Photograph by Lynsey Addario, National Geographic
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Saudi women can’t open a bank account or drive. But social media is rapidly altering the Middle East. Here, two Saudi women take a break during a technology seminar at the Riyadh stock exchange in 2014.

Photograph by Lynsey Addario, National Geographic

How Muslim Women Are Challenging the Status Quo

Far from being powerless, they are making small choices that could lead to big changes in the Arab world.

When one of Katherine Zoepf’s classmates was killed in the Twin Towers on 9/11, her own certainties about life vanished in the rubble. What had compelled 19 young Arabic men to plot murder on the other side of the world? What was it like to live in a strict Muslim society? Her new book, Excellent Daughters: The Secret Lives of Women Who Are Transforming the Arab World, is the story of her journey to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and other Middle Eastern countries, where she gained rare access to the lives and dreams of young women.

Talking from her home in New York’s East Village, she explains why, since the Arab Spring, female genital mutilation is on the rise in Egypt again; how growing up with a mother who was a Jehovah’s Witness enabled her to better comprehend Muslim fundamentalism; and why more understanding between the Islamic world and the West is essential.

You were inspired to write this book by September 11th. Explain the connection, Katherine.

You’re right. September 11th does feel in many ways like the start of this whole journey. I hope this doesn’t sound corny, but for me and a lot of Americans my age, September 11th was this moment where the world as we thought we understood it, the adult world which we were so excited to be entering, suddenly seemed to vanish before us.

I was 23. I had spent a year and a bit after I graduated from college working at an English language daily in Hanoi, the Vietnam News. I’d come back to New York and spent a couple of months looking for jobs. Everybody was living with roommates and meeting new people, going out for drinks in the evenings, chatting about all this exciting stuff they're doing. Suddenly all that was gone. One of my Princeton classmates was killed in the Twin Towers. And a compulsion to figure out what had happened to her was what drew me to the Middle East.

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Your book opens with a group of teenagers in Saudi Arabia. Introduce us, and tell us how they are trying to challenge the status quo.

Saudi Arabia is a complicated country. Your views and freedoms as a woman depend very much on what city you come from and which community within that city. The girls I describe were among the most conservative. They were almost competitively pious with one another. [Laughs] They would attack each other if one of them seemed to be suggesting something that, by Saudi standards, was a bit daring. They particularly attacked a girl they perceived as being too sympathetic to what I represented as a Westerner. But as I got to know them a bit better, I did feel they were challenging the status quo to the extent that it was possible. Most of them studied law, and some of them had had to argue with their families pretty forcefully in order to be allowed to do so. [Discover how Saudi women are redefining the boundaries of public life.]

The BBC’s new adaptation of War And Peace has a scene where, during her courtship with Prince Andrei, Natasha falls to the ground, laughing and kissing him. Young Muslims can never know this kind of happiness, can they?

A lot of Saudis would argue that the reason they get young people married very early is because it is important to have an appropriate outlet for those feelings. Courtship, in the way we understand it, doesn't exist. But I met as many happily married Saudi women as I know happily married Western women. So I came to feel agnostic about arranged marriage.

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Some scholars have suggested that Islam’s severe teachings on women date back to an earlier, nomadic culture. Here, Bedouin enjoy the shade of a tent during a journey across the desert.

Officially, Islam allows women to choose whom they marry. In Saudi Arabia, the woman gives her assent at what is called the shawfa, which literally means “viewing.” The prospective groom, his father, older brothers, and uncles come to the girl's father's home to propose. It's the first time that a properly brought-up Saudi woman will ever have been seen by a man outside her immediate family. And many of the young women I interviewed told me that it is very difficult for them to say no. At the same time, I kept hearing from women who had become engaged these incredibly romantic narratives built around the couple of minutes that they had seen their future husband for the first time.

You write, “If there’s anything I hope to do with this book, it is to make the case for small gestures.” Unpack that idea for us.

When you're reporting on the Arab world, you're mostly talking about crisis journalism: stories of war or political upheavals. Those stories are very important and they're going to continue to dominate our news coverage and our understanding of the region. But I also came to feel that they can have a distorting effect. Everyday life, even in a country in crisis, is often pretty normal. During even the most dramatic moments on Tahrir Square, Egyptians a few blocks away were scarcely aware of what was going on.

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In Islam, worship is strictly segregated by sex. Here, on either side of a high screen, Kuwaiti men and women pray at the Grand Mosque in Kuwait City during Ramadan.

So I wanted to show how individual decisions matter: how millions of young women making a slightly braver choice or stretching themselves a bit more or waiting to get married until after finishing their master’s degree—these small gestures have an aggregate effect that can be far-reaching.

Your mother became a strict Jehovah’s Witness when you were a child. How did this inform your work in the Islamic world?

I thought for a long time that I had this additional sympathy for the position of many of these girls because I was wrestling with many of the same contradictions. But I think it also affected the questions I asked, especially my willingness to keep asking questions when the subject of belief came up.

