Reality check

New book explores the secret lives of young Arab women

Katherine Zoepf’s “Excellent Daughters” is the result of hundreds of interviews over ten years, that aim to challenge stereotypes in the Western imagination that Arab women are brainwashed, naïve, or simply “voiceless victims”

Shoppers examine Valentine's Day gifts in a Damascus souk © Andrew Butters

There is a moment early in Katherine Zoepf’s new book of meticulous reportage, Excellent Daughters: The Secret Lives of Young Women Who Are Transforming the Arab World, when the process of reporting comes under sudden scrutiny.

Zoepf is in Riyadh, the capital city of Saudia Arabia, at a private party for 20 teenage girls. The girls are cuddling and holding hands; Zoepf is having difficulty keeping track of their nicknames for each other. They gossip about hajj –– the journey to Mecca all Muslims must perform at least once in their lifetimes –– and Disney World in Orlando, a pilgrimage of a different order which one of them wishes to visit on her honeymoon (she will put it to her future husband and hope for the best). Then the conversation turns to mahr, or bride price. This is how Zoepf, who is 38 and currently working in New York as a fellow at the New America Foundation, recalls the moment in Excellent Daughters: “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.”

Later in the book, Zoepf has another informant snap at her over a glass of tea in Damascus: “Why are foreigners so interested in the hijab? We spent so many months talking to you about what we think, what we believe, what is on our minds.”

Katherine Zoepf ‘s “Excellent Daughters” aims to close the gap between “reputation and reality.”

These two moments, coming in two very different countries, highlight a recurring theme in Excellent Daughters: the dissatisfaction shared by many Arab women about stereotypes in the Western imagination –– that they are brainwashed, naïve, or simply “voiceless victims.”

“These women are inundated with information about how we live in the West,” Zoepf told Women in the World, when asked about these moments. “While they have their own stereotypes, of course, they also have a more nuanced understanding of how we [in the West] live. It is a source of frustration to many of them that they are not accorded what they would see as the same respect.”

Often, Zoepf said, Arab women are reduced to this afterthought by Western journalists: “… and of course the women are terribly oppressed.” This generalization, though perhaps understandable in times of limited resources and escalating global crises, does not go unnoticed in places where the internet is becoming increasingly accessible and where news reports are translated into Arabic in a matter of hours. “They’re very pained by it,” Zoepf said. The women see, even if they remain unseen by the wider world.

As a corrective, Excellent Daughters is an attempt to close the gap between “reputation and reality.” Like many people, her interest in the Arab world was “substantially shaped” by 9/11 (“as clichéd and insufficient as it sounds to me now,” she writes). Zoepf first went to work in Syria as a stringer for The New York Times in the summer of 2004; since then, over the last decade, she has interviewed hundreds of people in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Iraq, and the United Arab Emirates. Zoepf investigated driving protests and flight attendants, gender relations and lingerie shopping habits. She once dressed as a Saudi teenage boy in order to learn about “numbering,” a nighttime ritual wherein men chase cars filled with girls “hoping for some brief interaction, a smile, or even a phone number.” For her uncovered hair –– “I was the only adult who didn’t wear the veil and the littlest girls sometimes stared” –– Zoepf was given, by those children, the sobriquet “journalist Barbie.”

Women stroll past a portrait of Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad © Andrew Butters

Zoepf found, somewhat paradoxically, that the more she wrote about women in these Arab cultures, and the more mistakes she made, the more that people were willing to talk to her. “There’s almost a challenge to it,” Zoepf explained to Women in the World. “There’s a sort of, ‘Let’s see what you come up with.’ And then, if I worked really hard at continuing to engage these sources much more interesting conversations would emerge.”

One example in Excellent Daughters concerns the way that women are expected to present themselves in Beirut as both sexually available and, when it comes to marriage, as virginally untouched. After writing an article for The New York Times about skewed gender ratios (accompanied by a salacious picture), Zoepf found herself at the receiving end of a Lebanese backlash. But then people set out to enlighten her. One contact told her, “I want to say that we Lebanese girls want to be educated, we want to work, and we want to make money. We are struggling. But people see us as bimbos.” Another said that she thought there was a kind of heroism in scrupulous beauty, even if that beauty requires Botox or Restylane: “A dogged insistence on presenting the best and glossiest possible face to the world, no matter what later deprivations might be necessary to make this possible, was, she felt, typically Lebanese.”

This unusual approach means Excellent Daughters is less a book of conclusions than a series of open-ended and occasionally contradictory discussions. “By telling these conversations exactly as they occurred,” Zoepf told Women in the World, “I tried to give readers a sense of the diversity of opinion. I really hoped this book would help people ask better questions, and also make them not to be afraid to ask questions. I think that religion can have this very peculiar silencing effect, even among people who are not themselves religious. I want to try and push against that a little bit.”

The book also represents a personal corrective, with Zoepf admitting an ingrained fear –– a fear that would now be readily challenged, though it was a common assumption during her college days at Princeton and the London School of Economics –– that women’s issues are “somehow unserious,” and that in order to be taken seriously in the media you should try to avoid them. So what changed? “I came to feel so frustrated at how much was being lost,” Zoepf said.

She also came to identify with many of the young Arab women she was meeting, to see points of similarity between herself and her own upbringing, and these people who are routinely rendered as an inscrutable Other. “I think empathy is the most important thing in the world, as a reporter. And the more different the context, the more important it becomes. I don’t see myself as a cultural relativist,” Zoepf said, “but it’s crucial to understand a bit about how the world feels from another place.”

Excellent Daughters: The Secret Lives of Young Women Who Are Transforming the Arab World (Penguin Press) is available now.


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