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

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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 universit 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 war, she 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.   Deeply informed, heartfelt, and urgent, Excellent 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.


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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 universit 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 war, she 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.   Deeply informed, heartfelt, and urgent, Excellent 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.

30 review for Excellent Daughters: The Secret Lives of Young Women Who Are Transforming the Arab World

  1. 5 out of 5

    Diane S ☔

    Their lives are so incredibly different from ours, it is hard to comprehend. The author takes us to various counties in the Middle East, talking to girls and women in these places and though different supposed freedoms vary in different countries, most are at the mercy of the men in their lives. Female circumcision, so hard to read, but the one that really got to me was the story of the young girl killed in a honor killing, absolutely heartbreaking because what happened to this girl was not her Their lives are so incredibly different from ours, it is hard to comprehend. The author takes us to various counties in the Middle East, talking to girls and women in these places and though different supposed freedoms vary in different countries, most are at the mercy of the men in their lives. Female circumcision, so hard to read, but the one that really got to me was the story of the young girl killed in a honor killing, absolutely heartbreaking because what happened to this girl was not her fault. Other girls at risk for honor killings are put in prison for protection until they are eighteen, shelters for abuse victims do not exist. Although I found the title a misnomer, small strides may exist but I only found larger differences in the Persian gulf. There woman are working though many still follow the strictures from their home societies but do find when going back that even these little freedoms are hard to give up. Many defend the systems they are raised under, considering it disrespectful and against their religion not to do so. Many cannot conceive of any other way. The men seem not to take responsibility for anything, they are allowed unlimited freedoms though some are more tolerant and lenient than others. A very eye opening book, one that is timely with all the attention that has been drawn to the Muslim religion as a whole. Change if it comes to this region will be slow and will have to gain the support of more of the male figures, I fear. This is the first time I have gone back and added something to my review, but this book has really made me think. There are a few things they have that we no longer do, families are very close, often raised within distance of each other and a sense of family is revered. Here, families are often miles apart and it is hard to gather a whole family unit together. Also women time, the women spend much time of course with other women. Here that is often not possible with our busy lives, jobs and other responsibilities. This is not to excuse that seclusion and lack of choices these women face, nor their mistreatment at times at the hand of men but I guess there is a tradeoff, with freedom comes a loss of other things. ARC from Netgalley.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Esil

    Excellent Daughters is an excellent book. But its subtitle is a bit deceiving. The author, Katherine Zoepf, is an American reporter who has spent a number of years in the Middle East. For the purposes of her book, she spent time in a few Arab countries, where she got to know a number of young Muslim women. She reports on her conversations with them and on her observations of their lives. Her observations are not uniform -- young women have different lives depending on the country they live in an Excellent Daughters is an excellent book. But its subtitle is a bit deceiving. The author, Katherine Zoepf, is an American reporter who has spent a number of years in the Middle East. For the purposes of her book, she spent time in a few Arab countries, where she got to know a number of young Muslim women. She reports on her conversations with them and on her observations of their lives. Her observations are not uniform -- young women have different lives depending on the country they live in and their specific family circumstances. Some of what she reports is horrifying -- honour based violence. Much of what she reports seems unfathomable to me -- young women who are never in the presence of a man except immediate family members until marriage, young women getting university educations who won't have an opportunity to work, young women playing no role in selecting their husbands, young women who need their husband's or father's permission to work or continue with their education or to travel, forced virginity tests, etc... Clearly Zoepf forged strong ties with many of the women she interviewed, and she goes out of her way to make sure that readers understand that they are smart, educated, funny, very kind and respectful to her, and that many of them have no real complaints about their circumstances. She does make reference to some small changes or to a number of individual or groups pushing for change, but it's hard to see that what she depicts lives up to the book's subtitle "The Secret Lives of Young Women Who Are Transforming the Arab World". I didn't get a sense that there's a groundswell of change afoot, or even that Zoepf had tapped into a broiling sense of injustice. On the contrary, with a few notable exceptions, Zoepf seems to mostly have found a fairly set and rigid world. And where there is activism, the resistance to change is tremendous and often even violent. It's not really possible for me to read this book and assess this world Zoepf presents without judgment, but I do appreciate the look the book gives me into the various communities of young women Zoepf got to know. I also appreciate that the only way she could realistically write this book was by forging positive relationships with the women she met and by approaching them with respect and without imposing her own views on them. Zoepf doesn't apologize for anything she discusses, but she is never harsh or explicitly critical; leaving much for the reader to imply and mull over. Thanks to the publisher and Goodreads for an opportunity to read an advance copy of Excellent Daughters.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Caren

