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.