24 February 2014

The Veil, Islamism, and Spreading Religion (2)

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This is Leila Ahmed's book cover This is Leila Ahmed's book cover http://www.amazon.co.uk/Quiet-Revolution-Resurgence-Middle-America/dp/0300170955

 

In the previous blog reviewing Leila Ahmed’s book The Quiet Revolution we covered the role of colonialism in the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and how these islamists succeeded in reversing a two-generations trend of women unveiling. Only this time, the veil (hijab) adopted by university students in the 1970s and 1980s (and then by women generally) was different in appearance and bearer of multiple meanings.

By the way: “islamism” is the term for political Islam, a distinctly modern phenomenon, started by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (1928), but then merging in time with a general resurgence of religiosity beginning in the 1970s all over the world and within many religious traditions (see my blog on fundamentalism). In my publications I’ve always written it with a lower case “i,” to mark it off as a political ideology much more than a simply religious one.

After a brief examination of the sociological work done on this reveiling phenomenon, I’ll turn to the wider impact of this movement and its particular impact on Muslims in the United States after the attacks of 2001.

 

“Why did you take up hijab and Islamic dress?”

Egypt was the first Muslim country where this style of female attire appeared in the 1970s on university campuses, where easily half the population was female. More and more men were growing beards and wearing a variety of looser clothes, like long shirts or the tunic-like flowing djellabas. But they weren’t nearly as noticeable as their female counterparts who were donning newly styled head coverings and a variety of looser clothes that only showed a woman’s hands and face. This was the origin of today’s “Islamic dress” (zia islami), a multi-billion dollar industry flaunted in shops from Marrakesh to Kuala Lumpur and eagerly traded on the Internet.

This was also the time when feminist studies were appearing in American universities. It wasn’t long before researchers came to do their fieldwork in Egypt. Among these, Arlene E. Macleod arrived in 1983 and Sherifa Zuhur in 1988, just as Macleod was finishing her project. By then sixty-nine of her interviewees had begun to wear hijab, and all of them as adults. This change was both a recent and “dramatic” one in their lives – a conversion of sorts.

To illustrate how fast the social scene was changing in these years, Ahmed proposes to contrast the two studies focusing both on veiled and unveiled women.

Macleod first asked women why they thought some women were starting to wear hijab. These are some of the representative answers:

 

- There was a “general sense that people in their culture were turning back to a more authentic and culturally true way of life”

- In the past people were “thoughtless and misled” but now came to see they had been wrong

- “In the past people didn’t understand that these values are so important, but now everyone has come to see that they are good and strong. So we know we have to act like Muslim women, that is important.”

- One woman now covered said, “Before I didn’t know what I was wearing is wrong, but now I realize and know, thanks be to God.”

- Representing many other women, one put it this way, “We Muslim women dress in a modest way, not like Western women, who wear anything . . . Muslim women are careful about their reputation, Egypt is not like America! In America women are far too free in their behavior!” (119-120)

 

Still, many of the women were puzzled and not a little worried about these new trends. Sixty percent of the women interviewed admitted they didn’t know why things were changing. Fifty-six percent even opined that it was simply a matter of fashion. I love this answer:

 

“I don’t know why fashions change in this way, no-one knows why, one day everyone wears dresses and even pants. I even wore a bathing suit when I went to the beach . . . then suddenly we are all wearing this on our hair!” (120)

 

Over her five years of research, Macleod found no correlation between “increased religious observance” and wearing hijab. To begin with, the lower middle class community that she was studying was religiously observant. In fact, “nearly everyone prayed on Fridays” – though the women mostly prayed at home. One reason that women began to adopt the veil at this stage was because it facilitated their moving around unhindered in public.

Though Macleod admits that this reveiling trend was simultaneously occurring with a general resurgence of “fundamentalist Islam,” she insisted there was no simple correlation between the two phenomena. She also found that it was a women’s “voluntary movement,” “initiated and perpetrated by women.”

Still, there’s more to say, she concedes toward the end of her five-year project. She was noticing that with time men were increasingly putting pressure on their women (daughters and wives) to wear hijab and dress “Islamically.” Religious leaders were proclaiming it from the mosque. Women were feeling the pressure from their peers as well, but throughout this period women always believed that in the end it was their individual choice to wear hijab or not.

This is the context with which Sherifa Zuhur’s study begins. Mosques and Islamic schools had been multiplying in the 1980s and the government, not to be outdone by its islamist opposition, hired many of these recent graduates to beef up existing religious programs in its public schools. By the end of that decade as well, all the top leadership of the professional organizations were islamists, notably among the engineering, law and medical associations.