    I think some of the situations for women in Islamic countries are known in the West, but here the author, a journalist, allows the reader an inside view of the lives of young women she met in the Middle East over the span of a decade. Because she herself was a young woman, not very much older than the unmarried girls she came to know, she was allowed access not available to many. She lived in Syria, before the civil war, and in Lebanon (a somewhat freer society, yet one in which young women walk I think some of the situations for women in Islamic countries are known in the West, but here the author, a journalist, allows the reader an inside view of the lives of young women she met in the Middle East over the span of a decade. Because she herself was a young woman, not very much older than the unmarried girls she came to know, she was allowed access not available to many. She lived in Syria, before the civil war, and in Lebanon (a somewhat freer society, yet one in which young women walk a fine line between appearing beautiful and provocative, yet staying chaste). She lived in Egypt during the Arab spring, when there was so much hope, for naught it would seem. She lived in Saudi Arabia, one of the countries with very strict control of women, where she met leaders of the protest to allow women to drive and to work in retail stores (in particular, stores that sell underwear, since women had been forced to buy underthings from men sales clerks, which they found embarrassing). The sexes are kept strictly apart there once adolescence is reached. There was one exception to that, one which I found odd: (from page 149) Typically, Saudi girls must confine themselves to the female sphere from earliest adolescence, but Rasha's family had been slightly more relaxed at first, she said. "Until I was in ninth or tenth grade, we used to put a carpet on the lawn and we would take hot milk and sit there with my boy cousins," Rasha said. "But my mom and their mom got uncomfortable with it, and so we stopped. Now we sometimes talk on MSN, or on the phone, but they shouldn't ever see my face. Before I was born, my mom tells me that she and my uncles used to play Uno together sometimes. But it's stricter now. You couldn't do that today. "My sister and I sometimes ask my mom, 'Why didn't you breast-feed our boy cousins, too?'" Rasha said. Rasha was referring to a practice called milk kinship that predates Islam and is still common in the Persian Gulf countries. A woman never had to veil in front of a man she nursed as an infant, and neither do her biological children. The woman's biological children and the children she nursed are considered " milk siblings" and are prohibited from marrying. "If my mom had breast-fed my cousins, we could sit with them, and it would all be much easier", Rasha said. I pointed out that this would also rule out the possibility of marrying one of these cousins, and Rasha sighed. Rasha had missed the company of all her male cousins, once the gender separation was enforced within the family. But she also quickly realized that she'd developed strong feelings for a particular male cousin.... [end quote] The author includes an extensive discussion about veiling, with explanations from the Qur'an and from history as to how the practice evolved. Young women are apparently taught that the sight of their hair or the sound of their voice can just drive men wild, to the point that things could happen over which the man has no control. Here is an account of one exchange she records: (from page 50) One morning in class, the first Arabic teacher I had in Syria, a deeply religious young woman named Asma, explained why she wore the hijab. "What if a man sees you girls walking in the street with your hair uncovered and becomes so aroused that he goes and abuses a child?" Asma asked...."Wouldn't you feel that it was your fault that this child was raped? I know that I could never live with myself if something like that happened. That is why I wear the hijab." [end quote] This strict separation means that restaurants need partitioned sections for families so that women can remove their veils enough to eat.... The author profiled one of the freest places for women in the region: Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, where young women aspire to become flight attendants, at which they can make a nice income and see the world. Dubai is another country that allows women more freedom. From page 178: The openness can be particularly liberating for young women, Saoub said. "In Jordan your managers control your time and always make sure you feel like you're their employee", she said. "There's very, very little room to move up. In the Gulf, everything is more flexible. You prove yourself and that's it. People don't care if you're a woman . People don't care if you're married yet. "In Jordan, if the office finds out that a woman has boyfriend, it can be the end of her career.". Saoub said. "It's amazing to come here and find that people only care about how you do your job. The fact that there is real competition, combined with the freedom, is very exciting. It makes you want to work harder and to prove yourself." [end quote] Yes, well, those are some of the positive points, but the author doesn't shy away from the darker stories. Her account of an honor killing in Syria in 2007 is horrifying: The 16-year-old girl had been abducted and raped, so she was put in a detention center "for her own protection from her family". Her cousin got her out by marrying her, but a month after their marriage, when her new husband had left for work, her brother came in and stabbed her to death as she slept, to avenge the family's honor. She also includes a story of a girl who was detained by police during a demonstration in Egypt and was given a forced virginity test. The description made me cringe. I found this passage from page 112 very interesting: These discussions came perilously close to forbidden political discourse, al-Kadi explained. Arab society's attachment to the idea of personal honor as something bound inextricably to the virtue of female relatives was becoming even deeper than it had been historically. Partly this was a result of the wave of Islamization that had been sweeping the Arab world since the 1980s. But an obsession with the control of female sexuality was also, al-Kadi and his fellow activists believed, a symptom of political despair, of a society on the edge of collapse. After decades of dictatorship, Syrian men who could control nothing else about their lives could at least control the women in their families, al-Kadi explained. "Our parents tell us that there was an earlier day when honor meant that you were honorable in your work, that you didn't take bribes, for example", al-Kadi told me. "But now, the political and economic situation is so bad that some degree of corruption is necessary to survive. People will say that you're a good earner for your family; they won't blame you. Historically speaking, all our other ideologies have collapsed. No one talks about loyalty to country, about professional honor. Now it's just the family, the tribe, the woman. That's the only kind of honor we have left." [end quote] The subtitle of the book is: The Secret Lives of Young Women Who are Transforming the Arab World". Frankly, I think that is a bit of an overstatement. It felt to me as though change was very incremental and only in small pockets of places. All I could really think at the end was, 'I am so glad I live in the West!' Thanks to Esil for putting this book on my radar.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Emma Deplores Goodreads Censorship

    This is an engaging, readable account of a young journalist’s experiences in the Arab world, and particularly the women she met. It’s not as fascinating or information-packed as Geraldine Brooks’s fantastic Nine Parts of Desire, which you should absolutely read if you have any interest at all in women’s lives in the Middle East. But it is fun and informative, a great introduction to the topic. And from her writing, Zoepf seems adept at breaking through cultural barriers to connect with individua This is an engaging, readable account of a young journalist’s experiences in the Arab world, and particularly the women she met. It’s not as fascinating or information-packed as Geraldine Brooks’s fantastic Nine Parts of Desire, which you should absolutely read if you have any interest at all in women’s lives in the Middle East. But it is fun and informative, a great introduction to the topic. And from her writing, Zoepf seems adept at breaking through cultural barriers to connect with individuals, with the result that the women she profiles sound like people you might actually meet. Each topic has a different overarching topic and location, with Saudi Arabia and Syria getting the most page time, while Lebanon, the UAE and Egypt get a chapter each. Other reviewers have commented that the book overall seems more “excellent daughters” than “bringing change.” I’d say it’s about evenly split. Saudi Arabia in particular feels static in Zoepf’s depiction, and those chapters mostly cover life as it is, focusing on topics like female friendship and matchmaking (though with some hints of change). Other chapters deal more with social problems and change: the Arab Spring, particularly in Egypt; honor killings in Syria; young women migrating to the UAE in search of work, a practice that would have been unthinkable not long ago. But it’s true that the change that’s chronicled here is incremental. Meanwhile, the book is very readable, and if you’ve read many stories in the New York Times over the years, you might just recognize some of it (in one case I did, which made me feel great about my memory!), since the book is drawn from the author’s research as a reporter. But it works smoothly as a whole, and though I recognized some of the material, the book never felt cribbed together from articles. Overall, while this isn’t the most in-depth account you’ll read, it is still a good book. It’s a bit like having a conversation with a smart, perceptive, nonjudgmental and extremely well-traveled friend. I recommend it.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Eileen

    This was a fascinating glimpse deep into the Arab world. Because the author is a woman, she was allowed direct access to numerous Muslim women. The genders are so fiercely segregated that a male journalist would have been denied such interaction. How far removed are we in western society! Of course, one tends to be comfortable in the familiar, but I was struck by the seeming complacency of so many. Numerous women are content, even grateful, in their tightly controlled existence. The selection of This was a fascinating glimpse deep into the Arab world. Because the author is a woman, she was allowed direct access to numerous Muslim women. The genders are so fiercely segregated that a male journalist would have been denied such interaction. How far removed are we in western society! Of course, one tends to be comfortable in the familiar, but I was struck by the seeming complacency of so many. Numerous women are content, even grateful, in their tightly controlled existence. The selection of one’s spouse by the parents is generally a respected, cherished practice. In Saudi Arabia, there is no driving, no social interaction between the sexes – the list goes on. One activist explained that ‘she now believed that the right to drive was almost beside the point while Saudi women were still denied far more basic rights, while they were not treated like citizens with rights to be protected. The problem was so bad that many Saudi women didn’t believe they wanted or needed these rights. They have low self-esteem, even if they are very well educated’. It’s easy for us, raised with freedoms readily taken for granted, to view with all this with disdain. And yet, the author carefully demonstrates a vital understanding that one is in some part a product of one’s environment. She quotes an activist as follows. ‘In our society, men don’t see the woman as a human being. But I don’t mean to say that men here are bad. Men are simply from this society. Men grow up and their families are like this, their schools teach them this, and adult society is like this. When they get married, actually, they have many problems because they aren’t used to dealing with women at all’. However, there are those courageous young women who are starting to resist, to fight for access to the outside world, and the author interviewed many of them. It was exciting to see the emergence! The book was so worthwhile, and very readable. I’m really glad I now have a slightly better grasp of the world behind the veil.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Jo

