In 1955, Albert Hourani, the Oxford historian and bestselling author of A History of the Arab Peoples, published a short article called "The Vanishing Veil: A Challenge to the Old Order." Pointing out that veiling was a fast-disappearing practice in most Arab societies, Hourani gave a brief history of how it was fading from modern society -- and why it would soon become a thing of the past.
The trend to unveil, Hourani wrote, had begun in Egypt in the early 20th century, set in motion by the writer Qasim Amin. Amin had argued that "gradual and careful change in the status of women," including women's casting off their veils, was now an essential step in the advancement of Muslim societies -- and "not contrary to the principles of Islam." Although Amin's ideas had been met with great resistance, Hourani recounted how they gradually gained acceptance and spread among the "more advanced Arab countries," first in Egypt and then "Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq."
It's Not Just the Veil
By Joshua E. Keating
By the 1950s, when Hourani was writing, the veil had virtually disappeared in Egypt, except among the "lower middle class, the most conservative of all classes," he noted. It was only in the Arab world's "most backward regions," and specifically Saudi Arabia and Yemen, that the "old order" -- and along with it such practices as veiling and polygamy -- "still persists unaltered."
But Hourani's article has proved spectacularly incorrect. Fifty-six years later, we live in a world where veiling among Muslim women, after steadily gaining ground across the globe in the last two decades, is incontrovertibly ascendant. How did we get it so wrong?
Until recently, I thought, as Hourani did, that the disappearance of the veil was inevitable; I was sure that greater education and opportunity for women in the Muslim world would result in the elimination of this relic of women's oppression. For decades, in books, op-eds, and lectures, I stood firmly and unquestioningly against the veil and the hijab, the Islamic headscarf, viewing them as signs of women's disempowerment. To me, and to my fellow Arab feminists, being told what to wear was just another form of tyranny. But in the course of researching and writing a new book on the history of the veil's improbable comeback, I've had to radically rethink my assumptions. Where I once saw the veil as a symbol of intolerance, I now understand that for many women, it is a badge of individuality and justice.
That was not always the case. Not long after I moved to Cambridge, Mass., in 1998, I recall walking past Cambridge Common with a friend who was visiting from the Arab world -- a well-known feminist whom I will call Aisha. We were shocked to find a large crowd there, the women all in hijab. It was an arresting, unusual sight -- and one that made both of us instinctively uncomfortable.
"To them," Aisha said as we stood observing the scene, "we are the enemy."
For Aisha and me, the hijab's presence meant not piety -- for we knew many women who were deeply devout yet never wore hijab -- but Islamism, the very political form of Islam that had been gaining ground in Muslim societies since the Islamic resurgence of the 1970s, a religious revival fueled significantly by the activities of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. So for me the sight of women in hijab in America was a disturbing one.
I left Egypt in the late 1960s, by which time the Muslim Brotherhood had almost disappeared, many members having gone into hiding or fled the country because of the Nasser regime's systematic attempt to eradicate the group. In the late 1960s hardly anyone in such cities as Cairo and Alexandria wore hijab.
But by the 1990s that had all changed. The Islamic resurgence had made extraordinary gains across Egyptian society even as escalating militant Islamist violence was shaking the country in a growing atmosphere of intellectual repression. In 1992, Farag Foda, a well-known journalist and critic of Islamism, was murdered. The following year, Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, then a professor at Cairo University, was accused of being an apostate; he was later forced to flee the country with his wife. In 1994, Naguib Mahfouz, the Egyptian novelist and Nobel laureate, was stabbed by an Islamist who claimed to be outraged by his blasphemous works. It all seemed a shocking gauge of Egypt's drastic descent into intolerance, and for me it was very much connected to the spread of Islamism and its signature dress, the hijab.
All of this, then, was instantly brought to mind by seeing the hijab in Cambridge. Was some kind of extremist, militant Islam taking root in the West? Was that what the presence of the hijab signified? Could the Muslim Brotherhood have somehow managed to establish a foothold here and in other Western countries? Where were these young women getting their ideas? And because they lived in a free country where it was quite ordinary for women to challenge patriarchal ideas, why did they feel bound to accept whatever it was that they were being told?