Excellent Daughters, by Katherine Zoepf.
Excellent Daughters: The Secret Lives of Young Women Who are Transforming the Arab World, by Katherine Zoepf. Penguin Press (2016), 272 pages.
An account of young Islamic women in the contemporary Mideast which is full of personal stories and written by an American journalist.
Katherine Zoepf is a young American woman who initially became interested in the Islamic world after 9/11. She had just started working as a research assistant at the New York Times and was struck with questions about the cultures from which the terrorists had come. Eventually she went to the region and published articles about what she found there. Always more interested in stories than with abstractions, she focused on the young women she met there and realized they were ignored in the international media. She spent several years living and reporting in the region and getting acquainted with its young women in order to write this book.
The strength of Excellent Daughters is Zoepf’s account of the conversations she has had with teenage women in the different countries of the Middle East. She reports on topics like what they say about sexuality and acceptable behavior toward men. Through her eyes we learn what they feel about topics such as honor killings and the strict segregation of the sexes. We follow Saudi girls’ debates about whether it is acceptable to talk on the phone with the man to whom they are engaged. Because families are so isolated from each other, the girls worry about losing their friendships with other women after they marry. Zoepf also interviews professionals who work with young women including a gynecologist who facilitates and advocates the surgery that allows women to appear as virgins at their weddings and the woman who runs the prison where young women who are at risk of honor killing by their families are held.
To her credit, Zoepf notes the difference between conditions for women in the various Arab countries. In addition to the restricted women in some Arab states, she talks with young women who are finding employment in places like Dubai where they take jobs as airline attendants that allow them more modern lives. Her descriptions of new employment options for women include some context and more acknowledgment of the contradictions within which they live. She also provides us with stories of the tiny minority of women who try to protest their restrictions and the repercussions they face.
Rather than blaming Islam for women’s oppression, Zoepf is careful to explain that many of the practices most degrading and harmful to women dated from the time before its emergence. In practice, however, she also noted that many men and women causally assume that Islam validates, and even requires, such actions as honor killing and the total seclusion of women.
The stories which Zoepf tells are full of appalling restrictions that the women must negotiate. Yet I was bothered by how seldom Zoepf provided context. She gave no real information about how widespread the practices her informants describe actually are. Do the horror stories that Zoepf recounts provide a fair sample of young women’s experience in this region? Are the stories told by the girls of relatively affluent families typical? What national and ethnic patterns were present? Have there been changes, especially in Syria where civil war has escalated?
In addition, Zoepf relates her surprise that some of the young women were hurt and angry when she published a newspaper article naming them and even including a picture of one of them. I was sorry that she had been so insensitive to their need for privacy and protection from the public world of men . As I read this book, I wondered if the women whose voices are heard here were aware of the ways in which she was continuing to reveal their lives and thoughts.
We all need to understand what the young women of the Arab world experience and think. This book, despite its limitations, is a useful addition to the sparse literature on that subject. It is not the last word on the subject, however. I continue to find Leila Ahmed’s research and writings to be the best works on women and gender in the Islamic world.