Veil of Ignorance

Have we gotten the headscarf all wrong?

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."

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?

My reading of that scene on the Cambridge street turned out to be accurate in that Islamism has now become a powerful influence in America, and yet it was also a misreading -- as I would discover in listening to women who chose to wear the veil. 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.

Karim Sahib/AFP/Getty Images


Bloody Sunday

Scotland prepares to celebrate Easter in traditional fashion -- by participating in a bigoted, sectarian, and violent soccer match.

Easter Sunday: a moment for reverence and piety for Christians the world over. Unless you happen to be in Glasgow that afternoon, which will be home to a passion play of an altogether different, less edifying kind -- one characterized by sectarianism, heavy drinking, hatred, and spittle-flecked bigotry. Yes, it's time again for Celtic and Rangers, Scotland's two biggest soccer clubs, to do battle. And this weekend's fixture is a potentially championship-deciding game that has their city -- and Scotland writ large -- braced for trouble.

Few sporting rivalries are as visceral as that between Glasgow's great clubs. Between them, Celtic and Rangers have won more than 80 percent of Scottish championships; not since 1985 has another club won the title. The uncompetitive nature of the Scottish league -- akin to the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox competing against eight other minor-league clubs -- intensifies the pressures. The four league meetings each season essentially decide the championship's destination. Even so, the revelation this week that letter bombs had been sent to senior figures associated with Celtic Football Club was a depressing commentary on soccer's most depressing rivalry. If most Scots were shocked by this latest outbreak of senseless hatred, few were truly surprised.

At first, police thought the parcel bomb sent to Neil Lennon, manager of Celtic, was a hoax. Further examination revealed that the liquid-based device was "viable" and capable, if exploded, of causing serious harm. Lennon was not the only target. Similar letter bombs were sent to Paul McBride, Lennon's lawyer and one of the most high-profile advocates in Scotland, and Trish Godman, a Labour member of the Scottish Parliament well-known for supporting Celtic.

The assassination attempts -- and let us not be coy about labeling them such -- represent a new low in the long, poisonous rivalry between Scotland's two most popular, most successful clubs. It's a rivalry fueled by history, religion, politics, and identity, a potent brew that ensures that Celtic vs. Rangers always makes any list of great sporting events that must be seen to be believed. The hatred, bigotry, and sectarianism are part of the appeal and much of the problem. 

Even Scots schooled outside Glasgow's divided city shake their heads and wonder, "What's wrong with these people?" Other cities, including Manchester, Liverpool, and Edinburgh, were also once divided along religious and footballing lines. The religious aspect of soccer rivalries faded long ago in England and is now much less significant in Edinburgh than in Glasgow. This spring, Scotland's first minister, Alex Salmond, hosted an emergency summit of the clubs, government, and police to focus attention on the problems caused by fixtures between the two Glaswegian behemoths.

An Old Firm derby (as the match has been known for more than a century) in February was accompanied by 229 arrests. Police figures show that, compared with "ordinary" weekends, violent crime in the west of Scotland, the country's most populous region, leaps by 172 percent and domestic violence by 140 percent when Celtic play Rangers. Soccer-related murders are not unknown either.

The chief constable of Strathclyde Police, Stephen House, warned that the Easter Sunday match may bring even more than the usual trouble-filled festival of hatred. "It's a bank holiday; it is the last meeting of the season -- which is crucial for a result -- and the weather forecast is hot. That means people will be drunk and they will get injured or raped; assaults go up and so does domestic violence," he told the Scottish Sun. His force is deploying an extra 1,000 officers to police the Glasgow metropolitan area on the day of the game.

And such precautions aren't just show; the fixture has had a long and inglorious history. A 1909 Old Firm fixture is often cited as the occasion for the first large-scale soccer riot anywhere in the world: a stand was set alight and to cap it off fans proceeded to pelt firefighters with rocks. The 1980 Scottish Cup final between the two teams was marked by another riot, likened by a television announcer at the time to a scene out of Apocalypse Now. "At the end of the day," he added, "let's not kid ourselves. These supporters hate each other." Every time Celtic and Rangers meet, Glasgow's hospitals are filled with the casualties of soccer-related violence. 

