“Muslimwomen,” Journalists and Scholars

Excellent Daughters: The Secret Lives of Young Women Who Are Transforming the Arab World

By Katherine Zoepf

New York: Penguin Press, 2016, 258 pp., $28.00, hardcover

Reviewed by Lila Abu-Lughod

Katherine Zoepf introduces Excellent Daughters by telling us that as an aspiring young reporter, she had to overcome her fear that “women’s issues were somehow unserious.” And like many of us who have lived in the Arab world, she found herself cringing at the views “back home.” Deploring the gap between “reputation and reality” Zoepf sets out to show that Arab women’s lives give lie to the simplistic narratives of victimhood that circulate in American media and minds.

Zoepf is thoughtful, modest, and open. Her writing is uncluttered. She has a good eye for social trends and a sensitive ear, and she tells vivid, believable stories about the young women she met in Beirut, Damascus, Cairo, Riyadh, and Abu Dhabi. She shows not a trace of the self-promotion, polemic, or prejudice that colors so much popular writing on this subject. Even the way she defines her subject sets her apart. Zoepf is concrete and specific. This is partly a function of her book’s origin—in stories she filed as a reporter from particular places at particular times between 2006 and 2011. But it is refreshing, given how many other popular writers pronounce on the generic figure of the American imagination that miriam cooke, professor of Arabic literature and Women’s Studies at Duke University, has called the “Muslimwoman.”

Wanting to know more after 9/11, Zoepf went to London to study. Then she headed off to the region to study Arabic. She didn’t go to Cairo or Beirut, where she might have been tempted to surround herself with other Americans. She went to the great historic Arab city of Damascus which, in 2004, was on the cusp of gentrification. A sense of calm prevailed, maintained, as Zoepf points out, by the (not so) secret police. Dissidence was kept in check, but it was there for a curious stringer to search out, whether in women’s Quranic study groups or nongovernmental human rights organizations. It is hard now to think back to that other moment, that other Syria.

Zoepf is at her best in the later chapters, like the 2010 story about the debates about women’s driving in Saudi Arabia. She captures the density of the political terrain through the variety of opinions she encountered. She talks to women whose supportive husbands had taught them to drive. She talks to activists who insist that fighting for civil rights is more important than driving. She explains women’s enthusiasm for Oprah Winfrey, who assures women that they can overcome their circumstances and create lives of value. And she interviews many women who oppose radical change, ending the chapter with a campaign run by an activist in stiletto-heel sandals whose friend explains, “The image in the West is that we are dominated by men, but they always forget the aspect of love.” She tells us this book is about the “remarkable women” who are transforming the Arab world. This is a hopeful message-in-a-bottle tossed onto the sea of gloom about Middle Eastern women as victims, in which most American journalism is swimming. Yet the message is mixed.

US policies have been devastating for people living in the Arab world. Zoepf mentions that she reported from Baghdad. Unfortunately she does not include any of those articles in this book. The consequences of US intervention in Iraq—from sanctions to “shock and awe,” regime change, and the legislation of sectarianism—continue to unfold from Palmyra to Paris like some slow motion nightmare. Nothing about young Arab women’s hopes or despair can be understood outside this context, about which Zoepf is silent.

Her book opens instead at a garden party in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in 2007. A group of young women, former high school classmates, giggle and pass around cellphone photos while eating marshmallows roasted by Filipina servants. They are excited about the first of their cohort to get engaged. Zoepf mentions in passing that some of them are studying law. Later in the book, she will tell us that across the Arab world (just as in the US) more women than men are pursuing higher education. She concludes the chapter with a moment of self-doubt.

When, in 2014, I heard the news that a Saudi woman had opened a law firm for the first time, I reread my notes from the evening in Reem’s garden and was disappointed at how many pages I’d devoted to Disney World honeymoons and how few I’d written about the first cohort of Saudi women students.

However, instead of going on to rectify the imbalance by telling us more about these students (as does Amélie le Renard, a French ethnographer and the author of A Society of Young Women (2014), about how Saudi Arabia’s women university students are reshaping social norms and formations), Zoepf simply says, “Sometimes, I reminded myself, this is what a vanguard looks like: ponytailed and giggling and eating marshmallows.”

Zoepf confesses that some of the young women she interviewed felt betrayed, even angry, when they read her stories. All of us who write about others struggle with how to represent them, especially when we translate across contexts and write for different publics. Should we brush aside their reactions? Or should we take them to heart and correct for what we may have inadvertently missed? Here is where the pressures of the market in the context of American journalism about the Middle East make themselves felt, despite Zoepf’s good intentions.

Zoepf’s publisher, Penguin, probably bet that this book would be as well received as her reporting, since the public has an apparently insatiable appetite for “glimpses behind the veil.” Where would the pressure come from to substantially rethink what she had written years earlier? Who would have asked her to ferret out the stubborn remnants of accepted wisdom that lurk in her account? If Zoepf had been challenged, she might have reconsidered the sexual undercurrent that runs through her stories. Feminists insist that respecting women means not reducing them to sex. But western portrayals of the Arab and Muslim world have long been infused with sexual fantasy, and unfortunately this lives on in western media. Virgins make their first appearance on page four of Excellent Daughters. From then on, we can’t escape sex. Zoepf uses as a chapter title the sexist remark of an old Lebanese professor who told her that young Beiruti women are “the most promiscuous virgins in the world.” How would he know? Why make lingerie sales the fulcrum of a story about women’s employment in Saudi Arabia? And why open a peephole into the marital chambers of the Prophet Muhammad?

