(RNS) For 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.
Eboo Patel, founder and director of the Interfaith Youth Core in Chicago, became the first Muslim to win the prize in 2010, for his 2007 autobiography, "Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation."