A Quiet Revolution Summary

A Quiet Revolution is a 2011 work of nonfiction about the reappearance of the hijab among Muslim women in the Middle East and the United States.

  • Author Leila Ahmed traces the history of the hijab in Egypt, where most women did not veil themselves between the 1920s and 1960s.
  • With the rise of Islamism in the 1970s and its subsequent spread to the United States, increasing numbers of Muslim women began to take up the hijab.
  • After 9/11, American Muslim women began to take their place as outspoken leaders and activists, merging American and Islamist ideas.


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In her introduction, Leila Ahmed explains how the appearance of the hijab in the United States sparked many questions for her. These questions propelled her to research the topic, exploring the rise of Islamism in the United States and observing its development in a new democratic context. These wider questions were all explored through the lens of focusing “specifically on women and Islamism and the veil’s return.”

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In chapter 1, Ahmed traces the decline of the veil in Egypt and other Muslim-majority countries. During the colonial era, the veil became a symbol of the “backwardness” of Muslim societies. Many Muslims, in hopes of trying to “catch up” with the West, believed that discarding the veil was a necessary step toward progress.

In chapter 2, Ahmed “presents an overview of the major developments in Egypt between the 1920s and the 1960s.” In this era, unveiled Muslim women were the norm in Egypt; the choice to go “bareheaded” was not seen as a symbol of secularism. In 1928, Hassan al-Banna founded the Muslim Brotherhood, and the political goals of the Brotherhood reflected the rise of anti-imperialism. In 1952, the Egyptian government was toppled, and Gamal Abdel Nasser became the leader of the country.

Under Nasser, tensions with Saudi Arabia increased, and socialist ideals were pursued. Nasser banned and persecuted the Muslim Brotherhood, which was at the time a fringe movement. Fleeing Egypt, many members of the Brotherhood found refuge and support in Saudi Arabia. There, they played a key role in the founding of the Muslim World League—an organization with the goal of promoting Islamism.

In 1967, following Egypt’s defeat at the hands of Israeli forces, many Egyptians questioned Nasser’s policies and instead began to turn to religion for guidance. Ahmed begins chapter 3 in 1970, when Anwar Sadat became president of Egypt. Under Sadat, the Brotherhood was allowed to take on non-political activities, and the ideals of Western capitalism were pursued by the elite. The Brotherhood’s educational efforts, as well as their commitment to social justice, led to the rise of Islamism and the hijab in the 1970s.

In chapter 4, Leila Ahmed continues her examination of the 1970s as “a critical decade” for the spread of Islamism in Egypt. Different factors helped contribute to this rise: the growing wealth of Saudi Arabia, which funded the expansion of the Muslim League; the spread of Saudi ideology and fashion among Egyptians who had spent time working in the Arabian Peninsula; and the cultural power of Islamist associations. In 1981, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat was assassinated by Islamist extremists who had been influenced by the writings of Sayyid Qutb. Zainab al-Ghazali, the “unsung mother” of the Muslim Brotherhood, was also an influential leader at this time. In 1979, the Iranian Revolution seemed to be a triumph of Islamism.

In chapter 5, Ahmed tracks the rise of the hijab in Egypt in the 1980s. She reviews research from the time period that drew on interviews with Egyptian women, some of whom chose to take up the hijab and some of whom did not. Ahmed points out that, throughout the research of that decade, the rising influence of Islamism can be traced.

In chapter 6, Ahmed reviews research that stretches into the 1990s and focuses...

(The entire section contains 1098 words.)

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