[This is my perception of Katherine Zoepf’s presentation at the New America Foundation on January 21. 2016 regarding her examination of the complex lives of young women living in the Arab Muslim world. She is the author of Excellent Daughters: The Secret Lives of Young Women That Are Transforming the Arab World. This is not a verbatim transcript and any errors are mine alone.]
In the quest for the big event that aligns the region with American interests Katherine Zoepf felt many things were being missed. It’s difficult to get hard data in much of the Arab world. Talk about “the Arab street” is very problematic. When she asked in Lebanon whether there was any recent census data on the sizes of the different demographic groups she was “laughed out of the room” with the question “In whose interests would that be?”
In the absence of hard data we must make anecdote serve by asking many people as you can about their own opinions and those of their cousins. She asked Saudi friends about how accurate the film Wajda was about Saudi life. People would say it was not common for a ten year old to marry, yet most knew of at least one such case. Yet the Saudi National Dialog Center claimed it had virtually disappeared.
Lawyers who want to reform the system are satisfied to do so working within the system. Things that to an outsider seem explosive or transformative are barely noticed by people there. Consider Anthony Shadid’s reporting on the events in Egypt: there were people nearby who were barely aware of them. Resistance to the proposal that Saudi lingerie shops institute all female staffing of such shops was surprising as it was intended to get more women into the workplace not as a human rights issue but as an upholding of Saudi values. The change of the laws to allow women to ride bicycles under limited conditions seems dramatic but she met no women who rode bicycles or would consider riding a bicycle.
There was outcry about a fire on which many girls died because security guards would not unlock the doors until they could be assured all the girls were properly covered that lead to a breaking of the power of the religious police. This was misread as King Abdullah at last listening to the demands of his oppressed people, but it was his desire for reform that made him unpopular and the reversal of policy is the source of his successors popularity.
Now there is a focus on entrepreneurship about which the activists are very skeptical, seeing it as a diversion of protest away from other issues. They would joke that as they were unable to get jobs, they now should start cupcake bakeries. The social media is deep yet Zoepf would not call it vibrant because the public debate that briefly flared during the Arab Spring is no longer there. It is used mainly to sell things. A shop may have website but somehow will sell things on Instagram. State Department personnel concede that technology and entrepreneurship ends the conversation over reform.
Islamic reformers recruit women who are wives of leaders or who were outstanding students in schools. Many women said that if you knew the Qur’an better than your husband or father you would never be bullied in the name of Islam. It was very important for women to know their rights in Islam and be able to defend them. The Qubaisi Sisterhood in Syria (Qubaisiat) are a development of which it is hard to get information. In 2011 Zoepf heard that they were in support of the early demonstrations by praying indoors for the revolution. They were not persecuted. The title came from the way girls would compete as to which better exemplified values prized by their families in a way you do not see in the West. They deserve attention but one must avoid thinking they are more representative than they are.
The tendency to write about women in the Arab world as if they are monolithically oppressed or not invested in their societies is also a mistake. In Saudi Arabia she found herself baffled by the prevalent notion that women were not bothered by the notion that a woman is one half of a man.
Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph. D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute