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

Katherine Zoepf

January 14, 2016 
The following is from Katherine Zoepf's book, Excellent Daughters. Zoepf lived in Syria and Lebanon from 2004 to 2007 while working as a stringer for The New York Times; she also worked in the Times’s Baghdad bureau in 2008. Since 2010, she has been a fellow at the New America Foundation. Her work has appeared in The New York Observer, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The New York Times Magazine, and The New Yorker, among others.

The Arab world is, demographically speaking, a very young region: close to two thirds of the population in the Arab countries is under the age of twenty-five (in the United States, the ratio is reversed). In the months after the September 11th attacks, many commentators began describing the Arab youth bulge in alarmist terms. Thwarted by corruption in their governments and educational establishments, choked by unemployment, pushed and pulled by the competing forces of modernity and Islamic fundamentalism, was it surprising, these writers asked, that so many disaffected young Arabs had cheered the attacks on the World Trade Center? Reading these articles about young people in the region, I was struck by the absence of strong female characters; young Arab women tended to appear as voiceless victims, if they appeared at all. But even in the most patriarchal societies, women are rarely completely powerless. And as I started to spend more time in the Middle East myself, I began to suspect that these victimhood narratives involved some oversimplification.

When I first began reporting in the Arab world, political leaders and academics often complained to me that the shebab—the youth—in their countries were uninterested in human rights or politics. But the Syrian, Lebanese, and Egyptian young people I was getting to know were anything but apathetic. In the case of young Arab women, the gap between reputation and reality seemed to me even greater. Home on visits to the United States, even seemingly sophisticated and well- meaning people told me that they believed Arab women had been brainwashed. But many of the young women I was meeting in the course of my reporting in the Middle East seemed to me to be leading lives that so clearly gave the lie to that notion that I would cringe at hearing them thus patronized, however unintentionally. I began to pay closer attention to young people’s stories, focusing in particular on the women, and this book is the result. Because it grew out of my work for the [New York] Times and other publications, some of the material within it has appeared before, in other forms. The stories and conversations it contains were drawn from my reporting in five countries—Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—that are very different politically and culturally. Together, they are an attempt, however partial, to portray the generation of Arab women that has been coming of age in the years since the September 11th attacks and that helped to lead the Arab Spring revolutions, and to describe, through the specifics of their lives, this time of accelerating change in the region.

As recently as 1975, the Moroccan sociologist and pioneering Arab feminist Fatima Mernissi described the notion of an unmarried female adolescent as “a completely new idea . . . where previously you had only a female child and a menstruating woman who had to be married off immediately so as to prevent dishonorable engagement in premarital sex.” Yet, today, in most Arab countries as in the United States, there are more young women attending universities than there are young men. While I lived in Damascus, Syrian girls began attending Qur’an memorization schools in numbers surpassing those of boys attending similar schools, learning to reason from the Qur’an and often using that training to argue for greater rights and freedoms from an Islamic perspective. Women in several Arab countries have begun to fight the laws that protect men who kill their female relatives in the name of family honor. Saudi women’s rights campaigners have become so voluble and confident in recent years that they have provoked backlash from more conservative women who are uncomfortable with calls for women to be allowed to make decisions without consulting a male guardian—and the fact that these conservative women can publicly participate in such an antifeminist backlash is itself an indication of how quickly Saudi women’s freedoms are expanding. At the start of 2011’s Arab Spring, the world watched as young women, some in headscarves and others in tight jeans, joined men in antigovernment protests that ultimately toppled authoritarian presidents in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. It was a twenty-five-year-old woman, Asmaa Mahfouz, whose self-produced video, uploaded to You-Tube, is widely credited with sparking the mass protests on Tahrir Square that ultimately brought down the government of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.

