BOUND TO PLEASE / U.S. journalist explores world of Arab women

The Japan News

By Tom Baker / Japan News Staff WriterExcellent Daughters: The Secret Lives of Young Women who are Transforming the Arab World

By Katherine Zoepf

Penguin Books, 258 pages

This summer, if all goes as planned, it will become legal for women in Saudi Arabia to drive cars.

For a sense of how big a deal this is, consider Katherine Zoepf’s description of what happened to the Saudi women who were arrested for daring to drive in 1990. “Most were fired from their jobs and banned from traveling outside the Kingdom ... they and their families were publicly mocked from the pulpits of mosques throughout the country.”

Zoepf is an American journalist who has lived in Syria and traveled extensively in the Middle East. As a woman, she was able to talk to the half of the population that is often off-limits to male journalists in the region. She shares her findings in “Excellent Daughters,” an eye-opening book that presents young Arab women as more than just “voiceless victims” even while providing ample grounds for gloom about their lot in life.

The book opens cheerily, with Zoepf joining some Saudi university students for a girls-only marshmallow-toasting party. It’s a cozy, convivial scene, but later we learn how significant the single-sex aspect of the event is. The young women “seemed to regard the idea of having a conversation with a man [before becoming engaged to him] with real horror.”

One of them explained, “The problem with getting married to someone you’ve talked to is that he’ll always think, well, if she talked to me she might talk to another man.”

This remark underscores Zoepf’s description of the lives of Saudi women as “almost unimaginably circumscribed.”

Nonetheless, the young women looked forward to happy marriages. “They were amazingly and universally confident in their own desirability — young Saudi women are explicitly taught, from the time they are little girls, that a glimpse of their hair or the sound of their voices is enough to drive men mad.”

If reality should fall short of such expectations, word may not get around, since “often ... a girl’s wedding day was the last day her old friends saw her.”

A more hopeful image of marriage emerges in Zoepf’s description of the social changes wrought by rapidly increasing wealth in Gulf states such as the United Arab Emirates. “It is quite common for a young woman to have substantially more education than her father ... If a girl’s grandparents were still living, they were fairly likely to be illiterate.” In one illustrative case, a university student was forbidden by her father from majoring in communications. But when she married a man of her own generation, he gave her the green light, and she returned to her chosen field.

Zoepf writes that “in most Arab countries ... there are more young women attending universities than there are young men.” Women are also studying the Koran and learning to argue for better treatment from an Islamic perspective. Women’s rates of employment are low but rising, as is their average age at marriage.

Yet progress invites backlash. A campaign by Saudi women who want men to manage their lives, called “My Guardian Knows What’s Best for Me,” collected thousands of signatures on a petition “rejecting the ignorant requests of those inciting liberty.”

Saudi women who begin driving this year are to be congratulated. But they have a long road ahead.

Where to Read

In a car driven by a Saudi woman

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