    (A long review but this book really makes you think) Katherine Zoepf isn’t alone in that the events of 9/11 triggered a greater interest in the Arab world, but she has made this interest the center point of her career as a journalist. In Excellent Daughters, she has written an eminently readable and truly fascinating book where the voices of real people, in particular women, come through on every page. She gives women from Syria, Egypt, Dubai and Libya room to put their point of view, to explain (A long review but this book really makes you think) Katherine Zoepf isn’t alone in that the events of 9/11 triggered a greater interest in the Arab world, but she has made this interest the center point of her career as a journalist. In Excellent Daughters, she has written an eminently readable and truly fascinating book where the voices of real people, in particular women, come through on every page. She gives women from Syria, Egypt, Dubai and Libya room to put their point of view, to explain and protest and teach and to express opinions that for us in the West ring honest and true and at other times leave us scratching our heads. I really appreciated little details like the fact that many Arab women adore Oprah, that one of the girls wants her wedding at Disney World, that girls at school were dressing up as men in thobes as a minor act of rebellion, perhaps because it is these elements that link our cultures and make us feel that we aren’t so different. What was touching too were the stories of Arab men who stood up and defended their wives and daughters like the supportive husband, of Norah Al-Sowayan, one of the female drivers in Saudi who talks with outrage at her treatment. The high ranking Muslim clerics who were prepared to question interpretations of the Koran that lead to female oppression, illustrate that we cannot generalize about Arab men any more than American or English. The point is made that “Men are simply from this society,” and therefore, they cannot know anything different about the treatment of women. The same rings true for so many women who have been sheltered over the years and only know one way in which to live and be treated. Imagine if you didn’t have access to satellite TV, books, the internet. How would you know that there was another way of living? Zoepf writes, ‘Saudi women, likewise, tended to defend the Saudi way of doing things because it was the only thing they knew.’ There are, however, in the book women advocates who question this view of men and their supposed care for the women in their family; it is referred to as “contemptuous chivalry” at one point. The point being that the care and concern is simply a way of denigrating and controlling the women even further. Yet what surprised me was how many women defended this control, how there were women protesting against the protesters for female freedoms. Many women spoke of how they valued the guardian ship of the males in the family, how it made them feel valued and safe. Yet there is a disturbing side to this ‘guardianship’ and this is clearly shown with the story of Zahra in Damascus in 2007. This shocking honor killing brings into clear focus the problems with fundamentalism and certain interpretations of the Koran which, I was unaware, is not where the concept of honor killing comes from, having its roots in the pre-Islamic Bedouin culture of the region. This chapter stretches our understanding and acceptance of such a culture or religion despite the fact that this particular case did cause a great deal of discussion in Syria. Interestingly one explanation for this obsessive control is that because of the declining political and economic situation at the time in Syria - which has clearly declined even more over the last nine years- ‘Syrian men who could control nothing else about their lives could at least control the women in their families.’ This does not excuse this practice by any means but is interesting in that poverty and a lack of control over their lives have also been posited as reasons for the rise of fundamentalism. Katherine Zoepf shows us that it is important not to tar all these countries with the same brush, of not mixing the actions of extremists with every day Muslims. Many of the women, particularly in Syria and Saudi Arabia are highly educated, have travelled and some hold positions of power but as in the West we continue to work for equality in women’s wages, so there is always further to go. To dismiss these women as simply brainwashed would be to patronize and infantilize them, something that Zoepf never does and as access to the West grows ever easier, it is evident that thinking for themselves and other women is becoming part of the Arab female experience. Yet we cannot simply compare them with us or think that our way is better, there may even be parents in the West who would love to have children ‘competitively describing what dutiful, excellent daughters they each were.’ Katherine Zoepf manages to have a voice in the book but at the same time, she doesn’t make this a book about her –this isn’t a memoir, this is a book about the opinions and ideals and wishes of Arab women, not a Western woman projecting, but a talented journalist giving a voice to her interviewees and allowing them to speak for themselves.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Shomeret

    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 . 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. Excellent Daughters was intermittently interesting, but there were times when I thought Zoepf's comments were 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 . 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. 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. For my complete review see http://shomeretmasked.blogspot.com/20...

  8. 4 out of 5

    Penny Schmuecker

    Thank you to NetGalley and to the publisher for allowing me an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Katherine Zoepf has written a well-researched and informative book about the lives of Muslim women. The subtitle of the book, “The Secret Lives of Young Women Who Are Transforming the Arab World,” however, is somewhat misleading. Definitely, the lives of these young women are cloaked in secrecy, as is much of Islam to a Westerner, and through the author’s interviews the reader is allowed Thank you to NetGalley and to the publisher for allowing me an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Katherine Zoepf has written a well-researched and informative book about the lives of Muslim women. The subtitle of the book, “The Secret Lives of Young Women Who Are Transforming the Arab World,” however, is somewhat misleading. Definitely, the lives of these young women are cloaked in secrecy, as is much of Islam to a Westerner, and through the author’s interviews the reader is allowed access to the lives they lead, literally, behind closed doors. However, I think the phrase “transforming the Arab world” is a state that sadly, has not yet been reached, and the few changes that have been made cannot be said to have occurred in all countries of the region. Zoepf, a journalist, conducted face-to-face interviews with the women and it is clear that she has both a love for the people and a respect for the culture, and that she used both of these to approach delicate subject matter with the women who sometimes became defensive of the questions she posed. The first thing that is noticeable about this book is that not all Moslem countries are the same when it comes to how they regard women’s rights. There are varying levels of freedom granted to women in each of the countries but it is clear that they are regarded as property and are not afforded the same rights as the men in any of the countries across the board. In other words, there are glimpses of hope and advancement in Saudi Arabia but the same cannot be said for the women in war-torn Syria. As Zoepf details, the most recent changes in allowing more freedom for women probably stemmed from the 2011 democratic uprisings, known across the region as the Arab Spring. For instance, in Egypt, uprisings resulted in the removal of Hosni Mubarak from power. The protests involved both men and women working at the ground level--with little regard to gender, organizing and rallying temporarily for a common goal. Yet once order was restored, this street level success did little to improve the lives of Egypt’s women; policies toward women did not change with an installment of a new government and gender-based discrimination and gender-based violence prevail, possibly at an even greater level than before. Saudi Arabia has the strictest gender based laws in the world. However, most of the women who were interviewed de-emphasized their rights in favor of recognizing that these restrictions are necessary to protect both their religion and Saudi values. For instance, “ikhtilat” (public gender mixing) prohibited women from employment in sales jobs for fear of having to speak to or interact with a male outside of her family. After a previous attempt to try to grant more employment opportunities as sales associates in lingerie shops failed, activists tried a new approach. Proponents of the change used the idea of shame to make their appeal that no Saudi woman should have to discuss something as personal as underwear with a male sales associate. The campaign was a success and women are now allowed to be employed in lingerie shops and male sales associates are prohibited. Success came as a result that it would be in violation of Saudi values if the old ways continued, not because there was value in employing women or to grant them additional rights. In this reader’s opinion, one can see that there are small gains being made to better the lives of women, but again, they are not the sweeping changes that might be called a transformation. If this book does one thing, it makes the reader notice that there is much work to be done in countries where women’s rights have remained virtually unchanged for centuries. I will conclude by saying that I enjoyed this book. Ms. Zoepf is thoroughly committed to giving the reader an unbiased, honest glimpse into the lives of the women of this region and it was a very informative read.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Carol Douglas

