Study Guide

A Border Passage Women and Femininity

By Leila Ahmed

Women and Femininity

Father admired Mother's voice enormously and would say that she could have been a professional singer. "But Mother was not a professional anything!" I find myself involuntarily thinking, in a thought that is really only an echo or ghost of an old thought that I once harbored intensely and angrily as an adolescent. (24)

Ahmed regrets thinking of her mother in the negative whenever she remembers her life with her. In this case, she probably can't be blamed: Ahmed is a teen and in full-blown rebellion against everything her mother represents. At the time, she's not willing to admit that her harsh judgment of mom is influenced by her own ambitions and the perception of Arab women by other cultures. When she remembers her mom, she's got to fight with this adolescent response, which refuses to die gracefully.

Sometimes, though, she and her sisters and other women relatives would gather together to make an evening of it, listening to one of Um Kulsum's concerts the first Thursday of every month. They would sit, consuming coffee and lemonade, smoking, relishing this singing as if it were some rich and subtle feast. To us children, it sounded like endless monotonous wailing. (24)

Ahmed is judging her mother's way of being (i.e., not professional) and her native culture, as embodied by the women in her family. Ahmed, along with her father and siblings, has left Arab things behind in favor of European culture and "modernity." The music, movies, and literature of Europe seem very shiny and promising to them in ways that Arabic culture does not. Ahmed remembers her mother as intimately connected to Arabic culture because of moments like these—and that adds to her negative perception of her mom. It's something that she will later regret.

Had Samia been a close relative...love and lyricism would have been dismissed as just so much nonsense, the indulgence of which could lead to the jeopardizing of one's honor and purity and the honor and purity of one's name and the family name—and nothing, absolutely nothing, was worth that. (70)

Ahmed observes that her mother—normally strict when it came to matters of female sexuality—showed great compassion to a second cousin who found herself caught between two men. It seems like a type of hypocrisy to Ahmed, that her mother could be loving in this instance and like steel when it came to her own daughter.

She later understands that her mother had tried to cope with the enormous pressure her culture placed on women to preserve their sexual purity—and that if Samia had been her own daughter, their own family honor at stake, her mother would have reacted very differently. However, it's almost impossible for Ahmed to figure out which side of her mother is her natural state.

Still, the veil might go, but not necessarily the attitudes that accompanied it—the habits of seclusion and the cultural conditioning about the meaning of seeing and not seeing, of being visible and invisible. (95)

Ahmed reflects on the Egypt that her mother was born into. While there were exciting changes happening in society—Egyptian feminist Huda Shaarawi refused to wear the veil and was changing the way women could present themselves and be seen—it was a lot harder to change the way that individuals thought about women and their roles in society.

Ahmed doesn't have to look far to find a perfect example of this. Her own beloved father refused to marry the first woman he was engaged to because she tried to sneak a peek of him before their marriage. While Ahmed knows that her father valued her as much as he did her brothers and had no problem sending her to Cambridge for an education, it even took him some time to wrap his head around some version of equality.

It is easy to see now that our lives in the Alexandria house, and even at Zatoun, were lived in women's time, women's space. And in women's culture.

And the women had, too, I now believe, their own understanding of Islam, an understanding that was different from men's Islam, "official" Islam. (120-121)

Ahmed offers an enlightening observation about the difference between "lived" Islam (of women and everyday people, handed down by oral tradition) and scholarly Islam (of men, mostly clerics, codified through texts). It's in the company of women that she first learns the precepts of Islam and understands that it is a religion of pacifism, kindness, and spirituality.

This gentle version of Islam stands in contrast to the text-based version promoted by sheikhs and mullahs. Ahmed finds it both ironic and frustrating that it's men's Islam that gets transmitted and studied outside the Arab world, precisely because it is written and seems to carry more authority than a lived version of the religion.

But when things went wrong, the women were powerless and acquiescent in a silence that seemed to me when I was young awfully like a guilty averting of the eyes, awfully like a kind of connivance. (131)

While Ahmed's description of a gentle, pacifist, and highly spiritual women's version of Islam makes the religion sound super appealing, it does have its downside. It especially encourages women to embrace passivity in the face of male authority, sometimes with tragic consequences.

While the women of her family were good at arranging and helping in situations that traditionally fell under their control, anything outside that sphere (which includes their own sexuality) is truly beyond them. It's frustrating to Ahmed, who sees the women of Zatoun as capable and intelligent yet implicit in the very system that oppresses them because they don't speak out.

My athletic career came to an end when I was entered by our school in the Cairo competitions and won the hundred-meter dash, setting a new Cairo record. My picture appeared in the paper. My parents, or more exactly my mother, feeling that it was not at all appropriate for a photo of me in shorts to appear in the paper, decreed that I could no longer compete in games—in any public venue, at any rate. (151)

Ahmed learns some harsh lessons about what it means to be female in her society. Prior to this incident, she's learned from her mother that her life is not as valuable as her sexual purity—and this event reaffirms that for her. No matter how awesome Ahmed's athletic talent is, it has to take a backseat to the need for modesty and the protection of her reputation as a young woman. It's interesting to note that it's her mother who usually acts to ensure that Ahmed stays within the boundaries drawn for women by their society.

In childhood, I'd picked up this sense of contempt for women, and in particular for the women around me—just from the air, from the books we read, the films we saw, the intangible attitudes at school and those in the world around me. It is quite clear to me that my mother distinctly enters the fabric of my own memories in the negative. "She was not a professional anything," I wrote earlier in these pages, remembering my own inarticulate, internalized contempt as a youngster. (193)

Ahmed describes how she learned a hatred of women (so also of herself) just from living in her society. It's especially apparent in her feelings toward her mother, which are almost always ones of anger and contempt. Ahmed distances herself from her mother's version of femininity by focusing on her professional ambitions—to work and excel in a predominantly male field. It is a mind-blowing admission by Ahmed, however, that she has actual contempt for women (at least as a child/teen), especially since she'll dedicate her career to women's studies.

If women had degrees in engineering or some such subject, he asked, would they be willing to be the servants of society? If we, the committee, did what the locals said they wanted, the entire basis of society, which rested on women's role in the family and, frankly, on their being willing to be the servants to men, would be destroyed. (277)

Ahmed runs up against a stunning level of sexism when she serves on a committee tasked with reforming the education system in Abu Dhabi. This particular point of view was held by the chair of the committee, a non-local Arab man who clearly had no intention of improving the quality of women's education.

Ahmed tells us that his point of view doesn't reflect the values of the local culture—as voiced by both men and women—which very enthusiastically supported the expansion of women's education. At issue: local people believed in the value of women and their ability to contribute to society, whereas the more formally educated and supposedly "enlightened" non-local men didn't.

Not that Grandfather ever entered Grandmother's receiving room. No man, not even Grandfather, ever set foot there, to my knowledge: his presence would have been a violation of the seclusion rights of any woman present who was not his wife or daughter or close relative. (My brothers and cousins, so long as they were mere boys, were of course a different matter). (107)

Ahmed reflects on the time spent in her grandmother's rooms at Zatoun. She remembers it as a comforting, nurturing space where the women of her family could exercise their power and mock the male authority figures in their lives. She speaks of having a specifically designated, all-female space as a benefit of sex segregation—as a right of the women in the family and of those women who visited them.

It's a model of perfection that Ahmed also finds at Girton College, where male authority did not exist. While the concept of women's space is an empowering concept, it's also a double-edged sword. By drawing sharp boundaries on a women's realm, it can be contained to a very small sphere of influence.