Nushin Arbabzadah teaches Middle Eastern media at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Much debated but little understood, the women of the Muslim world have become a source of fascination and incomprehension. But while we read about them daily in the media, we don’t get to meet them face to face in their own countries. Readers interested in the everyday lives of Muslim women in the Middle East can now travel by proxy by reading Katherine Zoepf’s “Excellent Daughters.” Its vivid dialogue allows readers to hear the voices of young Muslim women from the Middle East.
Zoepf makes her readers companions to both her outer and her inner journey through Lebanon, Syria and Saudi Arabia. There are vivid descriptions of the cities, neighborhoods and buildings Zoepf encounters while learning Arabic and immersing herself in the local culture over the course of a decade. She is a careful observer with an eye for the kind of detail that reveals a world of meaning. At the home of a teenage daughter of a comfortable family in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, she notices a pair of “scaled-down soccer goals at either end of the lawn.” In a Western context, the goals are just that: sports equipment. But in a Saudi home, they bring to mind the fixed gender roles that define the country’s culture. When Zoepf asks whether the goals belong to the girl’s brother, we learn that the girl and her friends play the traditionally male sport of soccer. The conservative Saudi girl who plays soccer at home is a prime example of Zoepf’s mission in her book: to show the small gestures through which young Muslim women are, as her subtitle suggests, transforming the Arab world.
Zoepf is deft in describing the people she meets. About Enas, a Syrian teenager and one of the many young women who become her cultural translators, she tells us, “Her grave manner and moral seriousness belied the sugary girlish pastels and cartoon character wristwatches that she was so fond of wearing beneath the modest, ankle-length khaki trench coat and white rayon headscarf that she wore in public.” We feel we are almost meeting her informants in person.
Zoepf’s journey takes readers to three countries. Two of them, Syria and Saudi Arabia, are inaccessible to Western travelers, the lives of their women even more so. This in itself makes the book a worthwhile read. But there’s more to her travel account because it’s also the story of the transformation she undergoes as she lingers in the Middle East. She starts her journey observing her environment with an outsider’s distance, slightly fearful of her new surroundings. As time goes by, she tries to immerse herself in the culture, forging bonds of friendship with the women she encounters. She has great capacity for empathy, spotting what makes the women in niqabs similar to us, rather than different.
Here lies the book’s strength — and its weakness. There are times when Zoepf’s desire to understand also perpetuates the misogyny that is so much a part of Islamist culture. In her portrayals of some women, she reinforces a standard trope of Islamist discourse that women themselves are to blame for encouraging men’s sexual violence. In one instance she writes that her liberal Syrian teacher’s blouse “strained alarmingly” over her bosom, and in another that Lebanese girls dress in ways that are “aggressively sexualized.” Zoepf also gives a platform to women who mouth harmful cultural biases. In the most troubling moment in the book, her female teacher explains that she wears a hijab because if a man saw her unveiled and felt aroused and then abused a child, “wouldn’t you feel that it was your fault that this child was raped?” Although she is initially shocked by this statement, Zoepf tries to rationalize it by interpreting it as a way of safeguarding community values.
Zoepf tries to demonstrate the young women’s empowerment by having them scold her for previously writing about rival Islamist groups and Lebanese girls’ preoccupation with their looks. Her subjects appear like small mirrors of their authoritarian societies, seizing what little authority is allowed them to exercise their power over a fellow female. Their empowerment turns out to be the freedom to criticize American ways but not those of their own society. For all Zoepf’s eagerness to find female empowerment, she still reports that the women’s fathers marry them off to strangers while they are teenagers and that their brothers kill them for being victims of rape. She also describes state laws that free male honor-murderers. In the face of real threats, her young women are powerless. Far from things getting better, we learn that honor killings have increased in recent decades. Zoepf puts her faith in activists who are trying to stop honor killings by “working to change the narratives” that shape the lives of women and men. But changing narratives doesn’t change facts. And calling people empowered doesn’t actually empower them.
As an exercise in optimism — or perhaps wishful thinking — “Excellent Daughters” is the latest offering in a wider trend of works in which cultural sensitivity slides into collusion with cultural pitfalls. Female readers who can navigate these ideological landmines will enjoy a book whose vivid descriptions make it a safe alternative to an actual trip to the Middle East.
By Katherine Zoepf
Penguin Press. 258 pp. $28