Book Review: Excellent Daughters
By Teresa Cantero
Katherine Zoepf is a journalist, and fluent speaker of Arabic, who moved to the Middle East in the aftermath of the terror attacks of September 11th, and lived in the region for more than a decade. In Excellent Daughters, she offers a powerful corrective to the oversimplified image of Arab women as oppressed drudges and instead seeks to “portray the generation of Arab women that has been coming of age in the years since the September 11th attacks and that helped to lead the Arab Spring revolutions, and to describe, through the specifics of their lives, this time of accelerating change in the region.”
Several chapters of Excellent Daughters cover issues that are widely known, such as veiling and marriage customs, the Arab Spring, ISIS, and the Syrian civil war. But the real value of Zoepf’s book lies in those chapters in which she talks about the lesser-known realities of women’s lives in the MENA region, such as the shocking parallels between Christian and Islamic fundamentalism, the link between honor murders and the Napoleonic Code, the Qubaisi sisterhood in Syria, the summer marriages between men from the Gulf states and women from Lebanon and the stateless children that they create, the 1990 Saudi drivers’ protest, the virginity tests that the Egyptian authorities forced women to undergo during the Arab Spring, and the paradoxes of Lebanon, where gay bars flourish but homosexuality is officially outlawed. The book is filled with intriguing interviews such as one in which a bride-to-be shares her dream of having a Disneyland wedding, and another in which a woman describes the procedure of hymenoplasty, where young women get their hymen surgically restored so as to appear to be virgins on their wedding night.
An interesting dimension is added by the fact that Zoepf’s mother is a Jehovah’s Witness, and in her, Zoepf’s, discovery that the lives of Arab women, and local attitudes to gender roles, resemble her own upbringing more than she ever thought they would. So as Zoepf had set out to educate herself on the customs and beliefs of the Arab world she finds that she is strangely comfortable there. And it is her budding love for what everybody presumed she would hate – daily life in Saudi Arabia as the main example – that might be the best part of this collection.
Excellent Daughters is not a book about rebellious women who openly disobey the laws or customs of their countries. Instead, Excellent Daughters is a well-considered collection of essays about how women are quietly and steadily changing the Arab world. And it is precisely this authenticity far removed from the sensationalistic stories in the Western media that makes this book such a worthwhile read.