Study Guide

A Border Passage Chapter 5

By Leila Ahmed

Chapter 5

Harem

  • Ahmed is still grieving the loss of that awesome garden at Ain Shams. It's like her childhood had been destroyed with the garden.
  • She opens the chapter with a quote from Huda Shaarawi that reflects her sadness.
  • But, she's not going to wallow in her sorrow. Ahmed wants to talk about women and the progress made in Egypt during her mom's and her lifetimes.
  • Ahmed's mother didn't really benefit from the changes that opened education to women—it came literally just a few years too late. Her little sisters were able to stay in school longer.
  • Huda Shaarawi led the early feminist movement in Egypt. She'd pushed for modern dress (i.e., no veil), and it became the rage for middle- and upper-class ladies to dress this way.
  • But Ahmed's parents still had to live up to traditional expectations and norms. They didn't meet before marriage, for instance.
  • And then there's this bombshell: Dad had proposed marriage to another woman before he married her mother.
  • He'd dropped her like a hot potato when she tried to see him before the wedding. Old traditions die hard.
  • Ahmed couldn't understand how her progressive dad—the guy who sent two daughters to college in England—could ever have acted like this.
  • Ahmed's mom, like Shaarawi, felt excluded from society because of her gender. Ahmed could sense that loneliness and gloom in her.
  • Yet, her mom never showed any bias toward her male kids. Ahmed says that she made them all feel equally lonely and isolated. Ouch.
  • Shaarawi had a different experience of marriage, though. She was forced into marriage as a child and had to fight against it.
  • Ahmed remembers that there were many "traditional" practices like this—including female genital mutilation—current in Cairo but not embraced by her parents.
  • Her mom also was not a slave, like Shaarawi. Whoa, you might well say. Ahmed says that slave women "married" into Turko-Egyptian upper-class families.
  • In fact, Ahmed's great-grandmother was a slave, a woman "gifted" to her great-grandfather by the ruler of the day. No choice involved there.
  • Ahmed gives some of the historical background of this practice, concluding that most leaders—kings, sultans, caliphs—in the Middle East had slave origins.
  • Slavery was outlawed in 1885, and that's when the daughters of these enslaved women began to kick back at this injustice.
  • But change takes a while to reach all corners of society. Ahmed could feel the old ways lingering at her grandfather's home at Zatoun.
  • Zatoun was a little creepy and dangerous—even though Ahmed is a little shaky on her memories of the place. She's not sure how to judge her grandmother and grandfather properly.
  • It didn't seem like women were thought of as inferior at Zatoun, but Ahmed says it's totally possible that they really were. The women, of course, didn't think this.
  • Ahmed gives props to the women at Zatoun for teaching her the crucial stuff. The men sort of appeared now and then but never really had a strong impact on them.
  • She remembers the grounds of Zatoun and how the gardens and the birds were so different from Ain Shams, which was only a few miles away.
  • And then, there was the basement. It was terrifying to Ahmed because of its gigantic size and ghostly mirroring of the upstairs rooms.
  • There was the Locked Room down there. (That doesn't sound creepy at all, right?) She and her sibs were forbidden to enter, but they didn't learn why for years.
  • Ahmed's mother used to ride over to Zatoun every day to hang out with her mother and sisters for a few hours.
  • Ahmed says it was a tremendous support for the women to have this time together, to discuss family life and solve problems.
  • She has wonderful memories of her time in her grandmother's receiving room, where only women and young male relatives were allowed to be.
  • Her aunts (especially Aisha and Farida) were virtual comedians and would do silly impressions of Grandfather to make everyone last.
  • Her grandfather was hardly at Zatoun (always working). But he wouldn't step foot in her grandmother's rooms since a non-related woman might have been there—not socially acceptable.
  • Grandfather was also a bit serious, so his presence would dampen the mood. They loved him and everything, but they had to be far more formal in front of him.
  • Her grandmother and grandfather seemed to treat each other as equals. But her grandmother was a little cool toward her grandfather.
  • As a teenager, Ahmed learns why: their lovesick son, Fuad, killed himself as a young man. Grandfather opposed the match, and her grandmother blamed him for their boy's death.
  • After that, her grandmother hid her grief in prayers. She prayed far more often than the five daily prayers required by Islam.
  • Ahmed became confused by the concept of motherhood. Her mother didn't actually take care of her children (i.e., Nanny did), but mothers who lost children felt a special and deep grief.
  • While Ahmed could appreciate that there would be a special connection between a mother and child, she couldn't see it at work between her mom and herself.
  • Ahmed shifts to discussing how colonialism had an effect on the relationship between mothers and children in her family.
  • For one, Ahmed and her siblings spoke English most of the time, to keep their mother out of their business.
  • For another, they all attended college in England, leaving mom and dad on their own. They wouldn't be there to take care of their parents or bury them when they died.
  • But, enough of that heavy stuff. Now, onto the summerhouse in Alexandria (Siouf). It's entirely different from the house at Zatoun since the women ruled.
  • Ahmed says that she felt safer and lighter in Alexandria and her sense of wonder was greater there. (This is the place where she waited for angels on the roof.)
  • Her grandfather had bought the place for the women of the family to vacation and didn't usually show up there.
  • Ahmed remembers her lovely aunties: Aisha, Aida, Farida, and Nazli. She notes that they were all beautiful women. (She includes her mother in this.)
  • Nazli and Aisha had happy marriages. Nazli acted as the family nurse when any of the children got sick.
  • Things didn't go well for Farida, whose husband took a second wife. She went on to marry twice more and to lose a son during her lifetime. Not a happy case.
