“Well-behaved women seldom make history.” Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich famously wrote these words which have snowballed and taken on a life of their own. This quote reminds me that, while sometimes only the loudest voices are recorded in the history books, it does not mean that the quieter ones in the background were any less powerful.
In her book, Excellent Daughters: the Secret Lives of Young Women Who Are Transforming the Arab World, New York Times reporter Katherine Zoepf brings years of her journalistic research together to show her readers what the average young woman in the Middle East is doing to subvert the social norms and to change her situation for the better. This nonfiction book is a culmination of many tireless hours of research and interviews conducted in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries. Through a candid presentation of facts, Zoepf invites an in depth look at the lives of these Muslim women.
At the end of her prologue, Zoepf writes, “…if there’s anything I hope to do with this book, it is to make the case for small gestures: the world changes because a daughter makes slightly different decisions from the ones a mother made.” Not everything can be the all-out smack-down bra burning rallies of the 1960s that the United States identifies with our gender equality movement. In these Middle Eastern countries, there is very little separation (if at all) of Church and state, where being a “pure” Muslim girl is vital to procuring a good marriage that will elevate the status of her entire family.
Much of Zoepf’s book is devoted to educating the audience about the lives of these Muslim women, showing readers how the young women view themselves and also how their society views them. As an informed member of the world, it is best to get varying opinions from different people on the same issue. This may minimize bias. In the United States, there is a stereotype that all young women brides are unwilling or unaware of the horrible hand life dealt for them. But is this really true?
One of Zoepf’s sources named Enas, a seventeen-year-old girl who works at the local religious school teaching little girls Koranic studies, added her opinion. In Zoepf’s book, Enas said, “‘Non-Muslims think that woman here has no right, that she is depressed […] They don’t understand that in fact Islam is the only religion that has given women their rights. This is what we believe. This is what we want to explain.” This is an opinion that Zoepf openly reports in her book. Although this is different from the author’s own opinion, its inclusion shows the author’s dedication to presenting different voices, regardless of her personal views.
Each of the book’s chapters is devoted to a different country she has visited from 2004 to 2011. Throughout the different chapters, the reader gets a distinct feel for the populations and learns to distinguish between these countries. After reading this book, I now know that women in Lebanon are stereotypically thought of as the “most promiscuous virgins in the world” while I also know that the Saudi women are seen as the most independent.
One anecdote particularly struck me. Mouna, a twenty-year-old sales girl in Cairo reports that she is an empowered and proud member of the Egyptian Revolution of 2011. However, her story, Zoepf notes, is much “too brief.”
On January 28, 2011, three days after the Revolution began, Mouna witnessed a girl being beaten by a police officer. Instead of just being a bystander, Mouna approached the officer “asking why he had no pity.” The officer responded by using foul language towards her. Zoepf writes, “Mouna was so aghast and, without pausing to think, she slapped the officer.” The officer, and many more, then beat Mouna; she ultimately lost an eye. However, when Zoepf spoke to the girl about this event, “she said, she was proud of her time as a protester. Even though she had only been on the streets for a matter of minutes, Mouna would always be able to tell people that she had been part of Egypt’s uprising.”
Big events are made up of small actions. The world may not be the best it can be yet, but Zoepf reminds us that, with girls like Mouna, it is well on the way. In the immortal words of Tina Fey, “B**ches get stuff done.” One way or another, women will help make this world a better place.