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Manipulating the Veil

Leila Ahmed’s A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence, from the Middle East to America is a historical look at the controversial modern history of the wearing of hijab in Ahmed’s home country of Egypt and also in the United States of America. Ahmed attempts to synthesize numerous academic accounts of the practice of veiling, many of which she claims are clouded with personal agendas, with the goal of providing a more holistic and diversified understanding of the numerous forces at work that shape the individual woman’s decision to veil or not to veil. In addition, Ahmed addresses the real life implications of wearing the veil for women, which changes based on location and time, and how real world current events have a significant impact on whether or not women choose to veil (in some cases are required to veil) or un-veil.

The book is divided into two parts, the first details the history of the veil in Egypt and its migration to the United States of America, including its internal and external understandings, from the time of British colonization up until the events of 9/11. The second part of the book is primarily concerned with the perception of Muslims in the aftermath of 9/11, prominent women involved in the ISNA (Islamic Society of North America) and the current state of women’s activism within Islam.

Along with being an extensive historical account of the history of veiling from the Middle East to the United States of America, A Quiet Revolution shines the spotlight on the post-9/11 American media portrayals of Muslims and Islam. As Ahmed shows throughout the book, the veil has powerful symbolic implications within Islam, although claiming that the totality of the symbolic implications has been more negative or positive is a position that Ahmed appears to want to distance herself from as a result of her detailed historical investigation. Ahmed shows that the decision to veil has for the most part been a personal, unforced decision on the part of the individual woman in recent times. While the specific motivating reason may be quite different on a case to case basis, being identified as Muslim, modesty, and solidarity are among the more popular themes. The post-9/11 American media’s understanding of the veil overwhelmingly portrays the veil as a negative symbol of the oppressive and patriarchal nature of Islam.

According to Ahmed, in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy major political and media persons including Rick Santorum, Ann Coulter, David Horowitz and Sean Hannity were vocal in their condemnation of Islam as generally oppressive to women. This was used as a call to action against the entirety of Islam, and the veil was used as a universal symbol meant to demonstrate that the oppression of women is an Islamic quality. One of the more striking ideas advanced in Ahmed’s book in relation to this topic is that many of those demonstrating concern about the oppression of women in Islam have displayed anti-feminist tendencies in other arenas including birth control and women’s right to vote. Santorum is noted as describing radical forms of feminism as responsible for the destruction of the American family. Ahmed claims through the work of Katha Pollitt that Horowitz, a sponsor of Islamo-Fascist Awareness Week (an event held at numerous college campuses across the United States of America), has never demonstrated through his writing any interest in the liberties or rights of women, except for Muslim women. Ahmed appears to be aligned with the feminist camp that believes the issue of oppression of women in Islam is a convenient and accessible way to target Muslims and, by extension, Islam in general that has been in use since the time of British colonization. The idea in general is summed up in a quote by Gayatri Spivak that Ahmed uses frequently throughout her work: “white men saving brown women from brown men.”

For the most part, the book can be understood as a valuable resource for people who are interested in other people’s ideas and research about veiling, and Ahmed has created a seemingly thorough and diverse compilation of various viewpoints that she uses to weave her historical account of the practice of veiling. In terms of her style, Ahmed can be exceedingly repetitive, often repeating quotes (or series of quotes) and stories, and constantly repeating exactly what she is going to accomplish at the beginning of almost every chapter after she has already explained at length what she is going to accomplish in every chapter at the beginning of both Parts. In addition, there is a noticeable number of inconsistent or incorrect spellings, and many of the sentences are inadequately punctuated which makes reading the book tedious and frustrating at times.

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Discussion

5 thoughts on “Manipulating the Veil

  1. Dear Drew, your analysis of Ahmed’s quiet revolution clearly addresses the author’s main points. From the exploration of controversial issues regarding Muslim women wearing the veil in contemporary times to the generalizations made by American politicians over the topic of Islam, your summary effectively demonstrates your understanding of the material as it introduces the reader into Ahmed’s personal experiences surrounding the wearing of the veil.

    Although I found Ahmed’s historical account of the veil quite lengthy (not to imply that you suggest the same), I believe that these sort of extensive accounts necessarily inform the reader about a particular topic that requires extensive exploration in order to eradicate ignorant generalizations that spread hatred and inaccurately represent the Muslim world. I agree with your deduction that Ahmed appears to want to distance herself from her detailed historical investigation; yet, I question if she was able to accomplish this goal (if it happened to be her goal), since the reader may initially gather through the author’s personal statements that her research originates from the desire to understand women who wear the veil in contemporary times; a concept the author perceived as nearly incomprehensive when she asked, “Why, after nearly disappearing from many Middle Eastern and Muslim-majority societies, had the veil made a comeback, and how had it spread with such remarkable swiftness?” (196).

    I argue that perhaps the author intentionally chooses to expose the reader to her own misunderstanding of the topic, only to share with the reader her discoveries founded on extensive historical research. I wonder if you consider my suggestion a possibility. In other words, could the author have intentionally sought to educate the reader by sharing her personal struggle to understand the divergent meanings of the veil?

    Posted by alfredo71 | March 25, 2012, 11:27 pm
  2. Drew,

    I think your piece was a great review for anyone wanting to read Ahmed’s book. It was different to see someone write a critique of the writing itself being repetitive or badly proof read. I didn’t like that you ended with it because it seems like you just threw it in there at the last minute. “One of the more striking ideas advanced in Ahmed’s book in relation to this topic is that many of those demonstrating concern about the oppression of women in Islam have displayed anti-feminist tendencies in other arenas including birth control and women’s right to vote. ” “Ahmed appears to be aligned with the feminist camp that believes the issue of oppression of women in Islam is a convenient and accessible way to target Muslims and, by extension, Islam in general that has been in use since the time of British colonization.” These are my two favorite quotes in your review. I like how you show Ahmed’s critique of certain politicians that some readers may not have picked up on. Even without Ahmed bluntly saying it, I picked up on these ideas in the beginning of her book which I regard as a good historical analysis. People have the tendency to pick out and condemn the oppression in other societies without realizing the oppression in their own. However, I think it is completely fine to condemn such practices if one also fights against these types of practices in their own society, which is not something that the said politicians have not done. I want to know if you agree with Ahmed on these ideas.

    Posted by cassidylp | March 26, 2012, 2:17 pm
  3. You do a good job addressing both parts of Ahmed’s book from the historical look about the veil to the role it has come to play in post 9/11 America. You make everything very concise and clear for the reader, which is good. While I agreed with most of the points you make about her book. Your write, “As Ahmed shows throughout the book, the veil has powerful symbolic implications within Islam, although claiming that the totality of the symbolic implications has been more negative or positive is a position that Ahmed appears to want to distance herself from as a result of her detailed historical investigation.” 1 While this is a valid point you make. You should take into consideration that Leila Ahmed’s book is structured in a way to provide an individual a historical account of the veil and what is has come to symbolize in America. So it would be important for her to distance herself from her investigation so she does not provide the reader with one account of the veil? This is an important aspect of her book.
    Another interesting point that you write, “This was used as a call to action against the entirety of Islam, and the veil was used as a universal symbol meant to demonstrate that the oppression of women is an Islamic quality.” 2 The point you make about how the veil has become symbol of oppression of women but is solely a quality of Islam I could not agree with you more. The veil has become more than a symbol of Islam being oppressive of women, it has become a symbol that is dangerous and should be feared. This can be seen in pamphlets being produced titled, “Why Islam is a Threat to America and the West” which stated that, “ Islam is quite simply, a religion of war.”3 The veil has become more then just solely being the symbol of Islamic qualities of oppressing women, but the symbol of terrorism. This is true because based on certain actions of Americans, which led to brutal attacks not only on school girls by classmates, to a woman being stabbed by two men at a red light, to murder and many other terrible acts of violence that occurred.4 These types of actions towards Muslims express the inherent fear that has become an over whelming symbol of Islam. So the veil symbolizes more then just oppression and this stigma will continue to play a very influential role.
    One of the lasting things that that you write, “In terms of her style, Ahmed can be exceedingly repetitive, often repeating quotes (or series of quotes) and stories, and constantly repeating exactly what she is going to accomplish at the beginning of almost every chapter after she has already explained at length what she is going to accomplish in every chapter at the beginning of both Parts.” 5 My only question to you is to what degree is this good for providing her audience a solid foundation because she does cover a significant amount of history and background of certain political groups and situations. The explanation of what she is planning to accomplish in every chapter is to give the reader a clear picture of what her intention is and plan for what her plan is. This is a useful tool when covering, as much information as she did and also the fact that she addressed the development of the Hijab in Egypt and what is has come to mean in the United States requires a significant amount of information that needs to be keep separated. It is key that she is able to keep these separate and make it very clear to the reader what she is focused on in each chapter.

    1 Drew, Costello. “Manipulating the Veil”. March 19, 2012.
    2 Drew, Costello. “Manipulating the Veil”. March 19, 2012.
    3 Leila, Ahmed. “A quiet Revolution: The Veil’s resurgence, from the Middle East to America. 2011. 211.
    4 Leila, Ahmed. “A quiet Revolution: The Veil’s resurgence, from the Middle East to America. 2011. 193, 204-205.
    5 Drew, Costello. “Manipulating the Veil”. March 19, 2012.

    Posted by tealam12 | March 26, 2012, 3:48 pm
  4. What do you think it means that some of those opposed to women being veiled are otherwise anti-feminist? Do you think that they are arguing for a different kind of feminism altogether or are simply confused? It doesn’t seem all that out of place at present that someone might hold simultaneously conflicting views on a given issue. Lack of critical thinking skills and training in logic coupled with over-parenting have given us a whole generation of adults who can hardly decide which cereal to have for breakfast, let alone which side of an argument they fall on. It should be no surprise to anyone who has interacted with first-year college students that strong views coupled with a lack of ability to focus one’s attention will result in this kind of discordant, incongruous thinking. Then again, maybe it is similar instead to Muslim women arguing that the veil is feminist. That would put them in the opposite position as those who argue against the veil but also against abortion. Thoughts?

    Posted by johndmartin | March 27, 2012, 11:25 pm
  5. Drew,

    I really enjoyed reading this review. It seems to me as a faithful and accurate representation of the material discussed in her book and, quite honestly, made it a bit more accessible than the book itself. What I mean to express by saying this is that I agree fully with your final paragraph. This book, while the subject matter was interesting and certainly relevant to current events, was tedious and repetitive. I also found that certain sections of the book, particularly in the second half where the author discusses the various issues surrounding Muslims’ lives in America in the post-9/11 world and the types of discourse and discrimination that they fall victim to, seemed a bit disjointed, especially in its relation to the material discussed in the first half of the book.

    One element of your review that I appreciated was the attention you spent to various right-wing figures in American politics and media and their role in the highly-politicized discourse about women and Islam in the wake of 9/11. This was perhaps one of the more compelling sections of the book, and certainly worth the attention which you have paid it.

    I really do not have any major critiques of your review. I could have been a nice addition if you had been able to go a little more in-depth into the various types of personal reasons that various Muslim women have for choosing to or to not wear the veil. However, I found it to be overall well written and an enjoyable read. Good work.

    Posted by woolmanjc | March 29, 2012, 10:19 pm

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