In 1956 the historian Albert Hourani, best known for his magisterial History of the Arab Peoples, wrote a short article in the UNESCO Courier predicting that the hijab or veil worn by Muslim women would disappear from ‘advanced’ Arab countries like Egypt, surviving only in ‘backward regions’ such as Yemen and Saudi Arabia where the ‘old order’ persisted. More than half a century on, the veil is proudly, even defiantly, worn by Harvard undergraduates, not to mention the female half of an audience that filled Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre for a discussion I attended last year between Professor Tariq Ramadan and Shaikh Hamza Yusuf Hanson, the distinguished American convert. In the post-9/11 world, as Leila Ahmed points out in this gripping yet erudite book, the veil worn by women in Western countries such as Britain and America has come to symbolise a range of public postures, from the resistance to Islamophobia or anti-Muslim prejudice experienced on the domestic front, to expressions of support for Muslim women in places such as Iraq, Bosnia, Somalia or Palestine, exemplified by the group that calls itself ‘Scarves for Solidarity’. How is it, Ahmed asks, that a form of head-covering once seen as a symbol of patriarchal oppression can now be regarded as a call for justice?
Her answers, as one would expect from one of the world’s foremost writers on issues of gender in Islam, are complex and nuanced, and it does no service to her scholarship to reduce them to crude résumés. After revisiting her native Egypt where, prior to the recent protests,