I think reporters often get very uncomfortable when someone in the Middle East says, “You can't possibly understand what it’s like to wear the hijab.” Many westerners hear this and think, “Oh gosh, I'm not a Muslim, I can't talk about this.” So I think my background gave me the ability to question and try to understand religion, which is crucial. Sometimes I explicitly used my own experiences. If someone said, “It's impossible for you Westerners to understand us, when you're all partying and sleeping with your boyfriends at 13; what do you know of our lives and challenges?” I really pushed back on that.  

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The 2011 Arab Spring raised hopes of a more democratic future in the Middle East, but now it seems to be winter again. Here, Egyptians protest the court verdict dropping charges against Hosni Mubarak, the former president, for inciting the killing of protesters during the demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

The Arabic term fitna refers to sexual temptation. Even women’s voices are regarded as provocative. Why is there such hysteria about female sexuality in the Islamic world?

The literal meaning is chaos. But I've only ever heard it used to refer to sexual temptation. I've spoken to sociologists who argue that this is part of nomadic culture: that, when you are living in a very harsh environment, you have to police your bloodline very carefully.

Sounds like hocus-pocus.

I'm not a sociologist. But I have rarely seen a book about gender in Islam that doesn't refer to this idea. I think Muhammad's later teachings, or later revelations, which came at the time when he had many wives himself, are much harder on women. I'm not a Koranic scholar and I've not done the primary source work that allows me to speak about this with a great deal of confidence, but a number of writers have described how, as a much older man with a number of younger wives and concubines he was struggling to control, that this was when these revelations restricting women started to come. Today, there's a lot of dispute about the degree to which you can reform Islam. Some Muslims, especially in the West, are now saying, let's look at these teachings in their context, and not take them quite so literally.

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Former Egyptian first lady Suzanne Mubarak, who is half-British, helped frame legislation that advanced women’s rights, including a ban on female genital mutilation. Since the Arab Spring, “Suzanne Law” has mostly been repealed as “un-Egyptian.” Here, she addresses the World Economic Forum at Sharm-El-Shiekh, Egypt.

One of the most shocking stories you tell is of a young woman named Zahra. Tell us about her and how laws in some Islamic countries encourage honor killing.

They would not say they encourage it. But they effectively protect men who kill their daughters, if they use honor as an excuse. Zahra was a young teenage girl from northeastern Syria who was kidnapped and raped. When her family discovered this, they set about trying to figure out how they could kill her to “wash away the shame” to their family honor.

Because she was raped, Zahra was interviewed by the police, who realized that her family was going to kill her because she was no longer a virgin. So they put her in a prison for juvenile delinquents for her protection. This is the only place they could put her, as independent shelters for women do not exist. But her family managed to get her sprung from that prison/shelter, by convincing the administrators they were going to marry her to a cousin. A month after the marriage, she was murdered by her brother, a brother she had previously been very close to and loved enormously. He went unpunished.

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“There’s a lot of debate now about the degree to which you can reform Islam,” says Katherine Zoepf. Here, girls from the Crescent High School participate in the 2010 American Muslim Day Parade in New York City. 

This just horrified me. So I went and talked to the administrators at the shelter and the girls at the shelter. I was basically told that no girl ever expects it: that even girls whose families had openly threatened to kill them or made attempts on their lives can't believe that the fathers and brothers they love so dearly could turn on them like this—even though they grow up in a society where young women whose honor has been “tarnished” constantly disappear.

The 2011 Arab Spring inspired hope of change. But a new winter has broken and the political backlash has been particularly aimed at women, hasn’t it?

Unfortunately yes, though I want to note that we're talking just about Egypt. The context in each country is very different. But in Egypt, laws with which the Mubarak government was strongly associated—a kind of nationalized feminism—were blamed on Hosni Mubarak’s wife, Suzanne Mubarak, who is half-British. As a result, she's not considered fully Egyptian. Many Egyptians say, “She doesn't understand Egyptian society and she influenced him [Mubarak] to make laws that we Egyptians are not comfortable with, like better custody rights for women.”

These laws benefitting women are referred to as “Suzanne's Law,” which is a term of derision. So, despite the fact that female and male protesters were in Tahrir Square together, there is a feeling that we're finally going to get rid of these “foreign” policies. Unfortunately, one of these is FGM [Female Genital Mutilation], which was banned under Mubarak. Since the Arab spring, there has seen a resurgence, though, which shows the paradoxical effects of progress.

WATCH: Over the past four decades Saudi Arabia has achieved substantial advances in education for women, but the nation still lags behind many other Muslim countries when it comes to employment opportunities for women.

Can women ever be truly free and equal in a Muslim society?

I think it depends on whose standards of free and equal you're talking about. It also depends which society you're talking about. I think for this to be universally true there is going to have to be a bit more willingness on the part of Islamic scholars and Western governments to engage on issues of religious law. We have such a strong tradition of separating church and state, which I think is a good thing. But I do think we have to find ways to seriously engage with some of the more conservative religious scholars.

But I also tried very carefully in this book to write something that might help young men and women in the region ask more questions and feel more sympathy with where we're coming from, as Westerners.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Simon Worrall curates Book Talk. Follow him on Twitter or at