Study Guide

A Border Passage Chapter 12

By Leila Ahmed

Chapter 12

From Abu Dhabi to America

  • Ahmed takes the next step in her academic life by moving to Abu Dhabi to take part in a new initiative to improve the educational system.
  • It's part of a program financed by the sheikh of Abu Dhabi to improve education, medical treatment, and housing for local people.
  • But by the time she got there, the local Bedu people were outnumbered by foreigners, who were controlling their settlement in order to "make things better" for them. Sure. Right.
  • Ahmed sees all these non-local people as invaders who needed to be housed quickly.
  • Modern cities started popping up everywhere, trashing traditional Bedu villages and ways of life. It's an irony that's not lost on Ahmed.
  • She worked on a committee tasked with reforming the educational system in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). There were no local members on the committee, though she did report to one local person.
  • Ahmed was also the only woman. Because of this, she wound up interviewing women to find out what they wanted from a new educational system.
  • She quickly learned that the women she interviewed were both from the ruling class and illiterate (more on this in a moment). But they were also plenty smart and knew what they wanted in life.
  • They wanted to make sure that other women who wanted an education could get one. Some of them were even wealthy enough to endow women's learning centers.
  • Ahmed was amazed by their strong will and passion. She saw this in a young girl called Hissa, who had been married against her will at 12.
  • She protested her marriage and the denial of a proper education—and she won her appeal before the president. Hissa was interested in science, not the traditional humanities route for girls.
  • Ahmed couldn't help but be impressed by these local women. They were confident, intelligent, and poised. They held important positions in the community.
  • Ahmed found that both local men and women supported women's education. But the committee (i.e., non-local men) thought that the local yokels didn't know what was good for them.
  • They had zero intention of implementing equal education for women. Ahmed needed a boatload of patience to deal with the chair of the committee, a particularly sexist and obnoxious man.
  • If women went on to be engineers, he thought, how could they still serve men? Society would crumble if women were educated.
  • Cue eye roll.
  • Ahmed worked behind the scenes to change this.
  • She spoke with the director of education (a local and her boss). He knew the score and told Ahmed to bring the problem to the local women.
  • So she did. And guess how these strong, admirable women reacted when Ahmed told them that the committee wanted to cut funding for women's education?
  • They took their fight to the men in their powerful families, who absolutely supported them. Problem solved.
  • Ahmed comes to understand that this is why she got the job in the first place, from the moment she was interviewed in England.
  • She also learned that the divide on the question of women's education didn't strictly follow male/female lines. It was more local versus non-local.
  • Even the sheikh who had provided the funding for the educational reforms in the first place favored equal education. And most of the supporters, like the sheikh, were non-literate.
  • In terms of equal education, it broke down like this: those against (men with Arabic educations) versus those for (men educated in the English system—or non-literate men).
  • It boiled down to a difference of cultural systems. Those who belonged to a living, oral, non-literate culture (local people) were way more tolerant and accepting of women's education.
  • Literate, non-local Arab men seemed to have the most tightly closed minds. Go figure.
  • Ahmed isn't really surprised. Think back to her observation about men's Islam (written, oppressive) and how it ignores the lives actually lived by people.
  • Ahmed points out that written Arabic is not the same as spoken Arabic—hence the high level of illiteracy in the UAE.
  • Arabic textual tradition is especially alienating to women, says Ahmed. It was created by men who were shaped by misogynistic societies.
  • It's another kind of imperialism, steamrolling the various local Arabic cultures and languages in its way.
  • So, it hadn't mattered that Ahmed went to an English school instead of an Arabic one. She would have been the victim of imperialism either way since neither was truly Egyptian.
  • She goes so far as to say that English is closer to Egyptian Arabic (spoken) because it's a living, changing language.
  • There are other things about the Emirates that felt wonky to Ahmed. Public spaces belonged to men, so she felt weird and exposed in them.
  • She took walks in the oasis behind her housing, a space for women and children. She felt excluded and lonely in Abu Dhabi.
  • But Ahmed did fit in with the community of local women, including the principal wife of the president. She was called Fatima.
  • The gatherings at Fatima's home reminded Ahmed of her time with the women of her family at Zatoun and Alexandria.
  • But outside of these gatherings, Ahmed felt very restricted by the domination of men in society. It was something she'd never felt before.
  • She had to find another community to make things livable. And that's when she got into feminism. She brought back feminist writings from Cambridge and devours them.
  • Ahmed began to worry that the Iranian Revolution would have unpleasant implications for her (like having to veil herself) if something happened in the UAE.
  • And then things began to click: she noted the oppressive male culture all around her and saw female Muslim students trying to thrive under these conditions.
  • Ahmed decided that she wanted to look into the history of Muslim women—and that she wanted to go to America to do it. Her sibs were all already there.
  • But once she got to America, Ahmed experienced culture shock. On the academic/theory side, she was totally surprised by actual, active feminism in the United States.
  • Let's just say this lived feminism wasn't a scene from Downton Abbey. Ahmed had to face the general hostility that she and other Muslim feminists encountered from white feminists.
  • The problem? White feminists act like they know best about Islam—and that Ahmed should give it up. But she wants to rethink traditions and how women participate in them instead.
  • Ahmed recognizes that some of the hostility stemmed from the Iran hostage crisis.
  • But a lot of it had to do with ignorant assumptions about Islam and Muslim women.
  • Ahmed says that she'd never worked so hard in her entire life as she did her first year in America. That was partly because she was now working in women's studies, an entirely new field.
  • The problems? Women's studies was not welcomed by colleagues at university (i.e., men). And there were literally no textbooks. She had to improvise.
  • Then there was culture shock. Ahmed couldn't figure out what constituted a fashion faux pas in the United States. The rules were fluid and unspoken. She wasn't used to that.
  • Ahmed concludes with an odd but true statement: her story is no longer the story of an Egyptian immigrant.
  • It's another episode in the story of feminism in America. And that's the sociopolitical Circle of Life, people.