Leila Ahmed, who teaches at the Harvard Divinity School, is the author of a recently published book, A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence, from the Middle East to America. She tells a very interesting story.
Ahmed originally comes from a middle-class background in Egypt. In her early years no women in her circle were veiled, even if they were pious Muslims. Unveiling was the norm, a visible sign of modernity and emancipation. Women who did wear veils were signaling their commitment to a militant Islamism, which was particularly identified with the Muslim Brotherhood. That organization, which was forcefully repressed by the government, was in turn identified with reactionary violence. The Brotherhood bombed cinemas—and little Leila liked going to the movies.
This situation began to change in the 1970s, as the Islamic resurgence surged in Egypt and in the rest of the Middle East. Today the veil has become widespread if not dominant throughout the region, and indeed in the Muslim diaspora in Europe and America. But it would be a mistake, according to Ahmed, to attribute to this re-veiling the same meanings it had in the earlier decades. Experts on the Middle East differ as to whether the Muslim Brotherhood has moderated its ideology. And the term “Islamism” is ambiguous. It does not necessarily imply a commitment to violent jihad. Presumably it means a belief that both individual and social life should be governed by Islamic principles and practices. For many, probably most ordinary Muslims, this also means the subservient status of women, as it had been normative throughout most of the history of Islam and codified in Islamic law. However, Ahmed documents that many newly veiled women, while strongly affirming their Muslim faith, by no means accept their traditional subservience to fathers, brothers and husbands. There is a strong movement of avowedly Muslim feminism. Ahmed clearly sympathizes with this movement. It is important beyond the question of women’s rights: it is in the forefront of redefining the relationship between Islam and modernity.
Ahmed’s account of Islam in America is very interesting. She concedes that the many, perhaps most mosques are led by conservative imams—partly because of the general support given to their version of Islam by oil money from the Gulf. As there are growing numbers of Muslims born and raised in America, this conservative dominance is being challenged, and women are prominent in the challenge. Some wear the hijab (the relatively moderate form of the veil), others are unveiled. I derive one important lesson from Ahmed’s presentation of the return of the veil, in America as well as in the Middle East: the meaning of the veil depends on context. It means one thing in surviving traditional communities, another thing when it is forcefully imposed by Islamist regimes as in Saudi Arabia and Iran. And it means quite different things when freely chosen by educated women in America. A social scientist, needless to say, will insist on one point: if you want to find out why young women attending American universities wear the veil, ask them.
Ahmed asked. Although she only uses this term occasionally, a recurring answer involves the meaning of modesty—specifically Islamic modesty. These young women want to be able to show their faith publicly, especially in the face of anti-Muslim prejudice. But they also want to show something about themselves as women: they are modest —that is, they will not exhibit themselves in public as sex objects for male eyes. They want to show that they are not sexually available. Their eroticism is reserved for their husbands (or perhaps husbands-to-be). It seems that, paradoxically, this makes them more, not less, alluring.
So far, so good. But after finishing Ahmed’s book, I was struck by what was not in it: nowhere does Ahmed mention beards!
This omission becomes puzzling when one looks at situations where the Islamic resurgence is recent. Turkey is a case in point, since the rise of the AKP (now the governing party with Islamist roots). If young women want to upset their secular Kemalist parents, they will appear for breakfast wearing the hijab. (One must never underestimate the motive of upsetting papa.) But what will their brothers do? They will appear sporting an Islamic beard—as luxuriant a one as they can manage. That too will symbolize a religious identity. But it can hardly mean Islamic modesty. What can it mean? Let me suggest Islamic manliness.
There may be many genders. There are only two sexes. One can only be defined in distinction from the other. A man is defined as a human who is not a woman, and vice versa. Of course these definitions vary greatly depending on social context. Interestingly, this dichotomy carries over into gay and lesbian relationships. Manliness can mean macho dominance, or it can mean egalitarian sensitivity. Womanliness can mean docile submission, or it can mean a value of individual autonomy. What could be the meaning, then, of the Islamic beard? I don’t know. I think that one should ask.
What I am suggesting here goes beyond the question of political meanings. There are underlying, possibly unstated philosophical assumptions. These are not impenetrable mysteries. They can be empirically explored. Then they can become topics for intercultural and interfaith dialogue. Western civilization has developed distinctive meanings for the two sexes. Modern feminism is a recent product of this development. Is it the final word in the construction of modernity? Must it be asserted in opposition to an Islamic construction, which may actually be an important component of a distinctive Islamic modernity? And is it possible that we may learn from it?