As part of the Sawyer Seminar Lecture Series at University of Chicago, Dr. Leila Ahmed of the Divinity School at Harvard gave a talk on May 8th, 2012 on her newest book, “A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence, from the Middle East to America.”
Ahmed’s book is formatted into two main sections: the first is a comprehensive history of Islamism and its effect on women in Egypt, Ahmed’s home country. The second section focuses on how Islam came to the US by ways of organizations such as the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) and the Muslim Student Association (MSA).
The bulk of Ahmed’s presentation focused on American Muslim women who she considers to be feminist activists. Specifically, Ahmed’s definition of “feminism” is as such, “rejecting hierarchies based on gender.” Although many of the women mentioned in the presentation do not consider themselves feminist, their daily work suggests otherwise. Some of the women mentioned are Ingrid Mattson, the first female president of INSA, Amina Wadud who was the first woman to lead Friday prayers in 2008, and Bonita McGee who founded Muslim Family Services and works on issues of domestic violence in the Muslim community.
Dr. Ahmed then discussed the phenomenon of American Muslim youth, second and third generation Muslims who never knew a time in their lives when they “were not Muslim and American at the same time.” This new generation paved the way for a different kind of activism, one that is not necessarily linked with the Islamists of the home country, but a more broad understanding of Islam and charity. This generation also grew up in a specific time in the history of Islam and America, in a post- 9/11 world. During this time the American public was interested in Islam and Muslims, and pundits and politicians alike tried to justify intervention and occupation in the Middle East on the grounds of women and Islam. For example, in Ahmed’s new book she cites a speech given by First Lady Laura Bush on November 17, 2001 in which she said,
”Civilized people throughout the world are speaking out in horror — not only because our hearts break for the women and children in Afghanistan, but also because in Afghanistan, we see the world the terrorists would like to impose on the rest of us.”
While Ahmed admits that the Taliban had very oppressive and brutal policies against women and children in Afghanistan, this rhetoric used by Laura Bush (and shortly thereafter by Cherie Blair, wife of then British Prime Minister) gave way to a new kind of justification for war – women’s liberation. The burqa quickly became a battle flag for the United State’s involvement in Afghanistan, and the rest of the Muslim world. According to Ahmed, “Islam is not innately oppressive to women,” and that sort of rhetoric should be “thrown out entirely” from the conversation. Ahmed then cited scholar Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak who considered this rhetoric as, “white men saving brown women from brown men.” The crowd laughed after she made this statement.
Dr. Ahmed concluded with her proclamation that we are witnessing a “new moment in history of Islam, America, and the West.” The discussion which followed after consisted of questions regarding the political nature of hijab, class analysis of women who chose to cover, and comments by the speaker about scholars of Islam. Historically, Dr Ahmed explained, non-Muslims studied Islam, but today because of the large population of Muslims in universities there are finally Muslim men and women who are becoming important scholars of Islam and the Muslim world. Ahmed also suggested that, “we are past the time where women who wear hijab were enemies of Muslim women who do not cover.”