Zuhur interviewed women who were unveiled and compared their attitudes with believers in “the new Islamic woman” on the issue of women’s rights. Surprisingly perhaps, there were no differences on this matter. Even the most conservative of respondents agreed with the others, that “women should be given equal opportunities with men, and equality under the law so long as principles of the sharia were upheld” (127).

The veiled women strongly believed that unveiled women were disobeying God’s revealed will on the matter and “they saw their own adoption of the hijab to be a sign of their social and moral awakening.” Zuhur found that these women were particularly impressed by the islamist emphasis on “cultural authenticity, nationalism, and the pursuit of ‘adala, or social justice” (127).

What is clear is that a shift had taken place since Macleod’s study: now veiled women didn’t mention practical reasons for adopting the veil, but focused entirely on religious requirements and even activism in the islamist cause. While both sets of women seemed just as religiously observant, they practiced their religion in noticeably different ways. The veiled women were more focused on the “outward” and “visible” practices of their tradition, while the unveiled ones prided themselves in living out the essence (jawhar, or inner reality) of their faith. Even those who might not fast during Ramadan would answer that Islam is about good deeds and much more about how you treat other people than anything you wear or following any public ritual.

The new wave of Islamism was the key behind the changes, notes Ahmed. The Muslim Brotherhood had from the very beginning tried to educate the masses to leave aside their traditional practice of Islam and instead adopt “the engaged, activist ways of Islamism along with all its attendant requirements, rituals, and prescriptions, including veiling” (130).

These were some of the salient features of the new ways of “being Muslim” in the Egypt of the late 1980s and early 1990s that Zuhur picked up in her study. I mentioned Carrie Wickham’s research in the last blog and how it narrowed its focus to the islamists who were energetically winning converts here and everywhere. No doubt there were plenty of sociopolitical factors aiding them in this pursuit – Mubarak’s repressive regime being on top of that list.

I turn now to the United States where this movement was actually given a boost by the anti-Muslim backlash after 9/11.

 

The veil’s resurgence in post-9/11 United States

Right from the start, both the authorities and the American Muslim community were braced for an anti-Muslim backlash. Two men were shot and killed on September 16, 2001, because they “looked” Muslim (one in fact was a Sikh gas station owner in Mesa, Arizona). President Bush visited the mosque at the Islamic Center of Washington, D.C., remarking publicly that the “face of terror is not the true face of Islam” and that “Islam is peace” (200).

Yet in the following months and years hundreds of attacks on Muslims took place and dozens of mosques were vandalized. Several thousand Muslims were arrested under the suspicion of terrorism, with many of them kept for months without charge. A whole cottage industry of hate discourse directed against Muslims developed too – which I described in a blog as “McCarthyism returns in the 2010s.”

At the same time, thousands of Americans bought Qur’ans and poured into mosques to hear imams tell about Islam. Ahmed tells of a secular Jewish woman attending one of these open houses. Totally turned off by the very concept of monotheism, this lady nonetheless wanted to express her solidarity with a group so wrongly targeted for discrimination and hate.

“Such as scene was unimaginable in any Muslim-majority country,” exclaims Ahmed. “Nor could it have unfolded in this particular way in Europe.” Ahmed felt she was living “a new moment in history.” Many Americans and their Muslim counterparts were now entering a privileged window of time when dialogue and mutual understanding might prevail.

Meanwhile, journalists were reporting that some Muslim women had stopped wearing the veil (several Muslim jurists had given them permission to do so – this was a case of “necessity”!) and that others, not particularly observant before, had been jolted into a conversion experience of sorts and were now wearing hijab and/or Islamic dress.

Why? Reasons varied, but perhaps the common link was pride – one way despised groups often fight back. Also, recall that one of the justifications for the invasion of Afghanistan was to save Muslim women from the oppressive practices of the Taliban that were beating them down. First Lady Laura Bush stated that this was a war “for the rights and dignity of women.” Many American Muslims found that reasoning preposterous: as “collateral damage” in Afghanistan and Iraq their country was killing thousands of women and children, all in the name of name of women’s rights!

