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Volume 22, Number 2March/April 1971

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The Arab Women—A modern view

Written by Anne Turner Bruno
Photographed by Katrina Thomas

It was a vivid sight. Traffic surging through packed streets, fender to fender, horn to horn. Smart shops alight with a nighttime glow. Dazzling neon signs rainbowing messages on world products and the latest films. Bursts of laughter. Elegant groups going up to early cocktail parties in luxurious penthouse apartments overhead. Police whistles shrilling with helpless urgency. Circles of moustached, impeccably tailored men savouring the scene over cups of coffee in sidewalk cafes. And girls. Crowds of chic young girls, elaborately coiffed and darkly mascaraed, strolling arm in arm in a meandering tide of leather mini-skirts, snakeskin maxis, velvet pants suits and furtrimmed tunics. Others languidly studying their eye makeup or smoothing down high-riding skirts as they tooled polished Mercedes and sleek Fiat convertibles through the jam with the precision and aplomb of Manhattan matrons.

Piccadilly Circus? The Champs Elysées? Via Veneto? In terms of beauty, spirit and go-go fashions, it could have been any of them—except that the girls were definitely more striking. Surprisingly though, it was Rue Hamra in Beirut, capital of Lebanon and gateway to the supposedly traditional, hidebound, socially-backward Arab world.

When I had first planned to tour the Arab East—Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria—I was more excited by the chance to see new countries than new people. Like my mother, whose knowledge of Arabs started and stopped with Rudolf Valentino, I knew little about Arabs. I didn't really believe they all lived in tents, but from the few Arab businessmen I had met in Washington, Rome and Istanbul, I had a vague impression that they were self-centered and possessive. And I rather expected that the women would be squat, broad-featured and big-hipped, living, for the most part, a simple, submissive life in dusty villages or shabby cities.

During that first evening in Beirut, as I sat in a cafe and watched those clusters of proud, handsome, stylish girls eddying by, I realized that I was badly informed. And in the two months that followed, in which I interviewed literally hundreds of Arab women, I learned how uninformed. True, there is a large population of peasants and Bedouins. But I also found among them physicists and psychiatrists, judges and journalists, doctors and dentists, lawyers and learned professors, politicians and computer programmers, archeologists and artists, chemists and commandos. Many indeed were among the most brilliant, talented, imaginative, individualistic, progressive and—above all—the most feminine women I have met in the world.

The women of the Levantine Arab lands have a great heritage of femininity to live up to. Past ages in this area have been dominated and memorialized by the beauty and wealth of Nefertiti and Cleopatra, the allure and diplomacy of Belkis, Queen of Sheba, the compassion of the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus, whom Muslims, like the Christians, honor as the highest woman in their faith. Yet it is only in the last decade or two that women in the Middle East have come into their own—nowhere more dramatically than in tiny Lebanon, the region's bank, playground, hospital, educational center, listening post.

As the most westernized Arab nation, Lebanon is a laboratory to which the daughters of the Nile, the Tigris and the Euphrates can come to train, test, adopt—or reject—the newest trends in education, work, culture, recreation and just plain living.

For some girls this experiment is an intoxicating introduction to independence. For others, those who have been isolated from boys since puberty, it is unsettling; even speaking in front of boys is a painful experience. But few would deny that it is exciting. "All Arabs are fascinated by Lebanon," says 20-year-old Alexandra Grochol of Buffalo, New York, a student at the American University of Cairo. "They love it, love to visit, shop, date, and go to nightclubs. Beirut is the showplace of the Arab world and they are proud to show it off."

Modernization in Beirut is no recent development, yet even the female pioneers who helped bring it about are astonished at the pace. One, the country's determined and doughty first woman physician, Dr. Saniyeh Habboub—who wore a veil while studying—exults, "I never dreamed in my life to see such an evolution in education and work. Women are awake now after sleeping 1,000 years. Now they are racing forward like a train."

The whistle of that train first blew in World War I when economic pressures necessitated wider employment for women, but the first significant blow for freedom was not struck until 1923, when two young Egyptian wives, Mrs. Hoda Charaoui, founder of the Egyptian Feminist Movement, and Mrs. Çeza Nabaraoui, returned to Cairo from an international women's conference in Rome and stepped off the train with their veils tied around their faces instead of over them.

Mrs. Nabaraoui, the junior of the pair, laughingly relates today what happed. "Hundreds of well-wishers waiting to cheer us in a welcome home gasped with shock to see our full faces. The men growled in rage. Then some women in the crowd tore off their own veils and threw them on the ground."

It was a dramatic beginning and more was to come. The same year Egyptian women presented the government with two demands that, amazingly, were granted: make 16 the legal marriage age to end the centuries-long practice of wedding 12-year-old girls to men they met first at the marriage ceremony, and provide opportunities for girls to attend secondary school. More importantly, by 1924 a handful of women, albeit veiled, had begun to attend university classes in both Cairo and Beirut, the first step in a long struggle to establish themselves in the academic world.