Looking back on the conversations I had within the walls of Reem’s garden, and on the thousands of other moving, sometimes hilarious, and occasionally infuriating discussions I’ve had with other young women in Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries, these women all seem to have come of age in a sort of metaphorical walled garden. As a group, they have gained better educations and greater freedoms than young Arab women at any other point in history. The social pressures to marry and to uphold family honor still exist, of course, but in recent years, an increasing number of Arab women have been allowed to experience adolescence and young womanhood in some of the same ways that young Western women typically do, as a time to define themselves and their values, and to pursue personal goals. Often, their lives are still restricted in ways that young Western women their age would find difficult to tolerate, but these restrictions can also help to create strong bonds, and an inspiring sense of common purpose. Sitting in the garden that evening, I was amused by the intensity of the girls’ nostalgia for their high school days, which after all had ended only six months previously. But as I came to know the girls better—I spent another two months in Riyadh on that trip—I came to see it as an understanding of the power and importance of female friendships, and a recognition of the fact that these years of relative independence were a privileged period in their lives.

But many of these gains for women rest on fragile foundations. Though there was a moment during the Arab Spring when the popular revolutions seemed to open up the possibility of change throughout the region and for all of its inhabitants, that moment has disappeared. As I write this, an exceptionally brutal extremist group known as ISIL or ISIS or, simply, the Islamic State, has declared a caliphate with its capital in Raqqa, in northern Syria (which, when I last saw it, was a somnolent Euphrates River town best known for its cotton production and its Ayyubid- era blue-glazed ceramic jugs and bowls, a major destination for archaeologists excavating the surrounding tells, but few others). In the territories it controls, the Islamic State has forbidden girls and women from going to school, from applying for work, and from leaving their homes without male relatives as chaperones. It has forced thousands of non-Muslim Syrian and Iraqi girls into sexual slavery, and it has reportedly pressed some Syrian Muslim families to hand over their daughters as short-term “brides” for its fighters. (This general picture of female subjugation is complicated by the fact that the new restrictions on women in the territories the Islamic State controls are being enforced by other women armed with whips and, sometimes, automatic rifles; the Islamic State employs an all-female religious police force known as the al‐Khansaa Brigade and, with a nod to gender equality that is rare in Salafist circles, the leaders of the new Islamic State have declared that, in the caliphate, jihad is an obligation for both sexes.) Even in Egypt, some of the young women who helped to lead the Arab Spring uprisings have experienced a vicious, misogynistic backlash. Years of gender- based discrimination won’t simply self-correct, and many of the ill effects of the disruption brought about by the Arab Spring are falling disproportionately on female shoulders. Yet we don’t often hear the stories of the women who are bearing the brunt of these upheavals.

In places that are segregated socially along gender lines, there’s often a kind of natural affinity among women. Foreign female journalists in Arab countries are free to work in the public sphere, but they also tend to be welcomed into the private sphere—the domain of women, the world of Arab family life— in ways that their male counterparts only rarely are. In the most conservative parts of the Arab world, it can be difficult for male journalists to speak freely with women at all, and this means that, too often, the perspectives of those women are left off the page. At home in the United States I’ve often been asked whether it isn’t especially difficult, as a woman, to work as a reporter in the Arab world. I tend to feel that the very opposite is the case, that female journalists in Islamic countries operate in a privileged space, and that they’re permitted glimpses behind closed doors that may be unavailable to men.

Behind those closed doors, I’ve observed a great deal of mutual support and protection. Young Arab women are living in the crucible as battles over the future of the region are increasingly being fought in the domain of women’s rights. Whatever their personal feelings about these rights—I’ve spoken to many young women throughout the region who viewed feminism with suspicion, if not hostility—their lives are being reshaped as a result. And I’ve met many young women who are seizing opportunity in unexpected ways, and helping others like them to do so, too. A few of the women whose stories appear here are activists but, because most are not, some of these seized opportunities and acts of courage may appear small. But if there’s anything I hope to do with this book, it is to make the case for small gestures: the world changes because of wars and terrorist attacks, but it also changes because a daughter makes slightly different decisions from the ones a mother made.

I learned, soon after I began working in the Arab world, that it was a mistake to read too much into girlish manners and elaborate demonstrations of modesty; both may be usefully employed to mask vaulting ambition. Unfortunately, that didn’t stop me from making the same error again sometimes. 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 law students. Sometimes, I reminded myself, this is what a vanguard looks like: ponytailed and giggling and eating marshmallows.


From EXCELLENT DAUGHTERS. Used with permission of Penguin Press. Copyright © 2016 by Katherine Zoepf.

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