Leila Ahmed, Harvard Divinity School Muslim Scholar, Wins Prestigious Grawemeyer Award

ahmedFor the first time, the University of Louisville’s prestigious Grawemeyer Award in Religion, a $100,000 cash prize, will go to a female Muslim scholar.

Leila Ahmed, a Harvard Divinity School professor specializing in women and Islam, will receive the 2013 Grawemeyer religion award for her 2011 book, “A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence, from the Middle East to America.” The book explores why a growing number of Muslim women are wearing religious headscarves

Ahmed, 72, was born and raised in Cairo at a time when few women wore religious headscarves, yet considered themselves observant Muslims. Why, she wanted to know, has the hijab enjoyed such a comeback?

Known for debunking stereotypes about Muslims, Ahmed acknowledged she started the research with her own prejudices. “I thought this was going to be connected with fundamentalist Islam, or patriarchal Islam,” she said.

Instead, interviews with Muslim women of diverse backgrounds around the world revealed that many of them wore the hijab as a symbol of activism and to assert their identity, especially in America after 9/11. “They wanted a way of saying,’I’m proud to be Muslim and I want to show you, you shouldn’t have prejudices against Muslims.'”

Some women hoped their hijabs would make other women think about their own styles of dress, as well as social justice and service. While activism often motivated women to don hijabs, religious commitment remained an important reason as well. “Many women wear the hijab because they believe that God requires them to,” Ahmed said.

Book review: ‘A Quiet Revolution’ by Leila Ahmed

When I was 13, one of my classmates came to school one morning wearing a beige head scarf. This was in the 1980s, in Morocco. Surprised by her attire, I joined a group of girls who gathered around her, watching them pepper her with questions. Our classmate calmly replied that she had decided to wear the hijab because that was what a “true” Muslim girl should do.

This struck us as strange. After all, we were Muslim girls too, but none of us, regardless of the degree of our piety, thought that our religion required us to cover.

“A Quiet Revolution” is an important book, even if at times it favors an opaque, academic language. It provides a thorough history of the resurgence of the veil both in the Muslim world and in the U.S. and adds significant nuance to the complex issues that surround the veil. Ahmed’s work will no doubt continue to inspire a new generation of Muslim feminists.