    Katherine Zoepf is a journalist who has spent years in Arab countries. In this book, she interviews young Muslim women in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and Syria. The young Saudi women are upper class, and several either are in college or are going to college. One is about to be married. They have strong female friendships, but they know that when they are married their husbands can make them end those friendships. That has happened to some of their friends. Although the girls want education and pro Katherine Zoepf is a journalist who has spent years in Arab countries. In this book, she interviews young Muslim women in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and Syria. The young Saudi women are upper class, and several either are in college or are going to college. One is about to be married. They have strong female friendships, but they know that when they are married their husbands can make them end those friendships. That has happened to some of their friends. Although the girls want education and professional jobs, they say that they have no problem with the idea of their parents choosing their husbands. They hope for husbands who will allow them to continue their education. They don't know men outside their immediate families, and accept their situation. They profess to be religious and to have no problems with the restrictions their government puts on women in the name of religion. They say there are a few lesbians in King Saud University, and said they didn't want to go there for that reason. The girls Zoepf met in met in Beirut are different. They are influenced by French traditions and care very much about their appearance. Even if they have little money, they will save up to have just one nice outfit. Some of them go to bars and flirt, but they try to keep men from pressing them to go to far. They'll try to avoid losing their hymens. If they do lose their hymens, many young women will have surgery to "restore" them. Some say they want to marry men who won't care if they aren't virgins, but those who are that idealistic are often bitterly disappointed. The Syrian women live with more restrictions, and those have become even worse since the war, Zoepf said. She had lived in Syria before the war and enjoyed it. She writes about a famous "honor"killing of a girl who had been raped. Without any women's shelters, Syrian authorities would put girls who had been raped in jail for their own protection. Few girls believe that their families would kill them, says a woman who works with the girls, but she has to tell them they are probably wrong. Koepf felt a connection with sheltered Arab girls because her mother is a Jehovah's Witness and she had been brought up as a religious fundamentalist herself. She is never patronizing. She is a valuable witness to these girls' lives. She notes that many of the girls resent westerners' focus on the veiling of and restrictions on Muslim women, and wish that writers would emphasize their intelligence and desire for education. Zoepf does that, but she shows that their lives really are circumscribed.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Stephanie Burton

    I received a copy of Excellent Daughters by Katherine Zoepf from its publishers, Penguin Press, via NetGalley, in exchange for my honest review. Women in Middle Eastern countries aren't often given much of a voice in the European press and media so, when I saw this book by journalist Katherine Zoepf, I was keen to read it. Zoepf spent over a decade meeting and talking to mostly young women across the Middle East, discussing their lives: education prospects, marriage plans, religion, social intera I received a copy of Excellent Daughters by Katherine Zoepf from its publishers, Penguin Press, via NetGalley, in exchange for my honest review. Women in Middle Eastern countries aren't often given much of a voice in the European press and media so, when I saw this book by journalist Katherine Zoepf, I was keen to read it. Zoepf spent over a decade meeting and talking to mostly young women across the Middle East, discussing their lives: education prospects, marriage plans, religion, social interactions, and hopes for their futures. Her writing was first published as articles in the New Yorker which results in some repetition across this relatively short book, although I believe the articles have been re-edited with new material added. Excellent Daughters is written for a American audience so, understandably, has a strong Western filter. However, I liked that many of the conversations are reported word for word and, while Zoepf makes observations such as Saudi girls appearing younger in their behaviour than their American counterparts, she doesn't give this negative or positive connotations. Zoepf discusses how women are opening Islamic schools for girls, allowing them to read, interpret and argue Koranic laws from a female perspective. Others are taking advantage of new employment opportunities and the resultant financial freedom. Most interesting for me though was her conversations with women who, although they would like to change some aspects of their lives, don't want our Western ideas of commercialisation and individuality over community. This survey attempts to portray many changes across a half dozen different countries, each of which has its own ideas of proper behaviour for its women. The country differences in themselves are fascinating, showing the popular Western media's idea of 'how Muslim women live' to be a wild misconception. However, I would have preferred a longer, deeper book, or a narrower subject focus because I often felt that Zoepf was just skimming the surface and there is much more to say. See more of my book reviews on my blog, Stephanie Jane

  11. 5 out of 5

    Jeanette

    If you desire to read ear witness knowledge for the women, especially young women, of the Arab World, this is the book for you. They speak. Overall it is a book of opinion, expression, and emotion. The author doesn't set herself in their path of discourse too much. She does shift them on occasion but does not negate or interpret. So getting their context status quo for numerous personal choices especially within the work place or education and other personal factors for their future life directi If you desire to read ear witness knowledge for the women, especially young women, of the Arab World, this is the book for you. They speak. Overall it is a book of opinion, expression, and emotion. The author doesn't set herself in their path of discourse too much. She does shift them on occasion but does not negate or interpret. So getting their context status quo for numerous personal choices especially within the work place or education and other personal factors for their future life direction- it's here. But on the other hand, the title was, for me a misdirection. More than considerably inaccurate. Because this has overwhelming choice to "submit". Still quite there and in some ways more so. Having the family pick your husband at 17. The lack of mobility being nearly acceptable regardless of the school or job. Islam means "to submit". This may be a change, but it is certainly not evidence of a feminist transformation. The change would occur in their attitude toward the submission itself. Hmmmm! Certainly they are not transforming the strictures that control their severe limitations but instead seem to rationalize and accept them further for the few perks (like segregated advanced education) that they have achieved. Seeing progressions in other countries during my lifetime for feminine cultural choices and numbers that opt for former non-traditional or personal choice role? Well, this peacefulness with the conditions that they accept with such satisfaction; it seems actually a step backwards for me. But it is full of information. And the author probably does not hold many of the same definitions of abstracts that I would. Nor do these women. But still, in most of this discourse? It's like because you can paint the walls, you don't mind being locked in one room. Their public life, if at all, eliminates half the human race. Is that transforming by any definition?

  12. 4 out of 5

    Amanda

    I'd like to have a word with her editor about that subtitle. I started the book imagining I would hear some optimistic tales. The Arab world is being transformed, certainly, but I'm not sure that young woman are doing much of the transforming... or benefiting much at all. This was a fascinating look at women's lives and it was inspirational in the sense that living under harsh conditions is inspirational. And women find ways to express themselves; they are strong willed, opinionated, etc... but I'd like to have a word with her editor about that subtitle. I started the book imagining I would hear some optimistic tales. The Arab world is being transformed, certainly, but I'm not sure that young woman are doing much of the transforming... or benefiting much at all. This was a fascinating look at women's lives and it was inspirational in the sense that living under harsh conditions is inspirational. And women find ways to express themselves; they are strong willed, opinionated, etc... but there is a lot more to be disheartened by here than not. Is it possible that we've made so little progress in allowing women to run their own lives, even in 2016? We're still fighting to stop honor killings of innocent rape victims, anything resembling equality seems hopelessly far off. I still recommend it as a good read, though!