Subsequently, women began to participate in politics, too. In Lebanon in November 1943, a women's committee under the leadership of Mrs. Najla Saab, then seven-months pregnant, held daily street demonstrations, supported a city-wide strike, and publicly protested the French imprisonment of Lebanon's duly-elected president and parliament.

These developments, important as they seem, were actually only public manifestations of what is always a prerequisite to change: education.

The education of Arab women, in any real sense, began about 1834, when an American woman Presbyterian missionary opened the Beirut School for Girls with eight pupils. The founding of that school, which eventually gave birth to the Beirut College for Women, was a turning point. Not long after, the wife of the Khedive, ruler of Egypt, established a school for girls of the palace. Still later American Protestant and French Catholic missionaries began to accept girls in their schools. In 1908 the American University of Beirut opened its School of Nursing and in 1921 a girl was admitted to the university proper.

Progress, admittedly, was slow. The girl admitted to AUB, (and her successors for years after) came to classes veiled and her husband, not a student, accompanied her everywhere. As late as 1926, Dr. Habboub, then simply young Saniyeh Habboub about to study medicine in the United States, would not unveil even to get her passport. Instead she described her features to the officials.

But the girls persevered, sometimes aided by wise fathers who thought education a valuable dowry, more often opposed by parents who thought it a waste. When they could, they used reason, when not, anger, tears and in one instance a hunger strike. And it worked. Today in the Middle East, not only families but entire nations give women's education the highest priority.

In Egypt, education for girls is not merely free but compulsory for nine years. In Syria and Jordan, the minimum is six years, enough to qualify them for vocational and industrial schools. In both those countries, moreover, where girls are often needed in the fields and factories, the UAR's Socialist Union and Syria's Women's Union sponsor supplemental classes in mobile school rooms in a "Boycottt Illiteracy" program. Lebanon does not have compulsory education, but because there are so many private schools, especially religious schools, well-to-do-girls usually have no problems. Those among the poorer classes who don't find a place in the limited state schools can often take advantage of courses provided by some 60 volunteer women's groups.

The results throughout the Middle East are impressive. Of 300,000 students in national universities, at least a quarter are girls. In Syria, women make up almost half the enrollment in institutions of higher learning, even those that stress technical skills. In the UAR, they represent 25 percent of Cairo University's student engineers, 40 percent of the medical students and more than 50 percent of those in Arts and Letters. At the University of Jordan, women account for one fourth the enrollment.

The girls, furthermore, seem to be good students. Mrs. Lucy McVane, progressive new dean of women at AUB, says female students are "highly motivated and hard working," and keen, genial Frank Blanning, dean of students at the American University of Cairo (which the late President Nasser’s younger daughter attended), enthusiastically described them as "remarkably bright, good-looking, efficient, wonderful women."

Another important element in the improvement of the Arab woman's position is the career girl. Increasingly it's the influential working woman—in medicine, in law, in education, in commerce and even in the arts—who is pointing the way.

Not many years ago, according to Mrs. Amina El-Said, the very idea of a decent Arab girl going to work was shocking. "Only a poor woman worked," she points out. "She was looked down upon. She apologized for it. Now every woman is crazy to work, to prove herself. The change in attitude is a miracle."

That may be a bit exaggerated, yet if anyone should know she should. Mrs. El-Said, a charming, cultivated Egyptian in her mid-fifties, founded, in 1954, and has edited ever since, Hawwa, ("Eve") a Cairo-based woman's magazine which, with a circulation of 200,000 copies, is the largest weekly in the Middle East.

Hawwa is in the forefront of the emancipation movement. Furthermore, it is in the mainstream of a tradition that includes L'Egyptienne, a magazine put out by the unveiled Mrs. Nabaraoui in Cairo from 1925 to 1940, and The Voice of the Woman, edited by Dr. Jamal Karam Harfouche, during Lebanon's 1943 fight for independence from France. "Every woman who stood out in the early emancipation of women," says one Beirut editor, "was involved in publishing a magazine." One reason, she adds wryly, was that it was an activity they could stay at home and do.

Teaching, traditionally the most acceptable work for women, still attracts the greatest number of female graduates. A survey of AUB graduates between 1927 and 1959 showed that 65 percent of the women responding still work and 40 percent of them are in the field of education. The UAR today has so many trained teachers that it exports up to 1,000 yearly, many of them women, to neighboring Arab countries. Teaching also attracts a large number of women in Syria where the overtime pay beyond the basic 20-hour week makes it one of the most desirable jobs available.

