In a video making the rounds on social networking sites, a waggish Egyptian filmmaker has juxtaposed images of Egypt's uprising with Lebanon's 2005 Cedar Revolution that ousted Syrian forces from the country.
The images from Egypt are familiar: men and women in Tahrir Square being attacked by security forces, demonstrations of tens of thousands of people. In particular, women in hijab are featured, serious faces calling for serious change. These images are contrasted with images of Lebanese women, unveiled and often partially unclothed, smiling and laughing for change. "Damn our bad luck," the film quips.
The joke speaks to a stereotype, in the Arab world as elsewhere, of women in hijab as serious and devout, while unveiled Arabs are seen as free-spirited, sexy and - indeed - modern. The stereotype speaks to a fear and a question that has often arisen in discussions about the Middle East, but has gained an added piquancy as the Arab Spring has swept the region.
The fear is that a democratic Middle East would bring to power Islamist governments that might push socially conservative policies. Interestingly, the great fear of western governments in this regard is also the fear of liberal and secular Arabs: that Islamist governments would be more responsive to the beliefs of their citizens and thus that a more conservative society would emerge. The fear of Islamists among Arabs is not that they might change the economy or foreign policy, but that they might change society, making it more socially conservative. The symbol of that conservatism is the veil.
The veil is everywhere in the Arab world. In almost every country in the region, a significant minority, sometimes even a majority, of women, wear some version of the head-covering. Yet it wasn't always thus. The rise of the veil is one of the most intriguing facets of modern Arab life. How did this rise come about and what does it mean for the modern Middle East?
In A Quiet Revolution, the author and academic Leila Ahmed sets as her task discovering an answer to this question. Ahmed, a professor of divinity at Harvard, grew up in Cairo in the 1940s, when the sight of women wearing the hijab, the scarf that covers the hair but leaves the face uncovered, was rare, let alone the sight of women wearing the full face veil.
For Ahmed, as for her parents' generation across the republics of the Arab world at the time, the hijab was on the way out, part of an outdated mode of dress. Yet the exact opposite occurred: across the Arab and Muslim world through the 1970s and 1980s, the wearing of the hijab made a comeback, to the extent that today in the Arab world a majority of women again wear the headscarf or face-veil.
The wearing of the hijab has transcended social class, transcended even religious devotion. It has become an extraordinary social movement, a visible sea-change. And it has spread to the West. Ahmed notes her surprise, even shock, at seeing young, well-educated women across America reclaiming the headscarf, often to the anguish of their parents. The same trend can be seen in Western Europe today.
How and why that happened is the subject of Ahmed's detailed, clearly written book. The history of this piece of cloth proves extremely complicated, a weaving together of many complex threads. Her analysis is hard to disagree with, although not necessarily palatable.
Ahmed starts where so much of the commentary about this subject starts, in the Arab republics of the 1950s, countries where veiling was unusual, even socially frowned upon. Such was the trend against the veil that the great Middle Eastern historian Albert Hourani, then a young academic at Oxford, could write about the disappearing veil as if it were vanishing into history.
Ahmed unpicks the intellectual trends that led thinkers of the period to see the veil as part of the reason why Arab societies were not as technologically advanced as Europe. In that is an idea that still, even today, dominates thinking about the headscarf.