New America Foundation fellow Zoepf attempts to make “the case for small gestures” by extremely circumscribed Arab women.
The author spent 2004 to 2007 as a New York Times stringer in Syria and Lebanon, learning Arabic and befriending many women and hearing their stories. Later, she interviewed Egyptian women who participated in the Arab Spring in 2011. Her work displays wonderfully moving detail and subtlety, and therein lies the problem regarding her thesis that these sheltered, protected, infantilized young women are somehow closet feminists. The more she delves into the lives of these women—revealing the segregated restaurants, cluelessness about marrying the men chosen for them, inability (for Saudi women) to drive or attend sporting events or do anything without a “guardian’s” permission or presence, subjection to horrific “virginity tests” and even murder to preserve the “honor” of their male relatives—the more deeply and irreversibly oppressed they will seem to Western readers. With every enlightened moment Zoepf introduces—e.g., that many of the Saudi teenagers at a dessert party were studying law—the other shoe drops: in this case, that Saudi Arabia only licensed its first female lawyers in October 2013. The author chronicles many shocking moments. In “The Most Promiscuous Virgins in the World,” she investigates Lebanese party girls and the granting of anal and oral sex (but not vaginal) in order to attract the small pool of available males. She also looks at the unbelievable reasoning behind one Syrian woman’s wearing of the hijab: to keep men from becoming so aroused that they abuse a child. In the author’s experience, the women who did rebel—e.g., the Saudi driving protesters of 1990, the participants in the Tahrir Square rallies—often paid a terrible price.
Though Zoepf demonstrates a few instances of how “small reform turns out to be even more transformational than its most devoted proponents could have predicted,” the evolving “personal agency” she witnessed is almost too subtle (yet) to be perceived.