Feminist scholar’s book on hijab’s rise earns Grawemeyer religion award
At first, feminist religion scholar Leila Ahmed was alarmed by the growing visibility of young American Muslim women wearing headscarves.
She feared that a politicized, male-dominated fundamentalism had migrated from her native Egypt to her adopted United States.
Instead, Ahmed reached what she admits was an “astonishing” conclusion:
“Islamists and the children of Islamists … were now in the vanguard of those who were most fully and rapidly assimilating into the distinctively American tradition of activism in pursuit of justice,” Ahmed wrote in her book, “A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence, from the Middle East to America.”
Many women who wore the hijab, or headscarf, “now essentially made up the vanguard of those who are struggling for women’s rights in Islam,” Ahmed wrote.
For her 2011 book documenting a century of trends in the politically and socially loaded question of the hijab, Ahmed has received the 2013 Louisville Grawemeyer Award in Religion.
The annual award, which comes with a $100,000 prize, is given jointly by Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and the University of Louisville.
Ahmed, a professor of divinity at Harvard Divinity School, cautioned that for many Muslims, the hijab still symbolizes male dominance.
But she said that many veil-wearing American Muslim women are promoting women’s equality in mosques and other Islamic organizations. They are speaking out against domestic abuse and sexual harassment and for the rights of women to work, study and travel.
Shannon Craigo-Snell, director of the Grawemeyer religion award, calls Ahmed’s book an “incredible eye-opener.”
“It wasn’t an easy sell,” said Craigo-Snell, a theology professor at the seminary. “When I first started reading the book, I was very skeptical she was going to persuade me — the notion that American ideals of fighting for the inclusion of all minorities could go hand-in-hand with Islamist ideas.”
But Ahmed “presents it quite persuasively,” Craigo-Snell said.
Ahmed’s book focuses on the rising use of the hijab in two countries — Egypt, whose Islamist movement has had worldwide influence, and the U.S.