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05 October 2011

BOOK REVIEW: Veil by choice

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The author expresses how she came to accept the veil, which is much more than an assertion of religious identity.

By A.G. Noorani

In 1955, Albert Hourani, the Oxford historian and author of A History of the Arab Peoples, published an article entitled “The Vanishing Veil” on the fast-disappearing practice of veiling among Muslim women in most Arab societies. The trend began in Egypt in the early 20th century and spread among “more advanced Arab countries”, first Egypt and then “Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq”. By 1955, the veil had virtually disappeared in Egypt, except among the “lower middle class, the most conservative of all classes”. It was only in Saudi Arabia and Yemen that veiling and polygamy “still persists unaltered”.

However, veiling has gained ground across the globe in the past two decades and is incontrovertibly in the ascendant. Not long after the author moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1998, she was walking past Cambridge Common with a friend who was visiting from the Arab world – a well-known feminist. They were shocked to find a large crowd of women, all in hijab.

Leila Ahmed, author of the seminal book Women and Gender in Islam, was appointed as the first professor of Women's Studies in Religion at Harvard University and is now the Victor S. Thomas Professor of Divinity at the Harvard Divinity School. She is the recipient of many fellowships, among them a National Humanities Centre Fellowship, a Fellowship at Radcliff's Bunting Institute, the Distinguished Faculty Award of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and a Fellowship at Cambridge University's Clare Hall, where she was also elected to Life Membership. It is important to note her distinction in one of the world's most prestigious universities in order to appreciate why she came to accept the veil which she so ably expresses in this remarkable work. The veil is not a symbol of bondage or repression. It is much more than an assertion of religious identity. It is a personal choice, sometimes made in opposition to the wishes of the family. It represents a call to gender justice.

Veiled Islamists, even more noticeably than secular Muslims, are often found at the forefront of struggles for minority and women's rights. A generation of young Muslim women, whose religious beliefs require them to fight injustice wherever they see it, are leading the charge against discrimination.

In the West, women are free to dress as they wish. The author recalls that “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.”

The book draws on the precepts and practices of American Muslim women such as Professor Aminah Wadud, who leads congregational progress on Fridays in a rented chapel in New York. She is a convert to Islam as is Laleh Bakhtiar whose translation The Sublime Quran created a stir. She holds that “the absence of a woman's point of view for over 1,440 years since the revelation” needed to be changed. “The intention of the Quran is to see man and woman as complements of one another, not as superior-inferior.”

The chapter on “American Muslim Women's Activism in the Twenty-First Century” describes their work in depth and with insight. The book should serve as an eye-opener to those Muslims in India who have set their face against conceding to women the rights that belong to them under Islamic law; no less than to the ones in the West who identify the veil with obscurantism.

(Courtesy: Frontline)

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