  • Ahmed remembers going to the beach in Alexandria with her aunts. There was some controversy over how covered up Ahmed needed to be when she got older.
  • Aunt Aisha was the athletic one of the bunch, swimming out with her and then taking the children on long walks along the beach.
  • Aisha would also take them on day trips while at Alexandria, which included visits to the amusement park. She generally indulged Ahmed and the other children.
  • But things weren't always fun in this family. After her grandmother's death, another son called Yusuf was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.
  • He had been married to a woman called Colette, who couldn't have children. They loved each other, but there would be no heirs to carry on the family name.
  • This set off a chain of unfortunate events for Yusuf and his wife—including a divorce so that he could marry someone else and produce an heir. This doesn't work.
  • Even so, Colette stays with him till he dies.
  • And then, there is the story of Aunt Aida, who suffered from depression (unhappy marriage, etc.) and endured horrific electric-shock treatments. She killed herself by jumping from a window.
  • Ahmed says that she blamed the women of the family for a long time, thinking that they did nothing to help Aida. After time passes, she understands that she was too quick to judge.
  • In the end, the house at Zatoun was "redistributed" by the revolutionary government and became a school shortly after her grandfather's death.
  • Ahmed thinks back on Zatoun as "women's space" (hence the harem analogy). She learned a kind of women's Islam from the women there, especially from her grandmother.
  • This version of Islam was peaceful and spiritual—something that helped her understand the world around her and the meaning of life.
  • She learned it from the women's example and not through formal indoctrination. It was a "way of being" rather than a set of rules.
  • And that's the major difference between men's and women's Islam. Women's Islam is really oral tradition, a lived religion. Men's Islam is based on written, classical texts.
  • The mosque was also not a thing for women. They avoided it. All of this leads Ahmed to conclude that men and women have different ways of thinking and knowing.
  • She also understands that this difference is probably even greater in segregated societies (i.e., places in which men and women don't move in the same sphere).
  • With men out of the picture, women didn't have clerics to mansplain the Quran to them. They just listened to it being recited and then did their own thinking about it.
  • And guess what? Women didn't miss the "official" version and practice of Islam. Really, they didn't want anything to do with the opinions of male clerics.
  • Ahmed notes that "women's" Islam is not just for women: it's popular religion, practiced by everyday people. This is not the Islam of ayatollahs and sheikhs.
  • The textual tradition of Islam (i.e., "men's" Islam) was set down in the Middle Ages and determined by men, like the Latin texts of medieval Christianity.
  • But what Ahmed takes from Islam is what she learned from the women of her family—that it's all about mercy, compassion, equality, and peace.
  • All that other stuff? It comes from the oppressive male textual tradition. And Ahmed is totally convinced that her "foremothers" had a handle on this, which is why they ignored that version.
  • Arabic culture and language support Ahmed's ideas on everyday Islam. Oral tradition is important to the Quran and the folk view of Islam. It's also true for the Arabic language.
  • She tells us that the Quran is meant to be recited. In fact, the written language only takes on its full meaning when it is uttered. (No vowels are written down.)
  • So, the language itself only comes to life when it is spoken; the same is true for the precepts of her religion. It all only takes shape when it's lived.
  • In some ways, Ahmed reflects, literacy kills oral tradition. In this case, it spreads the kind of oppressive, authoritarian Islam that Ahmed and the women of her family detest.
  • It also gives the illusion that the oral tradition is not as legit as the written one. It gives more weight to the opinion of ayatollahs and sheikhs who seem more learned than everyday folk.
  • And since the written tradition is what gets studied by outsiders, the loss of oral traditions and forms of Islam has been accelerated by Western academics. Vicious cycle.
  • Ahmed wonders if literacy and privilege (i.e., education and maleness) should have the right to dictate what Islam is.
  • She mentions that the problem of cultural loss is more serious than just the erasure of cultural and religious practices: at the time (1999), she was witnessing the rise of violent Islam.
  • While the level of violence rises, there are also many Muslims who are growing up in places where freedom of thought and religion are taken for granted.
  • This is a new thing in the history of the Muslim people, says Ahmed.
  • Reflecting back on her mother's/grandmother's pacifism, Ahmed believes that while it gave her a gentler, more soulful view of Islam, it also made them passive about injustices in their society.
  • They were good at handling the pleasant side of life—company, family, hospitality—but pretty powerless when things went downhill.
  • Like when Aunt Aida tried to get out of a disastrous marriage. Divorce might have saved her from depression and suicide, but it just wasn't done—according to the men of the family.
  • Since the women in her family were dependent on the men, they had zero chance of living their lives as they wanted to.
  • And we can't blame Aunt Aida's case on religion. Ahmed says that Islamic law gives women the opportunity to divorce. She really fell victim to familial/societal traditions.
  • That is the lesson, says Ahmed. Just because women's Islam is more attractive in many ways, it's not always the best (or better than official Islam).
  • Ahmed doesn't simply want to point the finger at her "foremothers" for their silence and passive behavior.
  • She blames herself for accepting the opinions of the culture she grew up in—Ahmed talks about her Aunt Farida's whining about her bad marriage as "foolish behavior."
  • By including this detail, she feels like she's conspiring with the men in her family to ignore the reality of her auntie's suffering.

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