Krista's Journal: Asking Myself New Questions

December 7, 2006

In recent months, controversy has broken out across Western Europe over the religious dress and head coverings of Muslim women. Leila Ahmed follows such controversies with a long historical and scholarly view. Her personal history also parallels some of the defining political and social currents of our time. She was born in Egypt, in the waning days of the British empire. And she argues provocatively — and persuasively — that contemporary Western reactions to Muslims women's dress are based in part on misperceptions that we have in common with a long line of others before us.

For starters, she points out, Westerners have long focused on Muslim clothing and headdress as a symbol of root problems. When Prime Minister Tony Blair recently called the Islamic full-face veil a "mark of separation," he echoed a 19th century British missionary who famously described Muslim women as "buried alive behind the veil." But "wearing the veil" was originally a practice that early Muslims took from the Jewish and Christian and Zoroastrian cultures around them. It was long a sign of social class rather than religious devotion. In Islamic cultures, as we rarely pause to notice, covering one's head is an expression of modesty and piety followed by men as well as women.

In the sophisticated upper classes of the Egypt in which Leila Ahmed grew up, neither she nor most of the women in her family wore the veil. She admits that, like Western feminists, she long imagined it as a trapping of a less enlightened past. However, she's watched the meaning of the veil change dramatically in her lifetime in Egypt as well as among younger Muslim women in America. As she sought to understand this, she challenged her own inherited assumptions and found them wanting. She spends a great deal of this hour provocatively challenging mine.

Most critically, she challenges me to examine the deeper judgments that lurk beneath our culture's "concern" for Muslim women. We interpret "the veil" not merely — or even principally, Ahmed suspects — as a sign of what ails Muslim women. It seems rather to reinforce prejudices we hold about the inferiority of Muslim tradition as a whole. In her ground-breaking work, Women and Gender in Islam: Historial Roots of a Modern Debate, Ahmed explores the long story of Westerners' inclination to interpret the veil as a proof of an innate backwardness in Islam. Her fascinating chapter, "The Dialogue of the Veil," is on our Web site. Contemporary American ideas and attitudes hearken backwards, it turns out, to the foibles of the British Empire before us.

Leila Ahmed worries less about the veil than about the breakdown of extended families in Islamic societies. She worries less about the fact that Islamic women tend to lead lives relatively separate from men's lives, that is, than that women in modern societies are less able to support each other in practical and robust ways. She worries about the poverty of so many Muslim women, which hinders them in all the ways poverty hinders any human being. It restricts their freedom and education and leaves them susceptible to teachers who come from the outside proclaiming a rigid and patriarchal religion as the only true orthodoxy. And if someone asked me what general concerns I hold for American women, as Leila Ahmed does in the course of this program, my answers must echo hers.

On this and other points, Leila Ahmed turns my questions back on me — gracefully and provocatively and effectively. One by one, her questions compel me to examine my instincts and reframe my way of seeing "the Muslim world."

Egypt and other majority Islamic countries have grown more religiously active and conservative in recent years, she concedes. But so, she insists, has her adopted country, the United States. Do we only worry about Islamic women when this happens? And what do we Americans mean when we refer often and broadly to "the Muslim world"? Where does "the Muslim world" begin and end these days? Its borders are impossible to draw, and arguably must now encompass Paris or Amsterdam or Chicago. Conflating the notion of "the Muslim world" with "the Arab world" only compounds our inability to make important distinctions about the global reality we inhabit.

There are many other ideas and insights in this program, but most of all Leila Ahmed leaves me with new questions. I have not been able to think about Islam or read the news in the same way since I spoke with her. If education is in large part about asking good questions, as I discerned early in my life, this is one of the most educational hours of radio I've been privileged to produce.

Recommended Reading

Image of A Border Passage: From Cairo to America--A Woman's Journey
Author: Leila Ahmed
Publisher: Penguin Books (2000)
Binding: Paperback, 307 pages

Ahmed is the author of a powerful memoir, A Border Passage: From Cairo to America—A Woman's Journey; and an original scholarly work, Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate. She is a lyrical and lucid thinker and writer, exploring history — both personal and public — as a critical resource for understanding contemporary experience. In addition to telling a riveting story in beautiful prose, her memoir is an extended reflection on how the world changes around us, and how our perceptions even of our own histories are impressionable, not factual and fixed. In a sense, her scholarly work yields to the same insight, offering up facts, stories, and ideas that are nuanced and ultimately empowering.

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is Victor S. Thomas Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School and author of several books, including Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate and A Border Passage.