Study Guide

A Border Passage Gender

By Leila Ahmed


Nevertheless, the act of conscience was Father's, and it was he rather than Mother who would have had the satisfaction of knowing that he had done what he believed he had had to do. (22)

With the passage of time, Ahmed is able to see her mother in a clearer light. No longer does she reserve all positive thoughts for her father. At this point, she understands a pivotal moment in her family's history more clearly. While her father's career is destroyed by his opposition to Nasser's pet project (the Aswan High Dam), he gets the benefit of a clear conscience, and to some, he earns the title of everyday hero.

But her mother's support of her father's actions receives zero recognition, and Ahmed appreciates the enormity of her sacrifice. Mom is left to shoulder the realities of her husband's decisions—including loss of income and the early loss of her husband. And she still has to deal with Ahmed's contempt since her daughter has a hard time accepting that things could be so bad for her when they still held Ain Shams.

[...] those who have studied Rachel Carson, Barbara McClintock, and other women pioneers of Western scientific thought have suggested that the originality of these women sprang in part from their rootedness in a different cultural ethos—a women's ethos of connectedness—different from the ethos of competitiveness and individualism of the men of their culture. (35)

Ahmed is interested in the difference of perspective—in the different ways of thinking and interacting with the world—between men and women. Though she discusses this mostly in terms of religion (men's Islam versus women's Islam), she sees a similar principle governing other parts of women's lives: that personal identity, a connection to community and family, forms their consciousnesses.

Ahmed uses the "maleness" of competition and individualism to oppose this ideal, but she doesn't limit these traits to men alone. She speaks of them as traditionally male qualities that can be taken up by anyone. In a similar way, she speaks of "women's Islam" as not exclusively belonging to women. It is an oral tradition, part of folk culture as opposed to the official, textual, and totally male world of "men's Islam."

Looking back [...] I do not see someone blindly and stupidly obeying the laws of her society. Rather, I see a mother terrified for her daughter and probably also feeling guilty that, out of her own neglect in allowing me to play with boys, she had failed to protect me and that I had in consequence perhaps been harmed in a way that could be very costly to me in this society. For this was the reality in that society—loss of virginity could indeed be enormously costly. (82)

Ahmed tells the story of her mother's truly frightening reaction to the news that the neighbor boy tried to molest Ahmed. While Ahmed is justifiably terrified and resentful of her mom's response, the distance of years helps her to understand why her mother freaked out. She knew the reality of a society obsessed with female purity and family honor.

And yet, there is a part of Ahmed that wants to blame the women of her family for being acquiescent to such realities. Why would her mother have killed them both rather than taken some other action to protect her? Ahmed will continue to struggle with her perception of past injustices and her present understanding of social realities throughout the narrative.

Who would have thought, though, that a man who would one day send his daughters to college in England and who throughout his life would give his wholehearted support to women's rights would think a woman improper for wanting to sneak a glimpse of her future husband—so improper that he would withdraw an offer of marriage? (95)

We all have those moments in life when we reflect on our parents' actions and find odd little contradictions. Ahmed's discovery of her father's first failed marriage proposal makes her pause, for a couple of reasons. For one, she identifies very strongly with her father (and rejects her mother's example) and admires him. Her own experiences with him also seem to tell a different story: he clearly doesn't behave in sexist ways toward his children.

So, what's a kid to think? Ahmed understands, as she continues her narrative, that it's important to view her parents in context and over time so that she doesn't judge them in unfair ways. She also seems to be saying that views on gender-related issues are complex and not fully explicable.

It is quite possible that, while the women of Zatoun did not think of themselves and of us as inferior, the men did, although—given how powerful the cultural imperative of respect for parents, particularly the mother, was among those people—even for men such a view could not have been altogether uncomplicated. (100)

Ahmed's reflections on her past and the life of her family are extraordinary because of her ability to scratch at external appearances and get complicated about the big issues. She really isn't afraid to question the assumptions and perceptions of her experiences.

While Ahmed felt loved and valued within the family, she knows that there were misogynistic currents in her society that could not have been ignored by her family. She understands somehow that her family had to engage in some pretty serious mental gymnastics to reconcile what they knew to be true about women with what they were taught/told to believe by external forces.

It is entirely likely that women and men had completely different views of their society and of the system in which they lived, and of themselves and of the natures of men and women. Living differently and separately and coming together only momentarily, the two sexes inhabited different if sometimes overlapping cultures, a men's and a women's culture, each sex seeing and understanding and representing the world to itself quite differently. (100-101)

Ahmed continuously reflects on the effects of living in a gender-segregated society. In some cases, as in the companionship of the women in her family at Zatoun, such separation gives a sense of comfort and support. But it also allows for a great distance to spring up between the sexes in their experiences of the world—and of each other. Ahmed describes the men in their lives as "meteors, cutting a trail across our sky, causing havoc possibly..." (101). It's a situation that causes separate versions of reality to develop.

My view of that world, and of the nature and meaning of life, I learned from the women, not the men. The men figured as dominant beings, naturally, but they were more like meteors, cutting a trail across our sky, causing havoc possibly, but present only briefly. (101)

Ahmed gives credit where credit is due: the women in her life really made her who she is today. It's a testament to a sort of underground power that the women had in the face of male dominance in the society around them. And yet, the situation is more complicated than this. Ahmed has a strong connection to her father and a tense relationship with her mom. She is influenced by the negativity toward women in her society, and it really takes the entire community of women to influence her so strongly.

And indeed it is obvious that a far greater gulf must separate men's and women's ways of knowing, and the different ways in which men and women understand religion, in the segregated societies of the Middle East than in other societies—and we know that there are differences between women's and men's ways of knowing even in non-segregated societies such as America. (123)

Ahmed considers her idea that there's a "women's Islam" and a "men's Islam" and understands that the Islam she grew up with is definitely part of a female tradition. "Women's ways of knowing" include things like learning from oral tradition (rather than from books) and making decisions based on life experience (not from abstractions). Her perception of the gulf between men and women has a lot to do with living in a gender-segregated society, though she doesn't confine her observations to this community. Both men and women seem willing to ignore each other's ideas, making the gulf even wider.

In some ways, indeed, Girton represented the harem perfected. Not the harem of Western male sexual fantasy or even the harem of Muslim men, fantasy or reality, but the harem as I had lived it, the harem of older women presiding over the young. Even the servers here...were women, and from these grounds, these precincts, the absence of male authority was permanent. (183)

Ahmed redefines the harem based on her idyllic experiences with the family community at Zatoun and Alexandria. It's a supportive system that functions without the authority of men (though probably with male approval). What happens inside this harem—the decisions taken, the topics discussed—stays in the harem. No men need to know.

Girton has the extra glitter, for Ahmed, of professionalism. It's a place where women engage in work normally considered "men's work," but on their own terms. Ahmed knows that the women of Girton wouldn't value the "work" of the women of Zatoun, but she still admires the freedom of Girton and lack of male authority there.

In a world where doing—doing, not being—was everything. Men did things, were something or somebody, and Western women too, at least Western women in books and films, could be something or someone, compared with the women around me in childhood, who just were. In the fabric of my own consciousness the women among whom I lived and most of all my mother were everything that I didn't want to be. (193-194)

Ahmed confesses that she, too, falls prey to this kind of thinking about women (and specifically about her mother). She protests that her mother was "never a professional anything," showing contempt for the women of her family.

This feels weird since she has such fond memories of the women of Zatoun. But just as she admits to having a "colonized consciousness" regarding her home culture, she also appears to be colonized by the negative attitude toward women that rules male-dominated cultures.