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

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9781594203886: Excellent Daughters: The Secret Lives of Young Women Who Are Transforming the Arab World
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For more than a decade, Katherine Zoepf has lived in or traveled throughout the Arab world, reporting on the lives of women, whose role in the region has never been more in flux. Only a generation ago, female adolescence as we know it in the West did not exist in the Middle East. There were only children and married women. Today, young Arab women outnumber men in universities, and a few are beginning to face down religious and social tradition in order to live independently, to delay marriage, and to pursue professional goals. Hundreds of thousands of devout girls and women are attending Qur’anic schools—and using the training to argue for greater rights and freedoms from an Islamic perspective. And, in 2011, young women helped to lead antigovernment protests in the Arab Spring. But their voices have not been heard. Their stories have not been told.

In Syria, before its civil war, she documents a complex society in the midst of soul searching about its place in the world and about the role of women. In Lebanon, she documents a country that on the surface is freer than other Arab nations but whose women must balance extreme standards of self-presentation with Islamic codes of virtue. In Abu Dhabi, Zoepf reports on a generation of Arab women who’ve found freedom in work outside the home. In Saudi Arabia she chronicles driving protests and women entering the retail industry for the first time. In the aftermath of Tahrir Square, she examines the crucial role of women in Egypt's popular uprising.
 
Deeply informed, heartfelt, and urgent, Excellent Daughters brings us a new understanding of the changing Arab societies—from 9/11 to Tahrir Square to the rise of ISIS—and gives voice to the remarkable women at the forefront of this change.

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About the Author:

KATHERINE 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 other publications. She is a graduate of Princeton University and the London School of Economics.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

AUTHOR’S NOTE

This is a work of nonfiction. Because it grew out of my experiences reporting in the Arab world for other publications, some of the stories and details it contains have been published before, in other forms.

Hundreds of girls and young women in Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates were generous enough to share their stories with me. They all understood that I was working as a journalist. Still, I’ve changed some names in the text, and I have not always given family names. I’ve done this whenever the subjects themselves requested it, and in a few cases where they didn’t, because I was concerned that identifying them might cause embarrassment or compromise their safety. I also changed some identifying details.

As an outsider—and one with less than fluent Arabic, at that—I naturally feel some trepidation about drawing any conclusions about a population as vast, diverse, and quickly changing as the young women of the Arab world, and about writing in depth about a religion, Islam, that is not my own. I have tried to get things right and have discussed my ideas and findings with scholars of the Arab world and scholars of Islam—and as often as I could with the young women themselves, as well—but any failures of interpretation or analysis are mine alone.

Shoppers examine Valentine’s Day gifts in a Damascus souk.

 

PROLOGUE

DECEMBER 2007—RIYADH

The twenty girls at the party in Reem’s garden had all been classmates in a Riyadh private school. They were now seventeen and eighteen, and university students, but to me they seemed much younger. I wondered, at first, if I’d forgotten how eighteen-year-old girls behave; I was about to turn thirty. But the longer I sat among them that evening, cross-legged on a carpet laid over hard ground, under a bare fluorescent tube that bathed us in greenish light and seemed to make the sky above us appear particularly black and starless, the more girlish their mannerisms and chatter seemed. There was a great deal of cuddling and handholding, and there were effusive announcements of fondness. New arrivals were greeted with rapturous squeals. Even though I was both taking notes and paying particular attention to names, there were so many nicknames—sometimes several for the same girl—that I had a hard time keeping track of every Dodo, Soosoo, and Lulu.

