Study Guide

A Border Passage Chapter 8

By Leila Ahmed

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Chapter 8

The Harem Perfected?

  • Girton was everything that Ahmed had hoped it would be. She felt like she was living in the world of her beloved British novels.
  • Her director of studies (Bradbrook) and tutor (Duke) had also been the director and tutor for Ahmed's older sister Magda.
  • She saw similarities between Girton and Ain Shams: the gardens, the meditative, bookish atmosphere. There were even similar birds. (Hey, they do migrate.)
  • Girton was also a women's college, so it reminded Ahmed of the "harem" at Zatoun—no men allowed.
  • There was also a sense of privilege but this time without guilt. Though there were servants at Girton, they had nicknames.
  • As long as these workers weren't called servants, Ahmed observes, the social inequality seemed to be all good.
  • But there were also no bonds between the workers and those of the upper classes as there were in Egypt.
  • No one had lifelong relationships with workers the way her mother had with her servant Fat-hia, or her grandmother had with Umm Said.
  • That aside, the community of women at Girton did remind her of the women at Zatoun—only better. There were no males to disrupt harem life.
  • Ahmed is influenced most by two professors: Ms. Bradbrook and Mrs. Madge.
  • Madge was a poet who didn't like academics. She felt that the university stifled true knowledge—even though she got her paycheck from Girton.
  • Both teachers were kind to her and patient when they found out her weak spots. (Remember, she missed two years of A-level prep.)
  • Mrs. Bennett and Dr. Radzinowicz stepped in to help her build some of those missing academic skills.
  • Ahmed also participated in some shenanigans with her fellow Muslim students that ended in serious embarrassment.
  • She and two of her friends invented a story that Girton was holding Muslim women hostage on the request of their parents—and sent it to a local newspaper. It was supposed to be a joke.
  • But the newspaper contacted her and wanted to do a story. She was horrified and had to explain that it was a hoax. They were simply commenting on how the British saw Muslim women.
  • Ahmed says that they didn't really have the vocabulary to discuss racism in nuanced ways at the time. She did find a small community of non-British students at Girton, though.
  • They had a connection, and some of them had appalling experiences of racism when they arrived at college.
  • And there was always the sense that teachers wanted Muslim students to convert to Christianity.
  • Ahmed recalls a man spitting on her on the bus one day because he found out that she was an Arab.
  • Aside from these things, Ahmed says that she was just like any other 18-year-old with unlimited freedom for the first time.
  • But, wait: it's not what you're thinking. Her best moment in college had nothing to do with romance.
  • It was escaping with her friends after curfew and running about in the woods, picking violets. Total freedom. Total connection with nature.
  • She credits the women in her life—her family at Zatoun and Alexandria, the women of Girton College—with giving her the most memorable and valuable moments in her life.
  • Ahmed sees similarities in these women even though they are from two different worlds.
  • Both her Egyptian family and the women at Girton devoted themselves to analysis: of words, situations, people, problems.
  • The difference between them? The women of Zatoun analyzed real people and problems; the women of Girton worked with fictional people, theories, and abstract ideas.
  • Ahmed thinks it's ironic that the "work" of the women at Zatoun—which sometimes involved rescuing people from real problems—is considered less serious than that of the Girton women.
  • For Ahmed, this is again an oral tradition vs. written culture battle. And again, more cred is given to written tradition—and more cred to women who participate in it as men do.
  • While this feels strange to Ahmed, she thinks it's an issue we should confront. As Virginia Woolf asked, "Why are we doing this?" Why be women working in the manner of men?
  • Ahmed says that Girton offered her the chance "to pursue the professions of men in a community of women." It gave her the opportunity to find her own way to practice academic life.
  • But again, Ahmed is caught. Academic women looked down on the way of life of the harem community in Alexandria, devaluing their actions and experiences.
  • This snobbery combines with the sense that white Europeans were far superior/more civilized than non-European, non-white people.
  • Ahmed says that she internalized these feelings.
  • She had already absorbed the negative attitude toward women when she was growing up, which fostered a kind of contempt in her for her own mother. (What did her mother really do in life?)
  • But now, this negativity was mixed up with contempt for non-European people.
  • So, it was only really men and Western women who actually accomplished anything, who did important things with their lives. Women of color apparently had nothing to contribute.
  • This attitude taught Ahmed that she never wanted to be anything like the women she'd grown up with in Egypt—especially her mother.

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