  13. 4 out of 5

    Chinook

    Fantastic. The average person among us probably feels they have little they can do to affect the way the West and the Middle East interact with each other right now, but I'd suggest that what we can do is read books like this one, to learn about how we are all the same and how we are all different and approach these issues from a place of knowledge and awareness.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Kiwi Begs2Differ ✎

    The Muslim world is known for its gender-based discrimination, yet it is rare to hear the voice of the women who live in it. The author, a journalist who lived for many years in various Arab countries, tries to explain the traditions and social policies of this world and the expectations on their women. From arrange marriages to higher education, for honour killings to political activism, from female genital mutilation to religious fervour, from the right to pursuing a professional career to wear The Muslim world is known for its gender-based discrimination, yet it is rare to hear the voice of the women who live in it. The author, a journalist who lived for many years in various Arab countries, tries to explain the traditions and social policies of this world and the expectations on their women. From arrange marriages to higher education, for honour killings to political activism, from female genital mutilation to religious fervour, from the right to pursuing a professional career to wearing a veil these are some of the topics covered in this book. It seems to me that the author genuinely aims at making westerners like me, to understand where some social practices (that we find reprehensible) come from and how attitudes may be changing (or not). If there’s anything I hope to do with this book, it is to make the case for small gestures: the world changes because of wars and terrorist attacks, but it also changes because a daughter makes slightly different decisions from the ones a mother made. Among the number of cases of appalling abuse of personal freedom and justice (e.g. activists being beaten on the streets and forced virginity tests performed by government authorities) there seems to be some rays of hope for these women in the last few years. By campaigning for the right to drive, to travel without asking permission from their male guardian, women are trying to find a new place in their society, and celebrating small victories like being able to work in a lingerie shop or for an airline without a social stigma. It’s a window on a world that feels completely foreign and sometimes bewildering. Very informative, honest, non-judgmental, an eye opener for sure. Well worth the read. Fav. Quotes: The lines that separate the individual from the society to which he or she belongs were drawn differently here, and people were assumed to be responsible to one another in ways that would be difficult to imagine in much of the West. These social responsibilities are today very much in contention—modern life erodes traditional roles and expectations in the Arab world as it does everywhere—but they remain a powerful force. it seems to me inarguable that, in the contemporary Arab world, the burden of behaving in a way that safeguards the values of the community falls disproportionately on its female members. 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 suspicions about their modesty. “After the revolution, people are trying to remove the name of Mubarak’s family from everything. So the Islamic movements have been trying to stop the women’s laws from being active, to have a new law where a woman cannot have the right to divorce herself, for example, to have a law where illegitimate children don’t have the right to go to school.”

  15. 4 out of 5

    Sam Reaves

    Katherine Zoepf reported from the Middle East for the New York Times for several years and, in addition to covering all the standard political and economic noise, gained access and paid close attention to the social world of Arab women. This book is the result of her attempt to achieve a sympathetic understanding of a way of life that most of us would find unbearably oppressive and constricted. Conditions vary greatly from country to country in the Arab world, from the (apparent) relative freedom Katherine Zoepf reported from the Middle East for the New York Times for several years and, in addition to covering all the standard political and economic noise, gained access and paid close attention to the social world of Arab women. This book is the result of her attempt to achieve a sympathetic understanding of a way of life that most of us would find unbearably oppressive and constricted. Conditions vary greatly from country to country in the Arab world, from the (apparent) relative freedom of women in Lebanon to the unimaginably constrained in Saudi Arabia. Attitudes among women themselves also vary, with reformers and defenders of the status quo amply represented; oppression to one woman is protection to another. Zoepf shows how the ancient Arab concept of the tribe's honor residing in the purity of its women underpins the system and can lead to the horrifying barbarity of honor killings, as detailed in a particularly appalling chapter. Throughout, she makes an effort to understand rather than condemn, and she leaves us with a poignant impression of millions of women's lives and prospects hanging in the balance at a time of backlash and instability in the Arab world. Katherine Zoepf got Arab women to talk to her frankly, protecting them with anonymity when necessary, and the result is an eye-opening, perplexing, infuriating and illuminating book.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Anup Umranikar

    Katherine Zoepf had an interesting opportunity to work in the Middle East post 9/11. She jumped on the opportunity and explored the Middle East through the eyes of the women living there. "Excellent Daughters" is a book where she has written about her experiences and the different cultural aspects of women's lives in the Middle East. As Zoepf has pointed out, being a female journalist allowed her to meet, interact, interview and observe women in the Middle East – an opportunity that male journali Katherine Zoepf had an interesting opportunity to work in the Middle East post 9/11. She jumped on the opportunity and explored the Middle East through the eyes of the women living there. "Excellent Daughters" is a book where she has written about her experiences and the different cultural aspects of women's lives in the Middle East. As Zoepf has pointed out, being a female journalist allowed her to meet, interact, interview and observe women in the Middle East – an opportunity that male journalists hardly ever get. She has successfully painted a picture of lives of ordinary and not-so-ordinary women in the Middle East. Since her work and trips took her mainly to Syria, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, these are the countries she has focused on the most; this is not to say that other Middle Eastern countries are not covered, but the aforementioned countries were her main focus. Zoepf learned basic Arabic in Damascus (this was pre-Islamic State control of Syria) and met students from different backgrounds. She has discussed the origins of the hijab (veil), with a brief background of the rise of Islam. By interacting with local women, she got a sense of their view of other women choosing to not veil themselves. In some "modern" Middle Eastern countries, with lax rules and a more Western culture, pre-marital sex is observed. However, due to the importance of virginity at the time of marriage, surgical methods are used to restore virginity (in addition to practice of other forms of sex). She observed this in Lebanon where she heard about "the most promiscous virgins in the world". "Honor Killing" is a very sensitive topic which Zoepf has handled very well. Through her interaction with Syrian rape victims, their families and care-providers, she was able to learn their feelings and emotions. As in other cases, she has discussed the origins of this practice as well as the legal implications behind it. Dating becomes challenging in traditional Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia, which practices strict gender segregation. The author met with Saudi teenage girls who spoke to her about their thoughts on girls interacting with their fiances. They also mentioned how they discuss the qualities they desire in their partner with their families, and how the families then go and search for a suitable groom. "Working women" is a concept that is still frowned upon in the Islamic world. Zoepf interacted with women from different working backgrounds, including those who left their home countries to work elsewhere in the Middle East, and has presented their views on the changes it has brought about in their lives. She has focused on a lot of unique cultural phenomena, including gender segregation, "milk siblings", the Saudi women driving ban, women's education, among others. A feature of the book that I liked is that the author has presented cultural issues and discussed them from different viewpoints, including her own. As an example, when it comes to the hijab, she has introduced the concept of hijab and written about its origin, and also presented the views of women who are pro-hijab and those who speak scathingly about it, while also sharing her experiences and her critical thoughts. "Excellent Daughters" is an excellent book that covers multiple aspects of the lives of Middle Eastern women and has presented it from various angles. It serves as a fascinating read for anyone with interest in Middle Eastern culture. (I received an advanced copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.)