The gathering was a good-bye party of sorts. Our hostess, Reem, was leaving in the morning on the hajj—the pilgrimage to Mecca that all Muslims are obliged to complete at least once during their lifetime, if they are able—and she had invited some old school friends over for the evening to mark the occasion. She was congratulated, again and again, on her undertaking. I had wondered if the holy pilgrimage might feel less momentous to a young Saudi like Reem than it did to so many of the young Muslims I’d met in other countries. The Saudi government’s Ministry of Hajj sets yearly quotas for domestic as well as foreign pilgrims, but, for Reem, preparing for the hajj hadn’t required entering a national lottery or filing complicated visa applications—only a short domestic flight and, given the five days of prescribed rituals to perform, a scant week away from home before returning to Riyadh for the Eid al-Adha holiday. But the seriousness with which Reem discussed her hajj preparations, both practical and spiritual, as well as the shy pride with which she accepted the sincere congratulations of her friends, banished this thought.

There were also congratulations—and some gentle teasing—for Nouf, one of Reem’s closest friends, who had just become engaged. While the others laughed, Reem explained the teasing: Nouf had passionately wanted to have her wedding at Disney World in Orlando, Florida, but her father had refused to consider the idea. Nouf was a quiet, tomboyish-looking seventeen-year-old who sat next to me for most of the party, and didn’t seem at all put out by the mockery. She had always loved Disney, she told me earnestly. In honor of Reem’s departure for the hajj, Nouf was wearing her best sterling silver Mickey Mouse earrings. She had colored enamel Mickey Mouse earrings for use on less momentous days, and she explained that she never went out without wearing one pair or the other. Nouf said she had decided that the next best thing to being married at Disney World would be to spend her honeymoon at Disney World. Even if the actual marriage was to take place in Riyadh, as her family insisted, it still might be possible to arrange some wedding-like ceremony in Florida.

“Just some small something at Cinderella’s Castle,” Nouf said. “That would be nice.”

Nouf hadn’t had a chance to talk to her fiancé—about her Disney World idea or, in fact, about anything else. She had once seen the man, of course, on the day that he and his family had come to her house for the showfa, which literally means “the viewing,” and is a Saudi couple’s first step on the path to marriage. But the young couple hadn’t then been given time for conversation. Nouf’s friends wanted to hear every detail of the few minutes that Nouf and her fiancé had spent together, along with the representatives of their two families, in Nouf’s father’s majlis—the Arabic word means “the place of sitting”—a formal home reception room. But it had all happened so fast, Nouf explained, that she didn’t really have much to tell them. Nouf’s mother had come to find her in her bedroom, asking her to go downstairs and carry in a tray of soft drinks for her father’s guests. Such a request can mean only one thing, as every Saudi girl knows, and Nouf had been too nervous to take a good look at her future husband. Recounting this for the other girls at the party, Nouf sounded happy and a bit dreamy. Even as she described nervousness, I couldn’t detect any hint of it in her tone. And, although her friends were doing their best to draw her out on the subject of wedding plans, Nouf seemed to have very little to say. It was only when one of them switched the topic back to Orlando that she became more animated.

I was surprised by the intensity of Nouf’s Disney preoccupation. Was she, at seventeen, too young and sheltered to grasp the seriousness of the decision that her father had, in effect, made for her? After the showfa, Nouf’s father had negotiated her mahr, or bride price. Reem, at my side, wanted to make sure I understood that the mahr was intended as a cash gift for the bride herself, from her fiancé. She glanced down at my notebook, to make sure I was getting everything. Foreigners sometimes had the mistaken impression that Saudi fathers “sold” their daughters, she explained, but, in fact, the money for the mahr went to the girl—who might then choose to give it to her family. Reem seemed so embarrassed by my next question, which was about the amount of a typical mahr, that I dropped the subject, but I later learned that a mahr for a virgin from a good family can run into the tens of thousands of riyals, or even higher (widows and divorcées fetch much less).

Once Nouf’s mahr was settled, the two families had gathered once again for the milka, the formal signing of the marriage contract. But this “engagement party,” as Saudis tend to render milka in English, had been gender segregated: the women of both families had made a great fuss over Nouf while, on the men’s side of the celebration, a government-approved religious authority known as a mimlik had officiated as the fatiha—the first chapter of the Qur’an—was recited and the marriage contract signed by Nouf’s fiancé and, on Nouf’s behalf, by her father. (Nouf had agreed to the engagement, but, as she later told me, it would have been almost unthinkably difficult to oppose it. Saudi law requires a bride to sign her own marriage contract, but since she isn’t present for the official signing of the contract before the mimlik, her signature is regarded as a formality.) Was it possible that Nouf was concentrating on Cinderella’s Castle because it was the one aspect of the proceedings that she might be able to control? Or, given the impossibility of becoming acquainted with her fiancé before their wedding, was a fairy-tale narrative, where a meet-cute leads straight to love and to “happily ever after,” the only model of romance that made sense to her? I wondered, even if this was the case, didn’t most of us make sense of our lives in a similar way, by adapting the stories we tell ourselves—even filtering the basic information we are willing to absorb about the world—to fit our circumstances? Nouf appeared serene. She explained that her family would probably allow her to speak to her fiancé by phone at some point before the wedding party. She was already thinking about how best to tell him about her honeymoon idea, and hoping that he’d approve of it.

I asked the group of girls if it was customary for a bride-to-be like Nouf to get to know her fiancé by phone in the months before the wedding. There was a brief silence, and Reem and Nouf looked at each other uneasily. “It is becoming more common,” Reem said. Many of the Saudi families in their circle permitted such phone calls, she explained, so that the young couple could become a little bit more comfortable with each other. Perhaps, Reem suggested, they might wish to discuss plans for furnishing and decorating their first home. Reem seemed to be straining to come up with unassailable reasons for a couple who were engaged to be married to talk to each other; her tone made it clear that while any mention of feelings or shared futures was out of the question, practical matters might be more excusable. Several days after Reem’s party, a mother with two teenage daughters told me that, with divorce rates in the Kingdom now approaching Western levels, particularly among newlyweds, some families believed that a few phone calls during the engagement period could help a young couple to begin married life with more realistic expectations. But, morally speaking, Reem explained, speaking to your fiancé after your engagement but before your wedding party was a gray area, a matter over which a girl would have to struggle with her own conscience. Socially speaking, on the other hand, it was black and white: it was something you wouldn’t admit except to very close friends. “I don’t know if you could really say that it’s acceptable,” Reem concluded, carefully.

A tall girl named Manal broke in. “What are you talking about? I think it’s very normal these days. This country is changing. In Jeddah, they even have mixed weddings now, with men and women celebrating together.”

“No!” Reem was almost shouting, and Nouf and the other girls looked shocked. Reem, in her role as hostess, seemed to be speaking for all of them. “That’s just not possible,” she said. “Not in Saudi Arabia.”

For a moment, Manal held her ground. “But they do! In Jeddah they do! I have relatives there, and they say . . .” Manal trailed off into awkward silence, seeing her friends’ reactions. The Red Sea port of Jeddah is well known as Saudi Arabia’s most liberal city; the millions of pilgrims who, for centuries, have passed through Jeddah en route to Mecca, about fifty miles inland, have left it with a more diverse population and a more international outlook than other Saudi cities. Riyadh, on the other hand, lies in the far more conservative central highland region known as the Najd. Manal’s mention of family members in Jeddah hadn’t gone over very well with this group of well-brought-up Najdi girls. Manal seemed to be looking at me for signs of support, and I was torn. I wondered if I should say something approving in response to her attempt to introduce more liberal Saudi social practices into the conversation. Manal clearly hoped to interest me, the American visitor, when in fact I was far more interested in the effect of her words on the others. This was partly out of professional instinct: the New York Times foreign desk had sent me to Riyadh to help report a series of articles about increasing religiosity among young people in Muslim-majority countries, so it was useful to hear the girls describe what they considered conventional, or socially acceptable. But to my surprise, I also found that I couldn’t help reflexively sharing the general annoyance with Manal. She seemed to be showing off, trying to strike a sophisticated pose. Perhaps she’d even intended to be a little bit shocking. But it was clear that she had miscalculated and, in suggesting that her relatives moved among a Jeddah set that held mixed-gender social functions, gone a few steps too far. Manal’s old schoolmates looked scandalized and disbelieving. Observing them, I was amazed at how instinctively Reem and her friends reinforced and policed one another’s opinions. Finding herself stranded, Manal backtracked. “Of course it’s wrong, and I myself would never go to a mixed wedding, but I have heard that in Jeddah, some families do have them,” she concluded, meekly.

