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Saturday, February 13, 2016

Excellent Daughters by Katherine Zoepf Falls Short of Excellence

Since my first two wins from Goodreads giveaways took place in New Zealand,  I uttered that famous Monty Python intro phrase "and now for something completely different" when I won Excellent Daughters by Katherine Zoepf from Goodreads .  This is a book consisting of a journalist's interviews with 21st century Arab women throughout the Middle East.  It had been preceded by my first Goodreads win Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All, the memoir of an American woman who married a Maori man, and my second Goodreads win, Song of the Spirits, a novel about a half-Maori woman who aspired to be a successful singer in Europe.  New Zealand is a fascinating place and I am delighted to visit it through the pages of a book, but Goodreads Giveaways was starting to become predictable.

Regarding the subject of Excellent Daughters, I'm very interested in Arab women bringing about change for themselves and for the future of women in the Middle East.  There's a book I read called Arab Women Rising about Arab women who are starting their own businesses in Arab countries.  I reviewed it on this blog here.  So as I started this book, I was ready for more good news about women in the Middle East.


Zoepf opens with a group of young Saudi women at a party in 2007 who seem very ordinary until we learn that several of them are law students.  At the time, Saudi Arabia didn't allow women to be lawyers.  The hostess of the party thought she'd be able to take a job at a law firm that didn't involve appearing in court, but others at the party were certain that they would be lawyers.  They were right, but it took a while.  In October of 2013, Saudi Arabia licensed the first woman lawyers.   Here's an article from about the first woman lawyer in Saudi Arabia .  There were links to videos on that page about other developments in Saudi Arabia--women in Saudi Arabia now allowed to ride bicycles but only in parks accompanied by a male relative, and a city entirely of women is being constructed in Saudi Arabia to increase women's employment.    Gender segregation facilitates advances for women in a country where gender mixing is forbidden.   Perhaps there will be women's courts in the women's city presided over by woman judges with cases argued by woman lawyers.

Zoepf spoke to Saudi women who had participated in the 1990 Saudi women's driving protest to find out how it had impacted them and how they felt about it.  I found the perspective of Norah Al Sawayan most notable.  She lost her job after the protest, was placed under surveillance, was arrested for attending a mixed gender social gathering and was then beaten severely by the Saudi religious police.  She now thinks that driving would be a small victory for Saudi women while women are still under male guardianship and aren't equal before the law.  

Zoepf  didn't understand the women's campaign against male employees at lingerie shops.  She could support it as an opportunity for more jobs for women, but the argument that a woman being attended by a man at a lingerie shop was an offense to modesty seemed to her like a step backward toward traditional Islamic attitudes. Frankly, I would be uncomfortable with a male employee in those circumstances.  I also choose woman doctors.  Women having the right to make choices is the core principle of feminism.  Saudi Arabian women didn't have that right with regard to lingerie stores.  Now they do.   

It interested me to read in Excellent Daughters about woman college students in Saudi Arabia cross-dressing, exchanging photos of themselves cross-dressed via smartphones and daring each other to enter male space cross-dressed.  The cross-dressed girls buying gifts for girls who are beautiful reminded me of what I'd read about the all female Takarazuka Theatre Companies in Japan and the subculture surrounding them.  I think that like the cross-dressing actors in the Takarazuka Companies, these Saudi girls are defying conventional gender roles.  This is very daring in Saudi Arabia.  I was astonished that they were getting away with it.  

Zoepf's news about Egypt isn't good.  Suzanne Mubarak, the wife of Egypt's overthrown dictator, had become identified with feminism.  There were changes to Egypt's laws that were favorable to women under Mubarak that were called "Suzanne's laws".  Zoepf mentions them, but doesn't tell us anything specific about them.  According to this articleone of these laws dealt with a woman's right to divorce her husband without his consent.  The other dealt with a woman's ability to obtain her own passport and travel without her husband's consent.  Sadly, there is a movement to repeal these laws as being anti-Islamic.   Zoepf writes that most Egyptian women don't want anything to do with women's rights because of the association of this cause with Suzanne Mubarak.  Without Mubarak's security forces, more women are being harassed and attacked on the streets of Egypt.  As I read about Egypt after the overthrow of the Mubarak regime, I wondered about how the current situation in Egypt impacts the life of American Muslim G. Willow Wilson when she's there.  I'll add it to the list of questions I had when I reviewed her memoir here.

I don't imagine there is any good news about women in Syria right now.  There is probably very little in the way of good news about anyone in Syria.  Zoepf's reports about women in Syria date back to 2006 and are therefore very outdated. 

Since the copy I'm reviewing is an advance proof, it isn't the same as a finished copy.  The end matter which consists of acknowledgements, a bibliography and an index aren't included.   I  only know how many pages are devoted to each of them.  This may be standard in ARCs from major publishers.   Every non-fiction ARC that I've received from indie presses or small academic presses has always had acknowledgements and a bibliography though none have had indexes.  Well, I can't review what isn't there.   I have sometimes given a book an extra star on Goodreads for its bibliography.  That won't be happening with this book.

Excellent Daughters was intermittently interesting, but there were times when I thought Zoepf's comments weren't insightful.  I don't regret reading the book because I did learn some important things--particularly about the status of women in Saudi Arabia.  I imagine that Zoepf  probably wasn't willing to plunge into the midst of the current maelstrom in Syria.   I know that if the women she spoke to in Syria in 2006 are still alive, they are probably refugees.   She might conceivably catch up to one or two of them wherever they've taken refuge if she could find them.  I wonder if the finished version of the book  has any sort of postscript dealing with what happened to those women, or perhaps the release of Excellent Daughters will cause a few of her Syrian interviewees to get in touch with her.



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