Even Zoepf’s good coverage of the January 25, 2011, uprising in Egypt ends up turning on sex. The Egyptian women activists who protested in Tahrir Square were some of the first to analyze the political failings of a regime that was one of American’s best friends in the region. I would have liked to learn more about the substance of their critiques of a regime that had impoverished its citizens with the encouragement of US development experts and international financial institutions, stripping away social welfare policies and labor rights. Instead, the chapter’s focus is on the virginity examinations conducted by the military on some women demonstrators. Public outrage and women’s courageous protests against these despicable arrests and torture indeed altered the debates about women in Egypt. Still, this was only one moment in Egyptian women’s long and varied political struggles.

Had she been challenged, Zoepf also might have managed to resist writing about the hijab/niqab/abaya/chador/burqa. To her credit, she tries. More winningly than any writer I have come across, she domesticates these items of clothing by telling us how she felt wearing them: not a big deal. But expectations must be fed. She excuses her capitulation by explaining that veiling is a subject of discussion and debate among young Arab women themselves. However, the sentiments and the effects are radically different in the American context. A second lesson of feminism—that we should not define women by their clothing or looks—apparently does not have permission to travel East.

Zoepf’s sensible reporting also occasionally gets derailed by standard clichés and double standards. A US reporter covering, for example, Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign would be laughed out of town if she presented a lesson about the life of Jesus to explain the sexism Clinton encounters. Yet Zoepf inserts a potted history of seventh-century Islam to explain the dilemmas faced by flight attendants on major Gulf airlines and the legal maneuverings of a fractious criminal family in Syria. She drags out the “clash of modernity and tradition” to explain what she saw in the prisons, malls, and protests of the Arab world.

New York Times columnists have gone far with this rubbish, but Zoepf should know better. In the twenty-first century, no traditional society anywhere is suddenly encountering modernity. People’s material lives in the Arab world have been as deeply marked by the major global transformations of the last couple of centuries as have Americans’. Yet in US journalism and politics, Arabs—especially women—are represented as imprisoned in a world of tradition—thus justifying interventions to bring them into modernity, by force if necessary.

We need journalists. I admire them for saying so much in so few words, and I don’t envy them the pressures they live with to write to short deadlines. But their practice of setting up a separation wall against the world of scholarship is unfortunate. Zoepf’s apparent loyalty to the standard operating procedures of her profession prevents her from considering the extraordinary feminist scholarship that exists now on the very topics she covers.

A bit more sheltered than journalists from the imperatives of the market, scholars enjoy more of the “right to tell people what they do not want to hear” that George Orwell defended in the preface he wrote to Animal Farm (1945). As I read Excellent Daughters, I kept thinking how interested Zoepf would have been in the books that I read and teach about women in the Arab world. Not everyone need be fluent in Arabic. Not everyone has the temperament or resources to spend years researching a subject. But we can all learn from those who do.

With these academic studies to hand, Zoepf might have been better able to resist the demands of American political interests and publics. For example, Zareena Grewal’s Islam is a Foreign Country: American Muslims and the Global Crisis of Authority (2013) reveals surprising facts about “underground sisterhood” of the Qubaysiyat—an organization of pious Muslim women—that Zoepf was frustrated not to be able to penetrate. Grewal spent a year in Damascus just before Zoepf arrived. For her research on transnational Muslim education, she met American women converts who were pursuing their religious studies with the Qubaysiyat. The shadowy sisterhood suddenly appears less foreign, less inaccessible.

What might Zoepf have written about young Lebanese women had she read Lara Deeb’s An Enchanted Modern: Gender and Public Piety in Shi’i Lebanon (2006)? Deeb writes about Shi’a women who live in Dahiya—a very different neighborhood of the divided city of Beirut from the area of nightclubs and the American University campus that Zoepf visited. Deeb explores the lives of religiously committed women who are challenging gender expectations through charity work, religious study and debate, and public piety.

An Enchanted Modern was published a year before Zoepf filed her story from Beirut, just as Israeli warplanes terrorized the Hizballah neighborhood in which these women live, turning it into a mess of bodies, rubble, and tangled rebar. Her second ethnographic study would have been even more relevant. Leisurely Islam: Negotiating Geography and Morality in Shi’ite South Beirut (2013), co-written with Mona Harb, an urbanist, is about how the “excellent daughters” of the Shi’a community are negotiating moral norms now that their neighborhood has risen from the ashes to become a vibrant leisure destination, bursting with cafés and restaurants that cater to the young, fashionable—and pious.

We need scholars most when we find women transforming their world in ways that challenge American expectations or interests. Soft Force: Women in Egypt’s Islamic Awakening (2015) came out too late for Zoepf to read. [WRB’s review of Soft Force is forthcoming in 2017.] Its author, Ellen McLarney, like Zoepf, grew up in a religious family in the Midwest, but took a different path. Her meticulous translations from Arabic and respectful analysis of an influential body of Arab women’s writing is enlightening. She enables us to understand the ways some Arab women are trying to think through the social and spiritual responsibilities of being Muslim. Philosophical, intellectual, and political discussion about the proper relationships between Islam and democracy, citizenship and virtue, or motherhood and leadership, is as much a part of the “secret lives” of young women in the Arab world as roasting marshmallows and dreaming of Disney World.

Why should journalists deny themselves access to this scholarship? Journalists and scholars need each other, especially if we hope, as Zoepf rightly does, to persuade people that ordinary women everywhere are transforming their worlds.

To see Lila Abu-Lughod’s list of “Ten Great Academic Books to Read on Women in the Arab World,” see www.wcwonline.org/women=books.

Lila Abu-Lughod is the Joseph L. Buttenwieser Professor of Social Science at Columbia University where she teaches anthropology and women’s studies. Her most recent book is Do Muslim Women Need Saving? (2013), and the thirtieth anniversary edition of her first ethnography, Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society, with a new afterword, was just published in September 2016.

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