In Lebanon, women in teaching have long led the way to enlightened living. Since 1934, the soft-spoken and affectionate intellectual Mrs. Wadad Cortas has been principal of the Ahliah National School for Girls in Beirut, whose students learn early the Cortas philosophy: "More social consciousness. Less social success."

Of all the possible careers, medicine and the sciences have long been the most severe tests of a woman's ability and stamina. When Saniyeh Habboub returned from the U.S. with her M.D. in 1933 and opened a two-room clinic on Beirut's Rue Georges Picot, everyone thought she was insane. Dr. Harfouche's first patient asked her in 1941, "Say, do you know anything about this subject?" And elegant Dr. Edma Abouchdid, the first woman in Lebanon to get her M.D. at AUB, in 1931, had to fight to have her own gynecological clinic and adjoining apartment because it was unthinkable for a woman to live apart from her parents.

One of the more contemporary medical pioneers is Egypt's Dr. Claire Fahim Ghobrial, an attractive 37-year-old brunette who surprised me by being one of six women psychiatrists practicing in Cairo hospitals and the only one to open her own private child guidance clinic. At this clinic she not only directs a 12-person professional staff, including a psychologist, a sociologist and speech therapist, but also personally examines, diagnoses, gives psycho-shock and play therapy as well as parental guidance, to some 1,500 patients a year.

Difficulties in the medical field have not been confined to physicians. Midwife Tamam Maasri, a big, enthusiastic woman who has been delivering babies in Lebanon for 40 years, has three special degrees from Lebanese and American institutions, and has been an important force in teaching village women the elements of sanitation and public health. When she started her career she often had to go blindfolded on donkeys to remote mountain hamlets to deliver babies. Even today, she muses sadly, many rural mothers won't let male doctors examine them at all and others, if in critical condition, will conceal their faces first, so that the doctor won't recognize them later. On the other hand, Miss Maasri emphasizes, "The education of village girls today is a thousand times better."

Law, another field that Arab women have found challenging, has also produced its share of determined pioneers. Like 56-year-old dynamo Mufida Abdel Rahman, the first woman to practice law in Cairo, the first woman member of the U.A.R.'s National Assembly, the mother of nine children and the grandmother of eight. Married at 19, "in the harem and veiled," Mrs. Rahman got bored after her first baby was born in 1934 and proposed to her husband that she study law. For four years she did so, each year having a new baby as well. "Sometimes I had a lecture at 10 in the morning and a baby at 2 in the afternoon," she jests.

In 1939, Mrs. Abdel Rahman opened her own law practice, often working free or for "sweets, fruits or flowers." But her reputation grew and soon people were begging, "Please let the lady plead for us." With the help of her seven sons who distributed campaign cards for her, she won the first election to the National Assembly in 1956 after her husband urged her to become a deputy "and get the women their rights." Now, her children grown, she works a 12-hour day on her own legal practice and as a member of parliament, all the while honoring her marriage which she sees as "a good example of a Muslim couple loving, sharing and working together."

Another pioneer, the lovely Beirut lawyer Mrs. Georgette Chidiac, proves there are still professional barriers for women to overcome. The recent widow and mother of three, who looks a little like Loretta Young, took, in 1960, a competitive test for a judgeship along with 65 men. She passed it but was not appointed. She had a baby, took the test again, passed again, and was refused again. Undeterred by either her third baby or a new requirement that candidates attend a three-year institute in jurisprudence, Mrs. Chidiac practiced law in the court mornings, attended the institute afternoons, and finally, in 1969, became the first Arab woman named judge, a member of the civil court and president of the juvenile delinquency court.

Oddly enough, in a nation of traders, there seems to have been little effort by Lebanese women to get into commerce. Some who have entered the field, however, even by chance, are veritable female tycoons. One of the most impressive is Mrs. Nadia El-Khoury, attractive mother of five children between 24 and 13 years old, owner of the prestigious St. Georges Hotel, president of the Banque de L'Industrie et du Travail, and managing director of the CAT Trading Company, which contracts and constructs dams, roads, pipelines in several Middle Eastern countries, many of them under her personal supervision.

"I never interfered with my husband's business," Mrs. El-Khoury explains. "Then, after he died five years ago, I came to the office for one week, and here I am." She modestly attributes her business sense to the fact that she was always "a very organized person ... with a natural gift for understanding the point quickly and making decisions."

Another Beirut widow, Isabelle Fakoury, owner of the distinguished Le Vendome Hotel, also started to work after her husband's death. Although married since she was 15, Madame Fakoury, a soignee, white-haired grandmotherly type, joined her sons in an export-import business and quickly earned a reputation for both charming and confounding shrewd Arabian Gulf shaikhs, as she sold them sugar and flour.

Even Cairo has a woman tycoon, a very personable fortyish mother, who quietly runs a private business that grosses, she says, $50 million yearly, constructing and operating steel mills, chemical plants, textile factories in an unpublicized UAR emphasis on private enterprise since 1967.