  17. 4 out of 5

    Anna

    2.5 stars "The world changes because of wars and terrorist attacks but it also changes because a daughter makes a slightly different decision from the ones a mother made". The quote above is my favourite from the book not only because it's true but also because my favourite part of "Excellent Dughters" was that Katherine Zoepf was genuinely trying to show that small, personal changes can be just as important as the "big" ones that get a lot of media attention. Sadly, I didn't love it as much as I h 2.5 stars "The world changes because of wars and terrorist attacks but it also changes because a daughter makes a slightly different decision from the ones a mother made". The quote above is my favourite from the book not only because it's true but also because my favourite part of "Excellent Dughters" was that Katherine Zoepf was genuinely trying to show that small, personal changes can be just as important as the "big" ones that get a lot of media attention. Sadly, I didn't love it as much as I had hope I would. I imagined it to be more like how Svetlana Alexievich's books - letting the women tell their stories and not interfering with the narration. Instead the author talked too much about herself, her experiences, her observations. Perhaps that would have worked but she's not a scholar and she didn't offer any critical analysis. It left me feeling disappointed - the interviews with the women were too short and everything else usually didn't go beyond the basic information one can google or find in many other books. Moreover, I didn't always agree with Zoepf. I mean, women participating in backlash against feminism is not and never will be a sign of a positive change. Believing that it is because "at least they are able to speak for themselves now" (not a direct quote) is wrong. Female custodians of patriarchy exist everywhere and it's never a good thing. On the contrary, it's very upsetting. But I'm not saying it's all bad. The personal stories of the Arab women Zoepf talked with were interesting - sometimes in a good, sometimes in a bad way. The chapter I found the most fascinating was the one about Lebanon. It was also the saddest (to my huge surprise because I didn't see it coming). I suppose my biggest complaint is that "Excellent Daughters" didn't live not only to my expectations but more importantly to its own potential. The concept for the book was great but Zoepf wasn't the right person to write it. She's too naive, too uncritical and too much of an outsider (she herself puts a big emphasis on it). Her style is also too journalistic and she never digs deep enough, doesn't try to reach beyond the surface. Perhaps it could work for a lot of readers but not for me.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Nissy

    I liked the book in general, Its obvious that the writer knew what she was writing about, i am wondering how many years it took her to go this deep with this womens lifes? When i first saw the name of the book, i thought i will be reading about rebellious women who have a secret lifes in a semi culture countries, but it turns out that what she called the secret life was just the ordinary common life that those women live in their countries, there was few individuals who looked different but the I liked the book in general, Its obvious that the writer knew what she was writing about, i am wondering how many years it took her to go this deep with this womens lifes? When i first saw the name of the book, i thought i will be reading about rebellious women who have a secret lifes in a semi culture countries, but it turns out that what she called the secret life was just the ordinary common life that those women live in their countries, there was few individuals who looked different but the majority were ordinary. it looked like she wanted to say,"those women cant do allot of things without the permission of there fathers/husbands and sometimes they got killed for honor crimes and other things, but they can be really funny, smart and educated. i Usually dont like the oreintalism writers, but this one was good. i would recommend it for the people who are interested in Feminism on general and in The middle eastern cultural issues in particular.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Amy Juras

    Perhaps I didn't have the right expectations. You see I have been looking for something that would make me feel better about the middle east. Somehow that women could be empowered to make a difference. That women and mothers and daughters would somehow get these fanatical overbearing men to stop killing each other and allow some basic rights to Arab women. This book depressed me. I see the Arab women mentioned in Ms. Zoepf's book as uninspiring, mostly weak, passive, the Arab sense of an Excelle Perhaps I didn't have the right expectations. You see I have been looking for something that would make me feel better about the middle east. Somehow that women could be empowered to make a difference. That women and mothers and daughters would somehow get these fanatical overbearing men to stop killing each other and allow some basic rights to Arab women. This book depressed me. I see the Arab women mentioned in Ms. Zoepf's book as uninspiring, mostly weak, passive, the Arab sense of an Excellent Daughter is she that does nothing to bring dishonor to her family, she should not work, she should not be beautiful, she should not show she is clever. I have no hope of a peaceful Middle East, because the women of those countries seem happy to be subservient. I saw nothing to think they are transforming the Arab world whatsoever.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Mandy

    Author Katherine Zoepf has travelled extensively in the Arab world and met many different women there. She’s learnt about their lives from the inside and this book is an informative, wide-ranging, balanced and sympathetic account of those lives. It’s certainly not always a positive picture and the sub-title of the book – The Secret Lives of Young Women who are Transforming the Arab World – is somewhat misleading. There have indeed been some gains and a few courageous and determined young women a Author Katherine Zoepf has travelled extensively in the Arab world and met many different women there. She’s learnt about their lives from the inside and this book is an informative, wide-ranging, balanced and sympathetic account of those lives. It’s certainly not always a positive picture and the sub-title of the book – The Secret Lives of Young Women who are Transforming the Arab World – is somewhat misleading. There have indeed been some gains and a few courageous and determined young women are making some sort of progress in opposing the old ways. Nevertheless the majority still live lives of unimagined repression and control. However, Zoepf’s account is honest, unbiased and eye-opening and I found it made for really quite riveting reading. I felt it deepened my understanding of Arab women’s lives in general and that has to be a good thing.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Lisa

    Eye opening view of treatment of women in Syria and Saudi Arabia. Saudis don't like men looking at their women but also don't want women working in shops so they had salesMEN in lingerie shops! How insane is that! Zoepf quotes women's rights activist Wajeha al-Huaider: “…all Saudi men pride themselves on their chivalry but it is a contemptuous kind of chivalry…the same kind of feeling they have for handicapped people or for animals. The kindness comes from pity, from lack of respect.” To me the m Eye opening view of treatment of women in Syria and Saudi Arabia. Saudis don't like men looking at their women but also don't want women working in shops so they had salesMEN in lingerie shops! How insane is that! Zoepf quotes women's rights activist Wajeha al-Huaider: “…all Saudi men pride themselves on their chivalry but it is a contemptuous kind of chivalry…the same kind of feeling they have for handicapped people or for animals. The kindness comes from pity, from lack of respect.” To me the mindset of this type of Saudi man is the same as the men trying to close abortion clinics here in the US--the kind of guys who feels it is their place to tell women what they should be allowed to do with their bodies.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Salam Ch

    2.5 stars I picked this book based on its subtitle: " the secret lives of young women who are transforming the Arab world" so to my disappointment this subtitle was inaccurate and misleading where most of the book Zoepe isn't bringing any new , repeating the same subjects as child marriage, honor killing , guardianship over women , niquab .... only to speak briefly in the two last chapters and the epilogue about two Egyptian women who were detained by the government during the Arab spring and a 2.5 stars I picked this book based on its subtitle: " the secret lives of young women who are transforming the Arab world" so to my disappointment this subtitle was inaccurate and misleading where most of the book Zoepe isn't bringing any new , repeating the same subjects as child marriage, honor killing , guardianship over women , niquab .... only to speak briefly in the two last chapters and the epilogue about two Egyptian women who were detained by the government during the Arab spring and a Saudi woman activist effort on the internet that contributed the lingerie shops to start employing females staff instead of males which created more job opportunities for Saudi women . I expected that Zoepf talk more about Arab women in leading and scientific fields, I am sure that there is many but not spotlighted because sadly it s not a selling material for the west.. below link to the 100 most powerful Arab women 2016: http://m.arabianbusiness.com/revealed...

