Saturday, May 21, 2011

The veil has become the symbol of liberation

From the 1920s to 1960s, unveiling was a symbol of Egypt's desire to emulate western scientific, political and economic success – the majority of Egyptians, as Ahmed points out, had accepted the western view of the veil as "uncivilised". A Quiet Revolution provides a clear and compelling summary of the changes that led to its return: the decline of Arab socialism after 1967, the expanding influence of ultra-conservative Saudi Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood, and the failure of pro-western economic policies. By the 1970s, disillusioned students and professionals were turning to an activist Islam – Islamism – that promised social, moral and political renewal. Observing strict dress became one means of displaying egalitarian principles and conveying the wearer's strength and authority. From a symbol of disempowerment, the veil now, for some, became a mark of liberation.

Over the next decades, the veil gathered a range of new meanings: from an expression of personal faith, solidarity with Palestine, Chechnya or Iraq or allegiance to the ummah, to a safeguard against sexual harassment, a fashion statement, a critique of western "sexism", a call for minority rights, an evangelical tool. Ahmed does not romanticise these rationales – she is clear about the growing pressure on women from both Islamist organisations and preachers and from families, peers and the media. But A Quiet Revolution is a timely reminder that the veil today is a symptom less of an alien fanaticism than of a long political and cultural entanglement with the unveiled west.
A review by Rachel Aspden of the Book "A Quiet Revolution" by Leila Ahmed. More Here

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