by Polly Gannaway
At The Frontline Club in Paddington on Wednesday night, Professor Leila Ahmed talked about her new book, “A Quiet Revolution”, which looks carefully at the resurgence of the veil in the Islamic world and what that means for the West.
During the evening, Professor Ahmed emphasised that wearing the hijab was not necessarily related to piety - meaning that wearing it does not automatically establish someone as profoundly religious and likewise, that not wearing it, does not mean a less devout attitude towards Islam. Some wear it as a reminder of their faith or because they believe it to represent a commitment to God. Others wear it to show solidarity to their community or see it as a symbol of respect and protection. Some even view it as a means of support to the Palestinian cause or a way to refute a government ban.
An interesting focus of her research has been the hijab as a form of activism - a way to rebel and make a statement: “In many occasions the veil represents a sign of protest and often of liberation”. She noted that the hijab is a controversial subject because it is often linked with the oppression and subjugation of women. However, Professor Ahmed states that for many women, the hijab is not a sign of oppression and that the banning of the veil in places like Egypt in the 1990s has proved itself to be equally as restrictive and counter-productive as it discriminates against a minority.
She argues strongly that many Muslim women in Western society wear the hijab as a symbol of choice and empowerment - a quiet revolution, as the title of her book suggests.
With dry humour and sharp wit, she quipped how boring a subject the veil has become for many Muslim women. As she highlighted, there does seem to be an unnecessary focus on what Muslim women wear that is not comparable to that of other communities or faiths.
The hijab carries several connotations, which are now clearly evolving over time – as are opinions regarding it.
“I don't want to romanticise the hijab. The things I am saying only have meaning where there's freedom to choose. Women are deciding what the veil means to them but not all women can choose. The freedom to make it mean what you want it to is Western.” – Professor Leila Ahmed