  23. 5 out of 5

    Betty

    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 un 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.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Julie Daniels

    Excellent Daughters is a very well-written, informative narrative on what it is to be female in the Arab world in modern times. The author, New York Times reporter Katherine Zoepf has lived in and traveled throughout the Arab world for over a decade, and throughout the book she shares her experiences and conversations with women in a region that is often very misunderstood by Westerners. It can be hard for Western women(or even men) to understand the role of women in Arab countries, but Katherin Excellent Daughters is a very well-written, informative narrative on what it is to be female in the Arab world in modern times. The author, New York Times reporter Katherine Zoepf has lived in and traveled throughout the Arab world for over a decade, and throughout the book she shares her experiences and conversations with women in a region that is often very misunderstood by Westerners. It can be hard for Western women(or even men) to understand the role of women in Arab countries, but Katherine Zoepf has laid it all out in a way that helps the reader to see it from their side. She has given voice to the women of a region whose customs and practices can seem mysterious to us. The roles of women have changed more than ever in the past few decades, especially in the West. I found Excellent Daughters to be very enlightening on the topic of women's roles in the Middle East- in the past and now as they are slowly beginning to change. Even more, I was somewhat intrigued to learn about the somewhat ambivalent feelings that some Arab women have toward these changes. It differs from woman to woman and country to country, but Zoepf does an excellent job of narrating what she has learned from the women of the Arab world in her time spent there. I especially enjoyed reading about her time spent in the different countries of the Middle East and her experiences. The intermittent stories from her time reporting there really made the book enjoyable. I have learned more from this book than hours spent watching the news. She really gets to the bones of what we curious Westerners want to know about such a mysterious(at least to most of us) world and I really enjoyed reading about it. Most women in the United States may not understand the somewhat slow and gentle pace of some of the changes being made but it seems to be working for them. Not all changes should be quick and radical. One of my favorite quotes from the book was "I learned, soon after I began working in the Arab world, that it was a mistake to read too much into girlish manners and elaborate demonstrations of modesty; both may be usefully employed to mask vaulting ambition." -Katherine Zoepf(epilogue) Overall I found Excellent Daughters to be an excellent, enjoyable, informative, and educational reading experience. It covers many topics of women's interest in the Middle East. Some are very tragic such as honor killings, forced virginity testing, hymenoplasty, women's circumcision, child brides, kidnap, rape, and several other grave topics. But it is done in a way that even the most squeamish will be able to read with no problem. But it also covers the happy side of life for women in Arab countries. It is not all the bad things that some unfortunate people would believe. These, aforementioned topics are not as prevalent and widespread as some believe. If you have ever been curious about what it must be like to be a female in an Arab country, I would highly recommend reading Katherine Zoepf's Excellent Daughters. She has written this book from an unbiased perspective. She covers all angles and sides and does so with kindness, respect, and compassion. I enjoyed getting to live vicariously through the author and the true heroines in Excellent Daughters and I can only hope that my review has done justice to such an amazing book and the amazing women that it is about! *I received an ARC from the publisher in exchange for my honest review*

  25. 4 out of 5

    Oraynab Jwayyed

    So, I went back and forth on this book's rating as well, but it had absolutely nothing to do with the quality of the book. Rather, it was more with how the title misleads its content. Excellent Daughters is well-written, no doubt. Author Katherine Zoepf was an editor's assistant for the New York Times when the World Trade Centers were attacked. Rather than fall prey to the hate-mongering and fear of the time, she instead made the decision to learn more about the people of the Middle East. She se So, I went back and forth on this book's rating as well, but it had absolutely nothing to do with the quality of the book. Rather, it was more with how the title misleads its content. Excellent Daughters is well-written, no doubt. Author Katherine Zoepf was an editor's assistant for the New York Times when the World Trade Centers were attacked. Rather than fall prey to the hate-mongering and fear of the time, she instead made the decision to learn more about the people of the Middle East. She set off for London, where she learned Arabic. She was later summoned by the New York Times to head to the Middle East to cover the news there. She was to travel to Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and Syria, where she met women facing unimaginable challenges. While her selected title suggests that she's covering the work of brazen advocates, Koepf is really exposing the repressed suffering of Arab women she meets along her travels. Not that this about-face diminishes the book in any way, only that the title is misleading. But here's why the book is a must-read: Zoepf goes where many authors don't with similar books. Armed with a conservative religious background having been raised as a Jehovah's Witness, she covers the stories of her subjects with an empathy unfounded by other reporters. That she takes the time to understand the women she covers through her past experience and newfound learning of the culture and language, gives the book an extra oomph into the lives of these women. Zoepf introduces readers to the conservative, the hopeful, and the bold. She interviews girls who formed a Facebook group that publicly markets itself as a male-bashing group, when in fact its goal is to learn more about men and relationships as a means to bypass their restrictive Saudi upbringing. There's also the women from Lebanon, where a dire shortage of male suitors compels them to virtuous transgressions to land a husband. In Syria, we learn the fate of Zahra al-Zoo and are introduced to the advocates working tirelessly, although so far unsuccessfully, to ban honor killings. Readers are finally taken back to Saudi Arabia, where they meet the women of the 1990 driving protest. Throughout it all, we're exposed to the women who work along restrictions to better their lives, and the activists who risk their own for change. Unlike what the book's title suggests, despite all of their work, there hasn't been much of an impact with respect to women's rights. But that doesn't mean there isn't potential for change. On the contrary, change is on the way. The marrying age of Middle Eastern women is rising. They're more educated and entering the workforce in record numbers, but their challenges are still tough. But in time, that will change thanks to the determination of the region's women.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Chelsea

    I will fully admit to going into this book a bit wary. I'm always a bit nervous to see cultural explorations written by people who aren't of that culture (especially if, let's be honest, the person doing the writing is white and the people being written about are not). BUT, while this book isn't perfect, Zoepf does a great job of acknowledging her outsider status and the possible influence of her whiteness. As a reporter who has been reporting on and living in the Middle East shortly after the S I will fully admit to going into this book a bit wary. I'm always a bit nervous to see cultural explorations written by people who aren't of that culture (especially if, let's be honest, the person doing the writing is white and the people being written about are not). BUT, while this book isn't perfect, Zoepf does a great job of acknowledging her outsider status and the possible influence of her whiteness. As a reporter who has been reporting on and living in the Middle East shortly after the September 11th attacks, Zoepf lifts the veil (pun slightly intended) on the current lives of your 'average' women in the Middle East. In doing such, she touches on topics like consent, rape culture, body agency, female friend groups, insidious sexism, and the danger of being reductive about the culture of others. Some parts of this book truly enraged me (see: the chapter on honor killings for victims of rape, and the horrible state centers that are really their only respite; and yes, before you ask, many Middle Eastern girls who have been raped go to what is essentially a juvenile detention center to avoid being killed by their families) while other parts left me chuckling. There are so many great scenes throughout this book that focus on female friendships and groups of women supporting each other because there is so little social discourse or support for them otherwise. And while I in no way would trade the freedoms being an American gives me, I do think that sometimes that sense of female community would be a really nice thing to have. This book didn't necessarily teach me anything I didn't already know, but it did provide some deeper detail and context for facts that I'd previously heard. It also served as a bit of a primer on the basic history and political revolutions of the Middle East. Because of all these things, I think this would be a really, really great choice for anyone who is interested specifially in either gender politics in the modern Middle East, or who is totally new to the geography and history of the area!

