By Faruk Arslan, PhD Candidate, MSW, RSW, MA, Journalist-writer
A combination of academic reflection and personal life story make up Leila Ahmed’s memoir entitled A Border Passage. In it she neatly elaborates her realizations about her own identity crisis, and the complexity of Egyptians identifying themselves as Arabs in the context of the rise of nationalism and its social construction by colonizers in the post-colonial era. Language, gender, history, culture and religion become important issues in realizing one’s own identity, and also provide survival instincts for the colonized subject. She explains why one of the oldest political Islamist movements, the Muslim Brotherhood, has found popularity for its organized reactionary uprising among marginalized populations, becoming the most important center of rebellion against colonizers since the 1920s. After the Second World War, British colonial rule was dismantled, but a new dictatorship replaced it. Ahmed’s memoir provides a useful example of how generational, identity and religious crises developed in the 20th century between intellectual, textual-based and oral-cultural Islam, in terms of which different varieties of Egyptian societal groupings and gender and class hierarchies were constructed by a new powerful home-grown military elite.
Leila Ahmed’s identity has changed and become differentiated in several societal strata and social environments since her childhood, in a manner which has been beyond her control. Regarding her questioning of orientalism, Ahmed began to suffer during her graduate years and realized that her feelings became voiceless “mute, complicated, confusions” in relation to her “exilic Arab identity, [her] identity as an Arab in the West” (p. 238). Her grandmother, mother and father’s struggles made more sense when Arab dictators such as Abdul Nasser, Hafiz Esad and Husnu Mubarak were supported by the British Empire. Colonizers obviously expanded this solidified Arab-identified territory in order to erase 400 years of influence from the Ottoman Empire.
A standardized Arab language was used as a tool for separation from the former Ottoman Empire, and understanding its culture and reconstructing a new language offered benefits both to the new nation-state formations and to the former colonizers. The new Arab dictators and the old colonizers were interchangeable, remaining in powerful positions and playing with an identity separate from the Turks, with being Arab now becoming an identity marker. Insider or outsider orientalists and “white” colonizers’ prejudices became the official history, a history described with words such as “knowledge,” “objective,’ “neutral,’ “transcendence,” “unbiased, and “truth”. Ahmed’s own experience did not fit this theoretical analysis of imperialism, for orientalism did not capture the whole truth of an entire area (240).
Living space became smaller in Egypt under the military regime; there was still the same colonization of others. Nasser’s cruelty was similar to that of the Western colonizer; both were imperialist, racist and rubbish. After settling down in the United States, Ahmed found she had two homelands: America made real sense for her, but her connection with Egypt remained always alive, and when Egypt launched a protest against a dictatorial, authoritarian regime during the Arab spring, she reconnected herself to Egypt (312).
Feminist movements in Islam and among Muslim women have triggered many contradictions and dilemmas. As a Muslim woman, Ahmed has experienced multi-faced aspects of discrimination both from the West and the East. She is critical of both colonizers and male-dominated Islamic societies, including Dubai, a criticism that includes several aspects of the gendered and segregated parallel schooling establishment experienced during her years of study, especially the mistreatment of girls (121) and the phenomenon of Jewish, European, Coptic, and Greek populations being made an enemy during the war with Israel (261). She witnessed how racist and gendered language developed within the patriarchal society, and how gender dimorphism, misogyny and sexual discrimination were turned around, reconstructed and recreated by Arab nationalists. Ahmed categorizes two different Islams: “An Islam that is in some sense a women’s Islam and on official, textual Islam, a ‘men’s Islam’” (123). As her survival model, her grandmother symbolizes the essence of Islam or the Sufi understanding of Islam, being the only practicing Muslim among other family members. Ahmed’s analytic reading of conservative literature shows how male superiority and biological and mental differences of function and capacity were seen to be naturally God-given and pre-destined for women in her childhood.
She realized this was a social construction, because the ensuing gender separation and the division of labour led women to obey the male; the husband, father, and brother, which is what the Qur’an suggests in textual Islam. After her Abu Dhabi experience, her criticisms target internal battles and feminist enlightenment in women’s studies in the USA (295). She confronts inequality and is suspicious about her faith. Her story becomes part of other American stories, in terms of which Ahmed states that her story “is part of story of feminism in America, the story of women in America, the story of color in America, and part of the story of America itself and of American lives in a world of dissolving boundaries and vanishing borders” ( 296).
Class conflicts and struggles are very openly discussed, based on Ahmed’s observations and experiences. The Muslim Brotherhood is a form of constituted Islam, and the Nasser regime is a form of constructed nationalist Arab identity, both of which were supposed to seek liberation from imperialists, even though the majority of the population weren’t Arab at all before such constructions. It was when former British colonizers decided it was in their own interests to implement such politics to play with history, declaring “Egypt is Arab” that the dictator Nasser became a false hero for all Arabs (260). Ahmed makes the criticism that Egyptian pluralistic society, diversity and democracy paid a high price for such dirty politics, for this deconstruction of multi-religious Egyptian communities meant these groups lost their status and power in a hierarchy where the military elite gained popularity and benefited from all Egyptian wealth (265).
I agree with Ahmed that using the conflict between Palestine and Israel became a kind of political game for Arab dictators to keep their corruption alive. Ahmed’s criticisms are relevant for research and are related to the different types of Islam. And while the desperate people of Egypt are demanding an ideal society, the country`s entire corrupt system of governance, economy and culture of political corruption must be dismantled for this to become a reality. Marx sees the long history of humanity as the history of class struggle. All class societies have existed based on one operating principle: exploitation. Classes emerge because the dominant class exploits the labouring class; the exploited classes always struggle against their oppressors. Sometimes these class struggles take on violent forms, but are generally non-violent, internalized and invisible. Racism, gender discrimination and class segregation are worse than the visible oppression such as that which the colonizers practiced for centuries in Egypt.
In conclusion, Ahmed’s nostalgia and enthusiasm encourage readers to discover their own paths and also facilitate critical thinking. Leila Ahmed observes and claims that reformist women’s discourses remain largely within the patterns of internal change and reform of Muslim traditions, rather than simply manifesting a gradual adaptation of dominant gender notions as a result of their interaction with “liberal” and highly secular Western societies. Muslim women have always been in a struggle for female empowerment within Islamic and Westernized organizations in many societies in West and East. Women have quite consistently insisted on the necessity of retaining the right to interpret the texts and prefer the lived, oral, cultural Islam option, because the textual-based tradition is constructed by a male-dominant society and male scholars. Her family relationships and values are stronger than her religious beliefs. The capitalist Arab military dictators or anti-democratic rulers in Arab nations, who retain power, and the working classes, remain in the bottle of hierarchy in the post-colonial period. As Ahmed captures it, in a way that is similar to Frantz Fanon, such humiliation or inferiority complexes are very common in third world countries. This is the dilemma: even the freedom fighters of Egypt want to consume more American, Western goods and adopt the hegemonic culture of Americanism, even though they hate the USA and Westernization.
Ahmed, L. (2012). A Border Passage from Cairo to America- A Woman’s Journey, London: Penguin.