By Asra Q. Nomani
Jan. 22, 2016
Excellent Daughters: The Secret
Lives of Young Women Who Are Transforming the Arab World
By Katherine Zoepf
Hardcover – January 12, 2016
Katherine Zoepf’s chilling book “Excellent
Daughters: The Secret Lives of the Young Women Who Are Transforming the Arab
World” doesn’t specifically address taharrush gamea, or collective humiliation.
But the themes of honor, shame, power, sex and Islam are woven throughout her
intimate portraits of Muslim women and girls in the Middle East and North Africa.
Ms. Zoepf has been reporting on the region
since 2004, as a stringer for the New York Times and contributor to the New
Yorker, and her book is like a “Lonely Planet” guide to the dark underbelly of
the purity culture of Muslim societies. From Damascus to Jeddah—and, yes, now
to the capitals of Western Europe—women who transgress their perceived “social
responsibilities” in this matrix of honor and shame are fair targets for
humiliation and violence.
In one particularly poignant chapter, Ms.
Zoepf steps through the doors of a girls’ prison in Syria, where 16-year-old
Zahra al-Azzo was jailed for being raped. (That’s right, they jailed her.) The
prison is a sort of holding facility for girls like Zahra who are at risk of
being murdered by their families in a so-called honor killing. Yet there is
little to protect the young women once they leave. “One of the girls came to
me, crying, the other day,” the head social worker tells Ms. Zoepf. “She wanted
to go home and it’s an honor crime situation. I told her, ‘Try to relax here
for a while because they’re going to kill you anyway when you’re released.’ It
sounds cruel, but I needed to calm her down, to get her to behave sensibly.’”
Zahra was eventually freed from the prison
in order to marry a cousin. Shortly thereafter, she was hacked to death in her
apartment by her own brother—with the blessing of their parents. Zahra’s crime:
“losing her virginity out of wedlock.” Her brother believed he was “washing
away the shame” to the family. The day of her murder, Ms. Zoepf chronicles, the
girl’s family threw a party.
“Excellent Daughters” exposes the tragic
dynamics of power and control that lay siege to the bodies, minds and souls of
women and girls through inherited rules of patriarchy, tribalism and morality.
In eight chapters set in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Egypt, Bahrain, the United Arab
Emirates and pre-civil-war Syria, we meet brave individuals who are trying to
“reconcile the values they’d absorbed growing up with a changing world and
their own changing hopes.”
“Transforming the Arab World,” as Ms.
Zoepf’s subtitle puts it, can take many forms. Readers learn about women’s
secret strategies for protecting virginity, and thus honor, such as anal sex,
hymen-reconstruction surgery, illegal abortions and “passionate friendships,
possibly even love affairs” between women. From the bedroom to the public
square, the book captures the struggles of women as they challenge laws,
traditions, cultural norms and religious interpretations. For some, revolution
looks like taking a job as a flight attendant, or going to law school, or
refusing to wear a headscarf. For others, it means playing sports. Ms. Zoepf’s
own background—she was raised as a conservative Jehovah’s Witness—allows her to
be particularly empathetic to situations that otherwise defy logic.
Ms. Zoepf gingerly traces the roots of
twisted practices, such as honor killings, to Islamic concepts such as fitna,
or the “chaos” that is often connected to “temptation of a sexual nature.”
Quoting a prominent male Syrian women’s-rights advocate, Bassam al-Kadi, she
notes that the current state of Arab politics has only made matters worse.
“Arab society’s attachment to the idea of personal honor as something bound
inextricably to the virtue of female relatives was becoming even deeper than it
had been historically. Partly this was a result of the wave of Islamization
that had been sweeping the Arab world since the 1980s,” she writes, summarizing
Mr. al-Kadi’s argument. The “obsession with the control of female sexuality”
is, she notes, a “symptom of political despair.” As Mr. al-Kadi puts it: “No
one talks about loyalty to country, about professional honor. Now it’s just the
family, the tribe, the woman. That’s the only kind of honor we have left.”
The trouble is that, for all of her
meticulous reporting and access to the women she writes about, Ms. Zoepf shies
away from drawing certain uncomfortable conclusions. She acknowledges the
problems with “many Salafi, or fundamentalist interpretations of Islam,” and
she rightly notes, for example, that honour killings are “almost unknown
outside the Islamic world and its diaspora.” Yet she goes on to say, in the
next sentence, that “honour killings are not mentioned in the Qur’an.” This is
typical of the kind of careful dance she does throughout the book. She bares
witness to tyrannical situations but remains always an observer, holding back
from expressing moral outrage or insisting on the need to reform Islam. Given
the horrific state of affairs she documents, perhaps she feels like the argument
Maybe so. But it bears repeating that all
of us should be doing everything in our power to back Muslim women and men,
like Saudi driving activist and educator Norah Al-Sowayan and her husband,
Humoud al-Rabiah, who are fighting against the pathological use of honour,
shame and sex to control women and girls in their country. Arrested, detained
and harassed, the activist had, at home, her greatest supporter: her husband.
“I was the one who taught her to drive!” he tells Ms. Zoepf proudly.
I understand deeply the pain of navigating
such cultures as a female—and the lifeline that allies can provide. I was born
in 1965 in Bombay, India, into a conservative Muslim family; my mother had to
cover her face with a veil as a teen. I grew up in Morgantown, W.Va., where, in
the late 1970s, a cousin told me that my high-school cross-country uniform was
Haram, or illegal, because it showed my bare legs and arms. In the 1980s, I
lived a secret life of the sort documented in “Excellent Daughters” by dating
and hiding it from my parents.
In the 1990s, though, I married a Pakistani
Muslim man because I thought I should. I came to regret the choice and got
divorced, violating a profound cultural taboo. In 2002, in Karachi, Pakistan,
covering the region post-9/11, I became pregnant. According to Pakistan’s
Islamic laws of morality, I was a criminal because I wasn’t married. I left the
country as soon as possible, and I decided to have my baby after I was long
gone—and safe. The next year, the men at my hometown mosque told my mother and
me that we were causing “Fitna” because we prayed in the main hall instead of
in a segregated balcony for “sisters.” We refused to leave the hall.
Had it not been for the love and support of
my parents, I might have given up on Islam. But I believe we can live as
“reform-minded” Muslims, as Ms. Zoepf writes, and work toward an Islam in which
women can live with dignity and equality. The lives of so many depend on it.
Ms. Nomani, a former Journal reporter, is the author of “Standing Alone:
An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam.”