That sounded a lot like the old colonial mentality we documented in the last blog. No one wants to be told by a dominant culture that your own is inferior and that you need to adopt foreign values. So this kind of reasoning is reflected in the following responses to “why did you adopt hijab?” But it’s not just pride, as you will see. For many the veil takes on unmistakable political meanings as well:

 

- For one woman, “putting on the scarf coincided with her spiritual awakening as a devout Muslim, but it was also a reaction to what she perceived to be a growing fear among Muslims in this country” (207).

- For another, she “had taken up the hijab after 9/11 precisely as a way of ‘negating’ the widespread stereotypes about the hijab and Muslims.” She now felt ‘liberated,’ adds Ahmed, “presumably by wearing hijab, from having to passively acquiesce in the face of negative stereotyping” (208).

- Another woman comments, “I felt this is my culture and my heritage. This is something I have to represent. I have changed so much after 9/11, and I think a lot of Muslim women who felt we were being called terrorists really found ourselves researching our own religion and wanting to wear hijab” (208).

- One of the most common answers was “to support the Palestinian cause” – something Ahmed herself discovered in her own interviews with young women in 2002-2003.

- One of those Ahmed interviewed answered this way, “I don’t believe the Qur’an requires it. For me, wearing it is a way of affirming my community and identity, a way of saying that even as I enjoy the comforts we take for granted here and that people of Palestine totally lack, I will not forget the struggle for justice” (211).

 

            Then paradoxically – Ahmed admits that growing up in Egypt when she did this kind of answer was extremely puzzling for her at first – many women wore the veil as a sign of protest against gender biases in their society. Hijab, as a call to justice, included not only protesting the discrimination of minorities but also the suffering and injustice they face as women. For many who wear this post-1970s Islamic dress, walking dressed this way in public is saying to those around them, particularly men, “I chose to wear this because I believe it’s right. Respect me if you respect yourself.”

 

Leila Ahmed’s takeway

You can find several interesting subtexts in Ahmed’s book, but I’ll focus on her central thesis. After the “unveiling” movement in Egypt from the early 1900s to the 1960s, which was strongly influenced by Western colonial powers, the “reveiling” wave starting in the 1970s was both an anti-Western statement and a practice initiated and defined by the Muslim Brotherhood. Islamism’s ascendency at just that time provided a new way of being “Muslim,” particularly as a woman.

Yet the phenomenon of the zia islami, which has now spread to Muslim communities across the globe, is in no way controlled by islamist leaders and their organizations. Even in the US in the 1970s and 1980s it was Muslim Brotherhood members, or at least MB sympathizers, who founded the Muslim Student Association (MSA) on university campuses and eventually the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). But since then, these and other Muslim American organizations have evolved into much more inclusive and diverse bodies. Women who choose Islamic dress, therefore, do so for a number of reasons.

The same holds true elsewhere – and nowhere more so than Egypt, where an MB president just one year into his tenure found himself barraged by millions of protesters countrywide, with nearly all the women in these protests wearing hijab. Of course, Ahmed could not have known this since her book was published in 2011. But her thesis still applies here: religion and culture, historical events and evolving sociopolitical realities prove often tough to disentangle.

What we can say is that the hijab and the zia islami from the 1970s on were a brand new phenomenon in Egypt. True, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic organizations from the 1930s to the 1950s had used the veil as “an emblem of resistance to colonialism and of affirmation of indigenous values.”

But with the Islamic resurgence in the 1970s “the hijab’s meanings began to break loose from their older, historically bound moorings.” In her own words,

 

“Today all of these meanings, old and new, are simultaneously freely in circulation in our societies, depending on which community the wearer or observer belongs to. Certainly for some it is still a powerful sign of the Otherness of Muslims . . . a sign of the oppression of women. For many of the hijab’s wearers, on the other hand – who do not live in societies where the veil is required by law – the hijab does not, as their statements typically indicate, have this meaning. For its wearers, in societies where women are free to choose whether to wear it, the hijab can have any of the variety of meanings reviewed in these pages – and indeed, many, many more” (212).

 

If nothing else (and besides the wonderful historical overview Ahmed provides), this book is a timely reminder that “l’habit ne fait pas le moine” – that, according to the French proverb I grew up with, “the robe doesn’t make the monk.” Or, don’t judge another person on the basis of what she’s wearing.

Like other cultural artifacts, the hijab appeared in a specific cultural and historical context and its meaning evolved as those conditions changed. Part of that context was the modern value of individual agency, and particularly for women. So let us not generalize as to why Muslim women choose to cover their bodies they way they do. A bit of humility and respect, after all, will go a long way to create more meaningful dialog between our various communities of faith.