Leila Ahmed (Arabic: لیلى أحمد; born 1940) is an Egyptian-American scholar of Islam. In 1992 she published her book Women and Gender in Islam, which is regarded as a seminal historical analysis of the position of women in Arab Muslim societies. She became the first professor of women's studies in religion at Harvard Divinity School in 1999, and has held the Victor S. Thomas Professor of Divinity chair since 2003. In 2013, Ahmed received the University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award in Religion for her analysis of the "veiling" of Muslim women in the United States.
Born in the Heliopolis district of Cairo to a middle-class Egyptian father and an upper class Turkish mother in 1940, Ahmed's childhood was shaped both by Muslim Egyptian values and the liberal orientation of Egypt's aristocracy under the ancien régime. The Ahmed family became politically ostracized following the Free Officers Movement in 1952. Her father, a civil engineer, was a vocal opponent of Gamal Abdel Nasser's construction of the Aswan High Dam on ecological principles.
She earned her doctorate degree from University of Cambridge during the 1960s before moving to the United States to teach and write, where she was appointed to professorship in Women's Studies and Near Eastern studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 1981 followed by a professorship in Women's Studies and Religion at the Harvard Divinity School in 1999, where she currently teaches.
A Border Passage (1999)
In her 1999 memoir A Border Passage, Ahmed describes her multicultural Cairene upbringing and her adult life as an expatriate and an immigrant in Europe and the United States. She tells of how she was introduced to Islam through her grandmother during her childhood, and she came to distinguish it from "official Islam" as practiced and preached by a largely male religious elite. This realization would later form the basis of her first acclaimed book, Women and Gender in Islam (1992), a seminal work on Islamic history, Muslim feminism, and the historical role of women in Islam.
Ahmed speaks of her experience in Europe and the United States as one that was often fraught with tension and confusion as she tried to reconcile her Muslim Egyptian identity with Western values. Faced with racism and anti-Muslim prejudice, and after deconstructing traditionalist male-centered beliefs in her own culture, she set out to dispel equally damaging myths and misconceptions held by the West about Islam and Muslim women. Today, Ahmed is perhaps known most widely for her groundbreaking work on the Islamic view of women and their historical and social status in the Muslim world.
Ahmed has been a strong critic of Arab nationalism in Egypt and the Middle East. She devotes an entire chapter in her autobiography to the question of Arab nationalism, and the political factors and efforts which went into constructing an Arab identity for Egypt after the army's coup d'état. According to Ahmed's research, the idea that Egyptians were "Arab" was virtually unheard of well into the 20th century. She describes Arab nationalism, like many other forms of pan-nationalism, as a type of cultural imperialism. This cultural imperialism eats away at the diversity and cultural creativity of not only the Arabic-speaking national majorities (who often speak widely divergent vernaculars), but also the non-Arabic speaking minorities throughout the Middle East and North Africa.
Women and Gender in Islam (1992)
In her seminal work, Women and Gender in Islam (1992), Ahmed argues that the oppressive practices to which women in the Middle East are subjected are caused by the prevalence of patriarchal interpretations of Islam rather than Islam itself. She maintains that as Islam evolved, two divergent voices emerged in the religion:
- An ethical structure that advocates the moral and spiritual equality of all human beings;
- A hierarchical structure as the basis of male/female relations; a gender-based/sexual hierarchy.
Islamic doctrine developed within an androcentric, misogynist society, that of Abbasid Iraq, the customs of which were largely inherited from the Sasanian Empire after its conquest. This society emphasised and institutionalised the gendered hierarchical voice and silenced the voice of equity and justice. Islam as a religion therefore became a discourse of the politically dominant elite, i.e.; male society. There were early signs of resistance to establishment Islam. For example, the thoughts of Sufi and Qarmatians groups, philosophers such as Ibn al-Arabi and the liberal stance of powerful families and individuals towards their daughters in respect of marriage and education (e.g.; imposing a monogamy clause in marriage contracts or one for providing private education).
Despite such resistance, establishment Islam experienced little serious challenge until early 19th-century colonial encroachment. European colonialisms' remit was essentially economic; however, female emancipation was used as an argument to legitimate geopolitical incursion. Colonial feminism was a Western discourse of dominance which, "introduced the notion that an intrinsic connection existed between the issue of culture and the status of women, and … that progress for women could be achieved only through abandoning the native culture."
Inevitably, the initial reaction to this was a rejection of Western values by political Islamists. This rejection saw the conflation of Islam and culture where Islamic authenticity became defined in terms of cultural authenticity and, specifically, the role of women within Islam. This led to a reaffirmation of indigenous customs relating to women and restoration of the customs and laws of past Islamic societies. The underlying assumption was that there is an authentic interpretation of Islam that is based on the texts and institutions developed in Abbasid Iraq. According to such assumptions, the meaning of gender and the position of women within Islam is "unambiguous and ascertainable in some precise and absolute sense."
Since this initial reaction, Muslim women scholars have argued that the values of the Abbasid era in Iraq are not universal to Islam — rather they were specific to a particular time, culture and people. Islamic texts and institutions need to be separated from patriarchal culture and reappraised in terms of merit, and listening to the voice of equality and justice. Ahmed concludes by exhorting feminists, both Muslim and Western, to undertake this task by critically engaging with, challenging and redefining the Middle East regions' diverse religious and cultural heritage.