A very famous TEDTalk by author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie—called, appropriately, “The Danger of a Single Story”—argues that “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
Katherine Zoepf’s Excellent Daughters: The Secret Lives of the Young Women Who Are Transforming the Arab World does the opposite. It takes a group so often relegated to a single story in Western minds and media—women in the Arab world—and allows them all of their stories. It is a look—or, rather, a series of looks—on the ways in which women are quietly changing their own lives throughout the Middle East.
At a Washington, D.C. launch event for her book, Zoepf began by telling the audience—and moderator Peter Bergen, Director of New America’s International Security Program and himself a longtime Middle East analyst—not about the danger of a single story, but of the power in collecting many stories. Zoepf, who has worked as a freelance writer from Syria to Saudi Arabia for publications including The New York Times and The New Yorker, recalled how she was “laughed out of the room” after asking for demographic data about women in Lebanon. Autocratic regimes, she explained, believe that surveying their populations for breakdowns and opinions is counter to their own interest. And so they do not do it, leaving those who want to understand what, exactly, those in region are thinking, feeling, and hoping for and against, to rely on anecdote. Or, rather, on a wide array of anecdotes from a wide array of people.
There is, of course, danger in a single anecdote, and in taking one person, or even a few people’s, experiences as indicative as a larger whole (although, as one audience member pointed out, the same danger is inherent in relying too heavily on data, which can reduce figures to facts and paint the majority view as the only one). But Zoepf was cognizant of this reality, which informed her hard work in finding people in general and women in particular who could provide the diversity of opinion and experience that would lend texture, color, and truth to her writing.
These anecdotes taken together—the many stories of the many people she met over the many months and years spent in these countries—create a book that challenged the usual narrative of being a woman in the Muslim world. “There’s a tendency, I think, to make the mistake of thinking that [activists] are more representative than they are...You may find the women that they claim to be representing sort of disagree with their approach...And I also think that there’s a tendency to write about women in the Arab world as if they are monolithically oppressed, and as if they aren’t a part of their societies and invested in their societies in very important ways. It’s easy for us as Westerners, as journalists, as scholars to think, ‘If only this or this were different, the women would rise up.’ It’s always a lot more complicated than that.”
Further, one audience member (disclaimer: It was Elizabeth Weingarten, Deputy Director of New America’s Better Life Lab) noted that Western women have a tendency to project their own, more individually-oriented understanding of women’s empowerment onto women elsewhere. Zoepf agreed. “By and large, the countries that I spent time in...they’re countries with fairly weak traditions of individual rights. And I think there’s a bit of a failure of empathy on our part, because we’re so bound up in the idea that rights are an individual thing.” She explained that the cultures she describes are much more collectively oriented. Many Saudi women, for example, whose rights are tied to those of their fathers and husbands, expressed to her that they have rights as citizens because they are able to swear their allegiance to their king. Zoepf and Bergen both agreed that, for all his faults, Saudi Arabia’s former monarch, King Abdullah was quite progressive in the context of his culture—for instance, by offering scholarships to women. “Reporting seemed to take the view that, at last King Abdullah was listening to his oppressed people. But in fact, it was a lot more complicated than that. His support for women driving was very unpopular in the Kingdom,” Zoepf explained. And the titular excellent daughters are such because they were in a sort of competition to see who could be the most perfect, trusted daughter. Zoepf wryly observed that the Western teenage equivalent is surely harder to come by. But this, too, can be, in its way, subversive. As she writes in the book, “Young girls in the region grow up aware that their conduct is under continual scrutiny, and women who aspire to positions of leadership face a particularly difficult path, since the mere fact of their being in the public eye is often enough to raise suspicious about their modesty.” If the veil is modesty, so, too, can modesty veil the vanguard.
Rethinking the typical tale of women in the Arab world means revisiting what it means to be a woman and a reformer there, too. The women in Excellent Daughters are not, as some might think, reforming through radicalism or revolt, or even through use of social media (it exists, of course, but not as a space for public debate). Rather, Zoepf provides examples such as the Qubaisi sisterhood, a secret society in Syria. Before the Syrian civil war, this organization of well-connected women—shielded from infiltration or penetration, it should be noted, specifically because it was an all-women’s organization—brought in younger women and educated them about the Quran and Islamic law, that men could not use either against them. An intimate knowledge of a religious text may not be what one thinks of when one thinks of empowerment and emancipation. In this case, however, it had the power to provide both.
The transformation in this book, then, is from the inside and made by women who are diverse individuals in a collective culture, and who are of that culture. Who—like so many of us— do not see themselves as powerful individuals living in transformative times but who, in fact, are. It is happening slowly. Zoepf warned one audience member not to think of change in the Arab world as being either imminent or inevitable, as so many did during the Arab Spring. But it is happening in a way that is in keeping with who these excellent daughters actually are.
Zoepf’s book directly challenges the Western idea of what it means to be an empowered woman, and a woman in the Middle East, and a reformer. It is a book that can change minds about people who are changing their own world. And it is a book of many stories that, taken together, hold the best kind of danger.