because the Apostle Paul told women in the early Church to cover.

But despite all that these many veils share, there is only one kind of veil that is widely seen as a barbaric imposition, and that is the Muslim veil. From the late nineteenth century onward, Westerners defined covering as the sine qua non of women’s degradation under the yoke of Islam. Denunciations of veiling were a set piece of colonialist discourse, along with polygamy in Africa, widow-burning in India, and bound feet in China: evils to be extirpated in the name of a modernity which, even if it did not grant women equality, defined Western men as respectful and protective of women of all races. The swaggering British called for emancipating Muslim women from the veil even as they fought the women’s rights movement in Britain.

Leila Ahmed’s book proceeds from this colonial moment, tracing the history of veiling and unveiling in Egypt, which is where she grew up, and then looking at the veil’s resurgence in the Old and New worlds. The book has two parts. The first and longest is a history of Islamism in Egypt since the early 1900s, which Ahmed wants to portray as an admirable genealogy of progressive anti-colonialism. The second and by far the more persuasive and original part, is an account of immigrant Islamist politics in the United States since September 11. It is here that the book comes alive, and the eminent feminist scholar becomes disentangled from academic anti-imperialism.

Ahmed begins by tracing the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and its leading ideologue, Sayyid Qutb, Wahhabism, and the currents of Egyptian nationalism. It is by now not an unfamiliar chronicle. Although it broaches explosive questions, Ahmed’s account is so placid that you would think she is writing about Quakers. She is so intent on presenting a kinder, gentler Islamism as a precursor to the American scene that she accepts the movement’s own representations of itself as the only truths worth telling. She pushes all points on the Islamist  spectrum into a moderate center devoted to kindly social service. There is virtually no treatment of anti-Semitism, sacred violence, bloody jihad, and tolerance for the murder of non-believers and Muslims alike.  

American feminists have no problem seeing fundamentalist Christianity as a broad-based movement that harbors lethal views at the edges, but they will bend over backwards to avoid criticisms of radical Islam, even at its most hateful and murderous. The only violence that matters in the book is American violence. The Brotherhood’s slaughter of Sadat and eleven other high-ranking officials, an attack which wounded twenty-eight, comes off here as an unfortunate but righteous act. Azar Nafisi’s lovely middlebrow bestseller Reading Lolita in Teheran is slammed as a capitulation to American warmongering, while the devastation wreaked by the regime Nafisi denounces goes unmentioned. Ahmed reserves her indignation for American thugs who after September 11 ripped headscarves off American women. There is a problem here.

Certainly the emphasis on “male” politics is right.It is to the book’s credit that it insists on understanding veiling in a broad context, and not simply as a woman’s issue. But feminism sometimes disappears altogether. This is because Ahmed wishes to trap her theme between the poles of Western oppression on the one hand and, on the other, those anti-imperial resistance movements that made veiling into an emblem. But the historical reality is not so simple. Colonialists certainly made anti-veiling a pawn, but so did their opponents, foisting off the task of maintaining tradition onto women and sneering at their objections as the result of Western feminist ideas.

It is important to point out that in the early twentieth century Middle Eastern leaders, male and female, proposed their own vision of an unveiled East. In the great cities of the region, feminist circles took up the issue of unveiling and modern dress. They championed lighter veils—the half-veil and the headscarf—or no veil at all. Like emancipated women the world over, they wanted dress in which they could move about easily in the world, and an end to the orthodox assumptions that women had something to hide in mixed (or divine) company. Male liberals and modernizers picked up the cause—most famously Kemal Atatürk in Turkey, but also Amanullah, the king of Afghanistan, who, prompted by his wife Queen Soraya, a Beirut-born advocate of women’s rights, called for Afghan women to adapt the Turkish half-veil.  

Ahmed writes off the emancipationist impulses of this first generation to “the desire for things European.” This is a pity, because she certainly grasps the “burning hopes” and longings of young women that drove the great change in dress—the hopes for modern society and a better deal for women that rippled back and forth across national borders. In the name of emancipation, European women were rejecting their “things European” when it came to conventional dress. There is plenty in this book about why women put the veil back on after 1970, but virtually nothing about why women took it off in the preceding half century.   

Growing up in Cairo after World War II, Ahmed was one of the millions of women who took it for granted that they could dress as they pleased. She writes with a touch of wistfulness about a society in which multiple dress codes coexisted. Rural women went about mostly covered, with a head veil and loose full-length gowns, sometimes black, sometimes brightly patterned; her relatives from the provinces wore a scarf plus long sleeves and skirts; and her mother only wore a veil—an opaque black head wrap—for funerals.

The Arab defeat in the war against Israel in 1973, Ahmed writes, propelled women “out of the Age of No Veiling and into the era of hijab and Islamic dress.” Religiosity surged on university campuses, and heavy veils returned. Early on, the Muslim Brotherhood and Saudi agents were rumored to be paying women to wear the veil. But by the 1990s, when the government tried and failed to ban hijab in schools, a practice that was marginal only thirty years earlier was normal for millions.  

It is in the account of immigrant Muslims and Islamism in America today that Ahmed’s rich sympathies for women finally break through. Winding in and out of her interest in the veil’s resurgence in the United States is a discerning account of feminists, veiled and unveiled, and their creation of what she sees as a new space within American Islam. After September 11, Ahmed began attending Muslim American conventions, where she found Islamist views modified into identity politics and a species of religious liberalism. “The veil, widely viewed as the emblem of Islamic patriarchy and oppression, had come now to signal a call for gender justice (of all things) and a call for equality for minorities”—by which she means the Muslim minority—and a call for social justice. A younger generation presses on the old leadership to relax the rules and make veiling voluntary and gender mixing permissible.

In delicate passages, Ahmed ventures her own longings for a larger space for women within the faith—for free-spirited inquiry and discussion and a return to the rational interpretation and scrutiny of holy texts. Ahmed finds a distinctly American Islam where women are playing an unprecedented role and gender inequality is often discussed. It is, she declares, “a new moment in history—in the history of Islam as well as of America.” Not only Muslims but also Islamic authorities have been forced by the pressures of the moment to listen, when before September 11 they would have ejected dissenters. She describes tensions between old and young, men and women, feminists and religious conservatives—all working, she says, to create a public space for discussion of Islam that is unprecedented. It is a lovely portrait, and its optimism is hard to dislike, but it leaves out the politics of the Middle East.

I kept wondering how different this book would be if Ahmed had written it after the events of this spring in Tahrir Square. A New Yorker dispatch from Cairo in March described the eighty-year-old dissident Nawal El Saadawi, a longtime voice for radical change in the treatment of Muslim women, marveling that she did not object to a woman in a niqab joining a feminist meeting in her apartment. “I used not to look at women in the niqab,” she explained. “That changed in Tahrir.” Right now Egyptian women have bigger fish to fry—such as language in the constitution implying that the president must be male. And this tells us something about the relative importance of veiling in a democratic context—in contrast to the over-the-top face-covering ban in France. Given the troubles of women everywhere, including the Middle East, you could argue that veiling is the least of anyone’s problems.

Christine Stansell is Stein-Freiler Distinguished Service Professor of History at the University of Chicago. Her most recent book is The Feminist Promise 1792 to the Present (Random House).