Katherine Zoepf on the Remarkable Women of the Arab World

World news headlines provoke fear and are infinitely sensational. We watch current events unfold and sit idly by wondering, debating, and often ultimately deciding that there’s hate in the world that we’ll never comprehend. We’re different from them. They don’t understand us.

Katherine Zoepf lived in Syria and Lebanon from 2004 to 2007 while working as a stringer for The New York Times. She sheepishly, and authentically, admits that her curiosity with the Middle East was, like most Americans, sparked on September 11, 2001, in The New York Times offices. The events that occurred that horrific day led her deep into the lives of Arab women and their families.

“I had to do something serious and proper and grownup and worthy of this scary world,” she says. In her book, Excellent Daughters, Zoepf interviews powerful young women in the Arab world who consistently question her ability to make conclusions about the intricacies of their lives – especially those based on headlines. “When it comes to Saudi Arabia, they’re very conscious of the [news] stories that impress us,” Zoepf says on our sister podcast, Beaks & Geeks. “I think that it’s easy to look at the Arab world from here and to get a sense of women in the region as if they’re monolithically oppressed … I certainly met many women who were working as activists and were very angry about practices they faced, but I also met so many women who, because they were working from within their societies and because they didn’t want to overturn the system, they felt invested in their communities. I think that their efforts and the changes that they are helping to bring about maybe aren’t fully seen.”

Are we quick to assume that we understand status quo merely by comparison? Zoepf notes that women are not defined by their veil just as conservative women are not defined by their values. She says, “Republican women would be outraged if we suggested that they were brainwashed, or that they were just terrified of their husbands, because they didn’t see what was ‘obviously’ right for women to want.”

Want to keep up with Beaks and Geeks? Follow the podcast on Soundcloud.