A Quiet Revolution: The Veil's Resurgence, from the Middle East to America

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In Cairo in the 1940s, Leila Ahmed was raised by a generation of women who never dressed in the veils and headscarves their mothers and grandmothers had worn. To them, these coverings seemed irrelevant to both modern life and Islamic piety. Today, however, the majority of Muslim women throughout the Islamic world again wear the veil. Why, Ahmed asks, did this change take root so swiftly, and what does this shift mean for women, Islam, and the West?

When she began her study, Ahmed assumed that the veil's return indicated a backward step for Muslim women worldwide. What she discovered, however, in the stories of British colonial officials, young Muslim feminists, Arab nationalists, pious Islamic daughters, American Muslim immigrants, violent jihadists, and peaceful Islamic activists, confounded her expectations. Ahmed observed that Islamism, with its commitments to activism in the service of the poor and in pursuit of social justice, is the strain of Islam most easily and naturally merging with western democracies' own tradition of activism in the cause of justice and social change. It is often Islamists, even more than secular Muslims, who are at the forefront of such contemporary activist struggles as civil rights and women's rights. Ahmed's surprising conclusions represent a near reversal of her thinking on this topic.

Richly insightful, intricately drawn, and passionately argued, this absorbing story of the veil's resurgence, from Egypt through Saudi Arabia and into the West, suggests a dramatically new portrait of contemporary Islam.

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Editorial Reviews

Wall Street Journal
Ms. Ahmed's narrative deftly captures the mood of the [colonial] era, registering the range of ironies surrounding the status of the veil.—Mira Sethi, Wall Street Journal

— Mira Sethi

New Republic Online
A discerning account of feminists, veiled and unveiled, and their creation of what [Ahmed] sees as a new space within American Islam...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.—Christine Stansell, New Republic

— Christine Stansell

American Library Association (ALA)
Selected by the ALA for the Bridging Cultures Bookshelf on Muslim Journeys project

— Bridging Cultures Bookself Selection, Muslim Journeys Project

Time Out
‘A Quiet Revolution’ is an exceptional study of women in Islam. Their story is a remarkable one, and Leila Ahmed tells it with grace and understanding.—Joseph Preville, Time Out

— Joseph Preville

Literary Review
In the post-9/11 world, as a Leila Ahmed points out in this gripping yet erudite book, the veil worn by women in Western countries such as Britain and America has come to symbolise a range of public postures, from the resistance to Islamophobia or anti-Muslim prejudice experienced on the domestic front, to expressions of support for Muslim women in places such as Iraq, Bosnia, Somalia, or Palestine, exemplified by the group that calls itself ‘ Scarves for Solidarity.’ How is it, Ahmed asks, that a form of head-covering once seen as a symbol of patriarchal oppression can now be regarded as a call for justice?—Malise Ruthven, Literary Review

— Malise Ruthven

Library Journal
★ 05/01/2014
The veil may be the most evocative symbol of Islam for many non-Muslim readers, and Ahmed's treatment of the subject is wide-ranging, discursive, and utterly fascinating.
Publishers Weekly
Though Ahmed's second book is a history of the practice of veiling among Muslim women, it covers "the extraordinary transformations that religions–in this case Islam–undergo as to the way they are lived, practiced, understood and interpreted." Ahmed's history is at once deep (dates, names, and events tumble out it multitude) and specific (the book's first section focuses on the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in the 20th century), and she justifies what might seem like meandering by claiming that "There is no extricating the story of Muslim women from this larger story: to leave men and the broad political situation out of the picture would leave us with a history...quite unintelligible." What will make this interesting to a wide readership, however, is Ahmed's coverage of recent U.S. history, where anecdotes and personal experience (she lives in Mass.) abound; she makes a convincing case for how the Bush White House claimed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were partially fought to aid oppressed (i.e. veiled) Muslim women. Ahmed explores many aspects of women and Islam, a discourse that is admirably broad, but her effort lacks a clear thesis and Ahmed the writer, not the academic, seems ill equipped to forge a work of either greater meaning or tighter focus. (Apr.)

"The portrait of post 9/11 Muslim America that Ahmed offers up in her book is strikingly hopeful, full of individuals, trends, and stories that make her case for this new era's promise."—Time Magazine
Los Angeles Times
"A Quiet Revolution is an important book.It provides a thorough history of the resurgence of the veil both in the Muslim world and in the U.S. and adds significant nuance to the complex issues that surround the veil. Ahmed's work will no doubt continue to inspire a new generation of Muslim feminists."—Los Angeles Times
Wall Street Journal - Mira Sethi

"Ms. Ahmed gives us a fascinating portrait of the Muslim Brotherhood, especially of its 'unsung mother,' Zainab al-Ghazali."—Mira Sethi, Wall Street Journal
Karen Armstrong

“Leila Ahmed takes a subject that arouses great emotion, shows how the resurgence of veiling has come about, and explains with great clarity what it means. Ahmed's learned and engaging argument should make all readers examine their prejudices. This valuable and much needed introduction to major trends in the modern Muslim world leads to some novel and surprising conclusions. An important book, it should be required reading for journalists, educationalists, politicians and religious leaders.”—Karen Armstrong, Author, A History of God
Tariq Ramadan

“Leila Ahmed 's views on women, Islam and Islamism are not only interesting but courageous and need to be read and debated. Her new book brings the critical historical perspective necessary to understand the deep and quiet revolution that is occurring among American Muslims.”—Tariq Ramadan, University of Oxford
Diana Eck

“A powerful and critically important analysis of the veil’s modern history and reemergence in our time. This is a history Leila Ahmed herself has lived through and witnessed, especially in North America. It is compelling reading for the many readers with questions about the veil and its meanings.”—Diana Eck, author of A New Religious America
Jane Smith

“What lies behind the phenomenon of Muslim women wearing “Islamic dress”? Leila Ahmed provides an engaging tour through nationalism, socialism, Islam, and anti-imperialism in her beautifully written book, weaving together the themes of politics, dress, and women’s changing roles with her usual historical and literary skill. A fascinating read.”—Jane Smith, Harvard University
New Republic Online - Christine Stansell

"A discerning account of feminists, veiled and unveiled, and their creation of what [Ahmed] sees as a new space within American Islam."—Christine Stansell, New Republic
American Library Association (ALA) - Bridging Cultures Bookself Selection

Selected by the ALA for the Bridging Cultures Bookshelf on Muslim Journeys project
Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and the University of Louisville - Grawemeyer Award in Religion

 Winner of the 2013 Grawemeyer Award in Religion, given jointly by the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and the University of Louisville
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300181432
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 5/31/2012
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 360
  • Sales rank: 578,854
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Leila Ahmed is the Victor S. Thomas Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School. She is the author of Women and Gender in Islam and A Border Passage: From Cairo to America—A Woman's Journey. She lives in Cambridge, MA.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

Introduction 1

Part 1 The Islamic Resurgence and the Veil: From Emergence to Migration

1 Unveiling 19

2 The Veil's Vanishing Past 46

3 The 1970s: Seeds of the Resurgence 68

4 The New Veil: Converging Influences 93

5 The 1980s: Exploring Women's Motivations 117

6 Islamist Connections 131

7 Migrations 157

8 The 1990s: A Changing Climate in America 177

Part 2 After 9/11: New Pathways in America Prologue 193

9 Backlash: The Veil, the Burka, and the Clamor of War 199

10 ISNA and the Women of ISNA 233

11 American Muslim Women's Activism in the Twenty-First Century 265

Notes 307

Index 339

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