Excellent Daughters: Book summary and reviews of Excellent Daughters by Katherine Zoepf

Excellent Daughters

The Secret Lives of Young Women Who Are Transforming the Arab World

by Katherine Zoepf

Excellent Daughters by Katherine Zoepf X
Excellent Daughters by Katherine Zoepf
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Book Summary

Deeply informed, heartfelt, and urgent, Good Daughters brings us a new understanding of the changing Arab societies - from 9/11 to Tahrir Square to the rise of ISIS - and gives voice to the remarkable women at the forefront of this change.

For more than a decade, Katherine Zoepf has lived in or traveled throughout the Arab world, reporting on the lives of women, whose role in the region has never been more in flux. Only a generation ago, female adolescence as we know it in the West did not exist in the Middle East. There were only children and married women. Today, young Arab women outnumber men in universities, and a few are beginning to face down religious and social tradition in order to live independently, to delay marriage, and to pursue professional goals. Hundreds of thousands of devout girls and women are attending Qur'anic schools - and using the training to argue for greater rights and freedoms from an Islamic perspective. And, in 2011, young women helped to lead antigovernment protests in the Arab Spring. But their voices have not been heard. Their stories have not been told.

In Syria before its civil warshe documents a complex society in the midst of soul searching about its place in the world and about the role of women. In Lebanon, she documents a country that on the surface is freer than other Arab nations but whose women must balance extreme standards of self-presentation with Islamic codes of virtue. In Abu Dhabi, Zoepf reports on a generation of Arab women who've found freedom in work outside the home. In Saudi Arabia she chronicles driving protests and women entering the retail industry for the first time. In the aftermath of Tahrir Square, she examines the crucial role of women in Egypt's popular uprising.

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Reviews

Media Reviews

"In her absorbing, window-opening book, Zoepf reveals the variety of women's lives and interests away from political headlines and conventional stereotypes, and their power, often by small steps, to transform their world." - Publishers Weekly

"Though Zoepf demonstrates a few instances of how "small reform turns out to be even more transformational than its most devoted proponents could have predicted," the evolving 'personal agency' she witnessed is almost too subtle (yet) to be perceived." - Kirkus

"Superbly reported and compassionately told, at once clear-eyed and forgiving, these brave narratives will foster understanding, forgiveness, and respect. This moving book is an act of cultural translation of the very first order." - Andrew Solomon, author of Far From the Tree and The Noonday Demon

"Changes for women in the Middle East have long been underway, and this book makes clear they look intriguingly different from how we may have imagined them." - Jenny Nordberg, award-winning journalist and author of The Underground Girls of Kabul

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Reader Reviews

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Betty Taylor

Young Women Shaking Up the Arab World
Katherine Zoepf, a journalist, has had the wonderful opportunity to live and travel throughout the Arab world. She has seen many changes in the area of women’s rights over the past few years. She shares her observations in this book.

The region has had to adapt to social changes involving young unmarried women, something totally foreign to their culture. In their society a woman remains at home with her parents until she marries and moves into her husband’s home. However now there are numerous unmarried women who are going to university and have entered the workforce, whether through economic necessity or their own wishes for an independent live. They are delaying marriage and sometimes rejecting the institution completely.

Her early reporting from Syria reflected an innocence no longer found there due to the civil war. It was interesting to read of the logistics of living a life under the veil. For example, women have curtained off sections of a restaurant so they may uncover their mouths to eat. Little details we would never think of having to deal with. Women express their resentment of how the western world seems more interested in their hijab and restrictions on their lives rather than what they think, what they believe, what they feel. The outer garb is of more interest than their inner beings. How sad, yet how true!

While some governments throughout the Middle East have tried to outlaw “honor killings”, due to the tribal nature of the societies this barbaric act still exists. The honor of a family rests on the reputation of their women. If the honor is blemished the women must die in order to restore honor. Many young girls are held in prisons to protect them from their families. Syria still has penal codes that state “that if a man commits a crime with an honorable motive he will go free”. Restoring the honor of his family is considered an “honorable motive”. Another says that is a man witnesses a female relative in an immoral act and kills her, he will go free.

The chapter on Beirut was quite interesting. The title for the chapter is “The most promiscuous virgins in the world”. That should get your attention! Lebanese woman are known as some of the most beautiful women in the world. But how do they balance the pressure to be beautiful with the requirement of virtue? This chapter discusses how the women manage to perform sexual favors in order to keep their men yet maintain virtuous. It also discusses circumcision of women – and hymenoplasty (the restoring of a woman’s hymen in order to pass as a virgin).

Saudi Arabia expends great resources to keep a strict separation of the sexes. Parents still choose their daughters’ husbands. But the girls do hope for a husband that will allow them to obtain an education. I did find interesting that in June 2011 King Abdullah issued a ruling banning men from working in lingerie shops, ordering that all the jobs be given to Saudi women instead. This was then broadened to include shops selling cosmetics, wedding dresses, abayas, and more. This opened up many jobs to women.

Unmarried and working women receive much criticism from their families and friends. In Saudi Arabia the phenomena of spinsterhood is a frequent topic in the news. Young men are asked are told “please don’t neglect women and do what you can to save them from spinsterhood.” There is criticism for women who “lose track of their age”. (I liked that one! As if…)

In her book, Katherine Zoepf has given a voice to the young women in the Arab world who are dragging their countries into the 21st century. This is a region of the world that I love and respect and I was glad to see that she pointed out how some countries have made great strides in women’s rights, while sadly others are still in the Dark Age. Change comes slowly to this part of the world, but the people still maintain hope.

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Author Information

Katherine Zoepf

Katherine Zoepf lived in Syria and Lebanon from 2004 to 2007 while working as a stringer for The New York Times; she also worked in the Times's Baghdad bureau in 2008. Since 2010, she has been a fellow at the New America Foundation. Her work has appeared in The New York Observer, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The New York Times Magazine, and The New Yorker, among other publications. She is a graduate of Princeton University and the London School of Economics.

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