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Understanding the Veil (and More!)

Is Western concern about women and the veil really a concern for the well-being of women? Is the veil a symptom of their problems or of ours? Egyptian born Harvard University professor Leila Ahmed, who had a comfortable, sophisticated upbringing in Cairo, provides essential historical background and challenges our thinking.

“When people think about Muslim women, they think of the image of Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan,” says Ahmed. Why is that, when 90 percent of the Muslim world does not wear any of this stuff? And why is it that I am always asked to explain why Islam oppresses women and yet never asked why Islam has produced seven women prime ministers or heads of state and Europe only two or three?”

Why I Cover

Krista Tippet of American Public Media sits down with a remarkable woman to hear more on a most intriguing subject.

Krista Tippet: You were born in Egypt in the waning days of the British Empire. The notion of the Arab world had not yet been invented. But in our time, we refer to the Arab world as a fact of history and geography. We take it for granted and interchange it with another newly invented term, the Islamic world.
Laila Ahmed: Yes. For one thing, I no longer believe that there's an Islamic world; where exactly are the borders? Are they in Chicago? Where are they? Where does the Islamic world end, and where does the West begin? Is it in Paris, or where is it? So I do think what happens in this country is going to be as much about the Islamic world as whatever happens over there. The Islamic world is no longer over there.

KT: When it comes to analyzing Muslim women, you say Westerners need to question their most basic assumptions. We tend to focus on Muslim clothing and headdress as a symbol of root problems. Like when Prime Minister Tony Blair recently called the Islamic full-face veil a "mark of separation," he echoed a nineteenth-century British missionary who described Muslim women as "buried alive behind the veil."
LA: What we're living through right now is so startling to me in some ways, partly because it seems to repeat history in a very disturbing way. And what I mean is, it was extraordinary for me to turn on the television during the Afghan war and see women throwing off the veil, or see endless programs on CNN on the veil, see Laura Bush speaking about women in Afghanistan and liberating them. And what was disturbing there was to see the replay of what the British Empire did in Egypt 100 years ago. And it was almost hard to believe.

KT: Tell us about it.
LA: What I need to invoke here is the belief at the end of the nineteenth century that the veil symbolized the oppression of Muslim women. It's part of the mythology of that era in which whatever was being done in another country, the countries that they dominated, whether it was India or sub-Saharan Africa or the Muslim countries, however the women dressed there it was wrong. In sub-Saharan Africa, they didn't wear enough clothes; they didn't dress the way European Victorian women dressed. In the Middle East, they wore too many clothes. So in the West, the veil became the emblem of how uncivilized Islam was and, on the other hand, how civilized Europeans were. But the other twist that we need to remember is that Victorian dress was hardly the most liberated.

KT: That's right. And you point out that, even as Victorian women had thoughts of liberation and emancipation or just progress, no one suggested that they had to discard Victorian dress for that of some other culture.
LA: That's right. And the wonderful example there, too, is that Lord Cromer, who was the governor of Egypt at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was the most vociferous advocate of how important it was that Muslim women unveil. And, by the way, you can see a parallel. He was the Paul Bremer of his day.

The Paul Bremer in charge of our presence in Iraq...


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