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When the Arab Spring came to Egypt, Hadir, twenty and from a strict Salafist family in Cairo, firmly believed that women must wear the hijab and never mix with men. However, after several days of protests, she ventured out into the streets. She was emboldened by a sense of equality with male protestors, and two months later decided that she would no longer wear the veil. Despite reprisals from her family—they took away her laptop and phone, and only allowed her out of the house for work—Hadir now feels empowered. She believes in equality of the sexes and thinks she can do more than just get married and have a family.
This is one of many stories of life as a woman in the Middle East that author Katherine Zoepf has collected in her years as a reporter in the region. Her new book, Excellent Daughters: The Secret Lives of Young Women who are Transforming the Arab World, shows the small ways that women in the Middle East are exacting change and the significant barriers they still face. In it Zoepf presents an impressive collection of interviews and experiences that is part memoir, part reporting from a broad swathe of the Middle East. Zoepf thinks there is a problem in the way the West views Muslim women in the Arab world. Too often they are looked upon as a faceless population, beaten down by submission or physical violence. They are seen as mute beneath their hijabs and niqabs. Zoepf takes a look into the hidden lives of these women and presents them without condescension or pity.
She is searching for signs of hope, small though they may be. In Beirut, she meets women who are proud to be in college and to provide for their families. Several of them told Zoepf that they wanted to establish their careers before marrying and having a family. They are trying to change their country and stake their claim as equals to men. In Egypt, women poured into the streets during the 2011 Arab Spring protests, and there was a brief period when their male compatriots accepted them as fellow fighters for democracy (she notes that this enthusiasm for equality has not lasted).
In Syria before the civil war, Quranic education of girls and women was seen by activists as a way to protect women and allow them to fight injustice and abuse at home. Educating them on what the Quran actually teaches gave them the confidence and religious authority at home to reject abuse and inequality. But even Quranic education can be a challenge. One woman who opened a girl’s Quranic school in Hama, a very conservative city in Syria, often had to go to each girl’s home to convince their fathers to let them attend. But this also gave her the opportunity to act as mediator between daughter and father when conflict arose.
In Saudi Arabia, however, Zoepf was startled by how conservative and uninterested in change young people were. Most women she interviewed said they had no desire to drive or disrupt the guardianship system. She befriended a group of conservative female friends who had just begun college. At one get together, the discussion turned to the arranged engagement of one of the girls. They discussed the limited contact girls have with their fiancés before the wedding. One girl provoked the others by arguing that it’s normal now to speak on the phone with one’s fiancé and that in the more liberal city of Jeddah there are even mixed weddings where men and women celebrate together. Scandalized, the other girls shamed her into backing down.
Zoepf introduces her readers to a host of contradictory figures. One activist, Norah al-Sowayan, says that Saudi women don’t think they need rights because of low self-esteem. She describes well-educated, well-traveled professional women who allow themselves to be abused. They’ve been raised to believe that men and the outside world are dangerous and that they are weak and need protection. If these premises are accepted then it’s not surprising that women are happy to have drivers, legal guardians, and gender segregation. Rowdha Yousef works against women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia. After a woman tried to travel out of country without a guardian’s written permission, she took action with the “My Guardian Knows What’s Best for Me” campaign, which petitioned the king to reject calls for reform and punish people demanding equality between men and women. She collected 5,400 signatures in just two months.
Although Zoepf’s subjects come from varying family backgrounds and countries with different social norms, their stories are all woven together by the common thread of honor and shame. Whether it has to do with veiling, separation of the sexes, or the emphasis on virginity, it is the woman’s duty to remain “pure” and to keep men’s thoughts pure as well. There is a Moroccan adage for this ethos: “women are like silk and men are like gold. If you drop gold in the mud it can be wiped clean. But if you drop silk in the mud, it is ruined forever.”
The Muslim concept of honor is tightly bound to the concept of community. Islamic teachers argue that everyone is responsible for everyone else. If one person stumbles, everyone shares the guilt. For this reason, women are told that they are responsible if men sin either in thought or action because of their presence or attire. Zoepf points out that this burden falls disproportionately on women and girls. She describes her own experience with a female teacher in Syria who asked her why she doesn’t wear a hijab. How would she feel, the teacher asked, if a man saw her unveiled and was so filled with lust that he went and abused a child? She never suggested that the man could be responsible for the action.
Zoepf discusses the origin of practices designed to preserve honor, including veiling, seclusion, virginity, and the connection of all three to honor killings. She explains that the heavy emphasis on a woman’s honor and her family’s duty to maintain it are Bedouin traditions and are not directly related to Islam. It is the same with honor killings. She tells the story of the Syrian girl Zahra who was raped by her father’s friend and then brutally murdered by her brother with the consent of her entire family. And yet, most of the men she interviewed about Zahra’s death, which was widely reported, believed that honor killing is either related to Islam, protected by Sharia, or explicitly required by Islam.
Herein lies the problem. We can argue about the extent to which the Quran and Hadith encourage the seclusion of women and their status as second-class citizens and we can interpret the verses on veiling in strict or lenient ways. But what can’t be denied is what Zoepf’s book plainly shows: across the Muslim world, from the most conservative to the most liberal countries, women are not seen as equals to men by the majority of society, including women themselves. Whether or not this originally had to do with Islam, it certainly has something to do with Islam today. Arguing about the origins is fine, and it may be helpful for reformers who want to change the religion from within. But there is no doubt that the Islam that is practiced across the Middle East today considers these practices to be de facto part of their religion.
However, tracing the origins of women’s rights in the Muslim world is not the task of Zoepf’s book. It is rather to remind us that women in the Middle East are not monolithic. She sees them not as they are often portrayed—miserable, afraid, lonely—but as women who find small moments of independence, despite living in such a restrictive environment. There are personalities behind the veils and customs. Some want to be lawyers and doctors while still bearing the burden of honor for their families. Her book isn’t a screed against Islam meant to frighten readers about the terrible things women endure, although there’s plenty in the book to alarm. Instead it’s meant to show a more intimate view of their lives and, yes, to show the injustice they live with. Some accept it, some find ways around it, and others fight it.
Zoepf observes that change may come in small, sometimes unnoticed ways. She believes that this can happen when “a daughter makes slightly different decisions from the ones a mother made.” Toward the end of the book a divorced woman tells the author that she is looking forward to her son turning 12, because then he, not another male relative, will become her legal guardian. Her son will be different, she says, because she will raise him to respect women.