  27. 5 out of 5

    Kate

    I enjoyed reading this book because I’m interested in, and like many aspects of the Middle East and want to better understand the cultures. A lot of what the book said was at least a little familiar to me after having lived in the UAE and having visited a number of countries in the region, but I didn’t have the insights into the more private of Arab women’s lives like the author had. I do realize that this is the author’s perspective and that there are other experiences and perspectives. The aut I enjoyed reading this book because I’m interested in, and like many aspects of the Middle East and want to better understand the cultures. A lot of what the book said was at least a little familiar to me after having lived in the UAE and having visited a number of countries in the region, but I didn’t have the insights into the more private of Arab women’s lives like the author had. I do realize that this is the author’s perspective and that there are other experiences and perspectives. The author met and interviewed women from Arab countries including from the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt. She wrote about aspects of women's lives there and how they manage to progress towards their personal and social potential despite cultural roadblocks. But progress is slow and sometimes goes in counter-productive directions. I found some of the chapters profoundly difficult to read, especially the ones on views on women’s sexuality, virginity and marriage, and male honor but also about stifling controls that Saudi women live under, and the assaults experienced by Egyptian women. On the flip side, the educational opportunities and freedom to pursue personal goals as experienced by the Emirati women and the close female relationships which the cultures seem to encourage I see as positive. Considering all that these countries have experienced in the 20th century, the tension between gripping the old and racing to the new, positions women’s lives in the middle of this pull-push dynamic. I understand that this is a snapshot of women's lives and that there is a wide range of how men and women experience life anywhere, and I also realize that life in the west has imperfections but it would be in humanity’s best interest to loosen the grip on women’s lives. About the book: I would have appreciated it more if it was better organized in terms of chapters and flow. And I would have liked more extensive notes.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Karen Grothe

    I picked up this book at the library as my "Book that was published this year" for the Modern Mrs. Darcy Reading Challenge. I had decided to read it because I had women from Saudi Arabia in my systems engineering masters degree program and I wanted to learn more about what their culture is like for women. After reading the book, I now better understand why most of the Saudi women in my class were so quiet and reluctant to talk in class and why they always sat together in class. In Saudi Arabia, I picked up this book at the library as my "Book that was published this year" for the Modern Mrs. Darcy Reading Challenge. I had decided to read it because I had women from Saudi Arabia in my systems engineering masters degree program and I wanted to learn more about what their culture is like for women. After reading the book, I now better understand why most of the Saudi women in my class were so quiet and reluctant to talk in class and why they always sat together in class. In Saudi Arabia, men and women are usually very segregated, and girls and women don't talk to men who are not part of their family much. There's a good chance that the women in my classes weren't used to participating in mixed gender classes, especially if they attended university in Saudi Arabia. It's clear that women in Arab countries (Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Egypt are featured in this book) are making changes happen in their countries, but change happens slowly, and I'm sure the presence of ISIS and the Syrian civil war are not making things any easier for women in the area. (This book does not cover anything related to the environment created by the Syrian civil and ISIS.) The book has a lot of stories of individual or small groups of women, which I appreciated. In between the stories, the author talks a bit about the circumstances for women in the country which the women she's highlighting live in. She covers a fairly diverse group of women. She offers several good references for additional reading about particular issues. Overall, it's a good overview of current changes taking place or possible in several Arab countries and also talks about the difficulties that arise when changes are evolving.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Paul

    This is a fascinating and perceptive look at the challenges facing young women in Arab countries. The author is very circumspect in making her own conclusions on this. Because of the author's carefulness and reluctance to generalize or stereotype, I certainly don't dare to blithely summarize her work after just reading her book, but it is exasperating (to me) how hard the struggle for women's rights is--including not being considered property but humans with civil rights and not being considered s This is a fascinating and perceptive look at the challenges facing young women in Arab countries. The author is very circumspect in making her own conclusions on this. Because of the author's carefulness and reluctance to generalize or stereotype, I certainly don't dare to blithely summarize her work after just reading her book, but it is exasperating (to me) how hard the struggle for women's rights is--including not being considered property but humans with civil rights and not being considered second-class when they are in fact regarded as humans. There appears to be a good deal of restiveness in Arab cultures, which also vary considerably, from the liberal Beirut and United Arab Emirates to the strict Syrian, Saudi Arabian, and Iraqi nations. This is an excellent book, full of interviews with young women doing such things as going to the university alone and unmarried, protesting during the Arab Spring, and humorously cross-dressing as men to be able to stand in the men's line at MacDonald's. I can't do this book justice in a review. I would rather HIGHLY RECOMMEND you to read it yourself, if for no other reason than seeing what the nonviolent, and I presume ordinary, day-to-day living situation of women is like in countries known for their restrictions on women. I think you will understand as much as possible what Arab societies are like and what reforms some of them are making or denying. This is an EXCELLENT book written by an authentic and open-minded author.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Liralen

    In Excellent Daughters, Zoepf gives something of an overview of the state of life for young women in the Arab world. She covers a pretty broad range of...not necessarily experiences, but environments, from places like Beirut where women can go dancing in skimpy tops (and, you know, hold a wide range of jobs and so on) to places where, once married, some women virtually never leave the home because they're not allowed to do so. It's useful as an overview. I think I'd expected to see more 'movers a In Excellent Daughters, Zoepf gives something of an overview of the state of life for young women in the Arab world. She covers a pretty broad range of...not necessarily experiences, but environments, from places like Beirut where women can go dancing in skimpy tops (and, you know, hold a wide range of jobs and so on) to places where, once married, some women virtually never leave the home because they're not allowed to do so. It's useful as an overview. I think I'd expected to see more 'movers and shakers'—a fair amount of it seems to be less 'young women who are changing the Arab world' and more 'young women growing up in a changing Arab world'. Still an important story, but a different one. Towards the end, things get really interesting—Zoepf details, for example, the way women in Saudi Arabia got the right to work in lingerie stores, something of a win for feminism: by appealing to the more conservative element and arguing that they shouldn't have to talk to male salespeople about underwear. I'd have loved to see more along those lines. While I'm not sure this quite achieved what it aimed to do, it feels like a great starting point in terms of learning a bit about women in the Arab world—and from here on to books with narrower foci.

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