Leila Ahmed, Harvard’s Victor S. Thomas professor of divinity, received the prize for ideas set forth in her book, “A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence from the Middle East to America.” Yale University Press published the book in 2011.
Ahmed wrote the book after noticing that more and more American Muslim women over the past decade wore veils as they went about their daily lives. At first, she thought the change indicated a rejection of the women’s equality. However, she ultimately found just the opposite to be true — some of the women wore the veil as a symbol of activism for justice and social change.
Ahmed interviewed young Muslim feminists, Arab nationalists, pious Islamic daughters, American Muslim immigrants and Islamic activists for her book. She discovered that in the context of contemporary American Islam, wearing a veil can represent a call for equality.
“The book is an incredible eye-opener,” said Shannon Craigo-Snell, a theology professor at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary who directs the religion award. “It offers education, insight and hope.”
Not only does Ahmed “explain the multiple meanings of the veil within the diverse traditions of Islam, but she argues that right now, in post-9/11 America, the veil is taking on new meanings in the interplay between Islamic activism and the American tradition of struggle for liberty and justice for all,” Craigo-Snell said.
Ahmed, born in Cairo to an Egyptian father and Turkish mother, later moved to the United States to teach and write.
She has taught women’s studies in religion at Harvard Divinity School since 1999 and has written several books on the historical and social status of women in Muslim communities.
Scholars regard her 1992 book “Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate” as a pivotal work. In that book, she argues that male interpretations of Islam — rather than Islam itself — led to the oppression of women in the Middle East.
UofL presents four Grawemeyer Awards each year for outstanding works in music composition, world order, psychology and education. The university and Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary jointly give a fifth award in religion. The 2013 awards are $100,000 each. UofL announced recipients of the other awards earlier this week.