Reem’s texted invitation had referred to a barbecue, but the menu was entirely composed of desserts. As we talked, a pair of Filipino maids served hot chocolate puddings with molten centers in tempered glass ramekins, and filled a portable grill with coals for the girls to toast marshmallows. (In societies where alcohol is anathema, confectionery sometimes serves a similar social function. Throughout the Gulf countries, it is common to see groups of young men, their traditional white or checkered headdresses starched, ironed, and folded into the latest trendy styles—one popular style, which involves folding the headdress into a stiff point in the middle of the forehead in a manner that is said to resemble the water spout on a roof, is known as the “brain drain”—gathered shoulder-to-shoulder around primly decorated little tables in local branches of French patisseries like Paul, Ladurée and Fauchon, eating cake with tiny forks.)

At about nine o’clock, Reem stood up for a moment to supervise the maids. While the three of them bent over the grill, I looked around. Imported domestic labor is so inexpensive and plentiful in the Kingdom that Saudis don’t consider it an indicator of wealth (I later heard a Saudi acquaintance mention, as an example of the hardships endured during a deprived childhood, the fact that her family had only one full-time maid, and I visited the homes of unemployed Saudis who nevertheless employed several servants to do their housework). And though Reem’s family clearly lived well, the garden where we were sitting was not the kind of lush, manicured paradise that I’d seen when I’d visited the homes of rich Saudis, but the much-used yard of a large and active family. Houses in Saudi Arabia and the other oil-rich Gulf countries are traditionally surrounded by walls, usually about three meters high. And though, in the Kingdom at least, these walls are built more for privacy than for the sake of security, I always wondered whether the very fact of the barriers might make the world beyond them seem more dangerous to the people who lived within. (I never had the chance to test this: my only experience of compound life was the months I spent living in the New York Times bureau in B...

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Book Description Penguin Putnam Inc, United States, 2016. Hardback. Condition: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. For more than a decade, Katherine Zoepf has lived in or traveled throughout the Arab world, reporting on the lives of women, whose role in the region has never been more in flux. Only a generation ago, female adolescence as we know it in the West did not exist in the Middle East. There were only children and married women. Today, young Arab women outnumber men in universities, and a few are beginning to face down religious and social tradition in order to live independently, to delay marriage, and to pursue professional goals. Hundreds of thousands of devout girls and women are attending Qur anic schools--and using the training to argue for greater rights and freedoms from an Islamic perspective. And, in 2011, young women helped to lead antigovernment protests in the Arab Spring. But their voices have not been heard. Their stories have not been told. In Syria, before its civil war, she documents a complex society in the midst of soul searching about its place in the world and about the role of women. In Lebanon, she documents a country that on the surface is freer than other Arab nations but whose women must balance extreme standards of self-presentation with Islamic codes of virtue. In Abu Dhabi, Zoepf reports on a generation of Arab women who ve found freedom in work outside the home. In Saudi Arabia she chronicles driving protests and women entering the retail industry for the first time. In the aftermath of Tahrir Square, she examines the crucial role of women in Egypt s popular uprising. Deeply informed, heartfelt, and urgent, Excellent Daughters brings us a new understanding of the changing Arab societies--from 9/11 to Tahrir Square to the rise of ISIS--and gives voice to the remarkable women at the forefront of this change. Seller Inventory # AAS9781594203886

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