Celtic were founded in 1887 by a member of the Marist international religious order as a sporting vehicle to support charitable work among the Irish immigrants packed into Glasgow's East End. Rangers, founded in 1872 by rowers seeking a sport to play in winter, at that stage had no such sectarian identity. As Irish immigration to Scotland continued, though, Protestant Scots increasingly bucked the new arrivals. (In the 1920s, for instance, the Presbyterian Church of Scotland commissioned a report titled "The Menace of the Irish Race to Our Scottish Nationality.") The Rangers club came to be seen as a cultural and political badge of identity sported by working-class, "indigenous" Scots defining themselves against the Irish invaders. Celtic, by contrast, still see themselves as outsiders and underdogs struggling against an establishment prejudiced against them. This season has been marked by a long-running saga over refereeing standards with Celtic complaining that officials are biased, consciously or not, against the club.


As Celtic's Catholicism faded with assimilation over the decades, Rangers doubled-down on Protestantism. Catholic players were effectively blacklisted from joining the Rangers team. Alex Ferguson, the current Manchester United manager and a former player in Scotland, has written that his own time as a Rangers was compromised and even cut short by the fact that his wife is a Roman Catholic. It was only in 1989 that Rangers took on its first high-profile Catholic player since World War I.

The religious divide had a political component too. In the west of Scotland, Irish immigrants were associated with the Labour Party, and working-class Rangers supporters with the Conservative and Unionist Party. (The decline of the "Orange," or working-class Protestant, vote as a political force helps explain the modern Conservative party's struggles in Scotland. In 1997, the party lost every seat it held north of the English border and, despite David Cameron's attempts to "detoxify" the Tory "brand," still holds just one Scottish seat in the House of Commons.) 

Tellingly, the "Unionist" in "Conservative and Unionist" represented Britain's union with Ireland, not the older, more settled union between Scotland and England. Today, a Celtic and Rangers match is still a venue for reprising, in song at least, the Northern Irish Troubles and the long history of British intervention in Ireland. 

Rangers supporters sing "Rule, Britannia!," wave the Union Flag, and celebrate the Battle of the Boyne and other famous battles from the 17th century while boasting about being "up to our knees in Fenian blood." (This latter song has brought a warning from UEFA, European soccer's governing body, that Rangers could be fined or banned from European competitions if the club does not clamp down on sectarian chants.) Another popular Rangers anthem notes that the Irish potato famine is long past and suggests Celtic supporters "go home."

For their part, Celtic fans wave the Irish tricolor, celebrate the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin, and sing songs hailing the bravery of Irish Republican Army terrorists. Peace -- of a sort -- in Northern Ireland has not been matched by peace in Scotland's soccer stadia.

Occasionally the symbolism takes on a surreal quality. Celtic supporters have been known to wave Palestinian flags; inevitably, Rangers supporters responded by brandishing the Israeli Star of David as part of the rival supporters' never-ending tit-for-tat showmanship and one-upmanship. Many players these days are non-Scots, but they are sucked into the whirlpool of controversy that swirls ceaselessly around Glasgow. After Celtic's Polish goalkeeper, Artur Boruc, crossed himself in front of Rangers fans in 2006, he was warned by police that his actions risked causing a breach of the peace. 

While supporters of both clubs are guilty of unsavory behavior, most of the most recent violence, both rhetorical and actual, has been Blue on Green, which is to say Rangers are, for now, guiltier than Celtic. (The Scottish press, keen to avoid accusations of bias, often adopts an ecumenical, bipartisan approach to handing out blame.)

This latest episode is not the first time Lennon, who hails from Northern Ireland, has been targeted. He was assaulted in the street in Glasgow's west end in 2008 and this year received a threatening package in the mail that contained bullets. So did two of his players.

Both clubs insist they are doing all they can to marginalize extremist groups; neither is pleased to be used as whipping boys by publicity-seeking politicians who, many supporters believe, have done little to ameliorate the underlying conditions that give rise to sectarianism in the west of Scotland. The clubs argue they merely reflect divisions in Scottish society even though their rivalry is the most visible sign and, perhaps, exacerbating expression of those divisions. Football should not, forgive the cliché, be used as a political football.

Nevertheless, this Easter Sunday, the old anthems of blood and hatred, terrorism and sectarianism, will be belted out from the stands at Rangers' Ibrox Stadium. The spectacle will be as colorful as it is furious and as mesmerizing as it is hateful. With luck, the police, politicians, and the clubs themselves hope, no one will be killed.