Harvard University divinity professor and feminist scholar Dr. Leila Ahmed is the winner of the 2013 Grawemeyer Award in Religion. Her 2011 book, “A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence from the Middle East to America” explains why a growing number of Muslim women in the United States are wearing traditional veils and head coverings.
Described as “an incredible eye-opener” by Shannon Craigo-Snell, professor of theology at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, which co-sponsors the religion award with the University of Louisville, “A Quiet Revolution” traces the history of hijab, the Muslim practice of covering women’s heads and faces for modesty, from its historical roots to its popular resurgence, with surprising results.
“Ninety-five percent of the population of Cairo and Alexandria, where I grew up, did not wear hijab. It did not mean they were not pious, they were very pious, but hijab was not thought of as an Islamic requirement,” says Ahmed, who came of age in the 1950s and ‘60s.
When that changed over the decades, Ahmed attributed the rise of veiling in Egypt to a rise in Islamic fundamentalism. When she began research for her book, she knew that understanding the rise of hijab in Egypt would be key to discovering its roots in the U.S.
“It turned out to be something that liberated women in Egypt, that gave them the right to be in public places they hadn’t been before. They could say I am Islamically dressed, you have no right to prevent me from working in an office with men,” she says. “It was this stream of Islam that came to America in the Sixties as immigration laws changed and lots of young people were fleeing, in those days, Nasser—he was very oppressive toward the Muslim Brotherhood.”
In the late-‘90s, Ahmed says she started noticing a critical mass of women in Massachusetts, where she now lives, wearing veils as well.
“In the U.S., not only did I think, why on earth are they doing it? I thought well, fundamentalism must have reached these shores, and they must be teaching some form of Islam which says women are second-class and should be covered,” she says. “It implied oppression.”
But when Ahmed interviewed American Muslim women, she discovered more complicated answers to why, in culture where women don’t need a visible sign of religious piety in order to move more freely in their communities, women would choose to cover themselves.
“They key issue there is it’s the dress of a minority, and a minority who, after 9-11 in particular, suffered for the fact that they were Muslim,” she says. “It’s a way of asserting your dignity against a majority culture which looks down on you.”
“It’s a visual sign to the rest of society. It’s like the Afro,” she adds.
Ahmed also found hijab use on the rise with Muslim feminists, who want to raise questions of sexualization and objectification of women. Islam and feminism, Ahmed says, are not mutually exclusive.
“Of course, it’s just as contradictory on the surface to be a Christian feminist or a Jewish feminist, as it is to be a Muslim feminist. But people tend to think Islam and feminism in particular are incompatible. I think they are no more incompatible than the other major religions,” she says.
The Grawemeyer Awards are $100,000 each. Four other prizes are awarded in education, music composition, world order and psychology.