One field in which Arab women have been especially successful is government. They have forged ahead in numerous countries; in Egypt alone they account for 20 percent (about 100,000) of the qualified government executives, despite the unstated demand that they prove themselves twice as good as men to succeed.

Dr. Hekmat Abouzeid is a good example. Secretary of the UAR's committee of Arts, Letters and Social Sciences, Dr. Abouzeid started her governmental career as Minister of Social Affairs, and still deals with such national problems as family planning, child and maternal education and welfare. She introduced the governmental concept and program of training welfare recipients for productive family projects instead of doling out monthly relief payments. Her office directs rural women leadership training, and coordinates the work of almost 10,000 volunteer organizations, many of which are composed solely of women. Before the Aswan Dam waters began to rise she headed the sensitive project of preserving the culture and community relations of 35 Nubian villages with 50,000 persons who had to be moved.

Dr. Abouzeid's programs ' were based on population studies conducted by Cairo's private $350,000-a-year Social Research Center, directed by Dr. Laila Shukry Hamamsy. Dr. Hamamsy, with her M.A. in Sociology from Bryn Mawr and Ph.D. in Anthropology from Cornell, was only 32 when chosen to head this American University of Cairo affiliate and its staff of 55 professionals—mostly men.

Married to an orthopedic surgeon and the mother of two teen-aged boys, Dr. Hamamsy—a big woman in mind, heart and body—recalls how horrified the public was when she first went abroad to study alone. "They asked my father, 'Why educate her? You can afford to keep her at home!' ' Later, to her relief, her supposedly conservative mother-in-law was so delighted that Laila was a professional woman that she pushed her own daughters out to work, too.

Equally impressive is Dr. Hamamsy's older sister, vibrant Mrs. Aziza Hussein, the second Muslim girl of Cairo to go to a university in America. Now serving her fourth three-year term as UAR representative on the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, she is best known for her pioneer work in birth control in Egypt. In hopes of helping a nation of 33 million which has a million new babies a year, Mrs.

Hussein in 1964 launched the Family Planning Association, whose volunteers in one year alone established 23 clinics serving 20,000 women. Since then, the association's work has spread to a 1,000 societies, and has established family planning as a national priority.

Syria has outstanding examples, too. For three years Mrs. Nadwa Issa, a delightfully feminine 38-year-old brunette with a bright smile and twinkling black eyes, has been the director of the economic office of Aleppo, Syria's second largest city. A graduate of advanced economic studies in Brussels, Beirut and Damascus, the petite mother of three teen-aged sons is also her country's representative at the United Nations Trade Conferences in Geneva. She concedes that she "fought hard" for her job and that many men did not want to give it to her, but adds that now the governor doesn't want to let her go, even to accept a national ministry position.

Even more astonishing is the progress of Arab women in the cultural field. Actresses and artists, looked down upon as disreputable in the 1920's and 1930's, are now eligible for national awards and scholarships abroad. Outstanding women painters in Cairo, such as simpatico and sensitive Tahia Halim, patrician Inji Efflatoun and vivacious Gazbeya Sirry, have exhibited and sold their canvases around the world. Cairo also boasts a talented double threat named Souraya Elagizi, wife of Egypt's leading playwright Alfred Farag. Souraya, a painter and journalist, took up film writing (because a typewriter took less room in her two-room apartment than an easel and canvas) and has just sold her first movie scenario for a Cairo production.

Beirut's leading half-dozen women painters are all noteworthy individualists. One is Nadia Saikali, who proved something 15 years ago by illustrating magazines, teaching French and ballet to save enough money for a year's study at the Academie des Beaux Arts in Paris. As an example of changing mentality, her father, who tried to discourage her from study abroad, later offered to send her younger sister to Europe to become a professional ballet dancer.

Another is Juliana Seraphim, who looks like a living icon herself, with her exotic black eyes and hair. She worked as a secretary in the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for six years, painted after hours, and refused to get married because she felt she must "find my own expression." Since winning first prize in an art contest and a year's art study in Florence, Italy, she does erotic oils and drawings which were strongly criticized at first but now are featured on TV. They help, in her opinion, to liberate women—and the public—from an outmoded past.

Television, curiously, has always been more or less open to Arab women, and today TV jobs are decidedly fashionable. Mrs. Selwa Hagazi, 34, a pretty and petite poetess married to a judge and mother of four, works seven hours a day in Cairo on three different weekly TV programs for children, teen-agers and adults. She is the first woman in her family to work and had to battle a shocked father to do so. "Why do you work?" he asked. "You have everything you need, and if you don't, I will give it to you." She countered, "I must do something creative."

Fifteen years ago, faith in women's creative and organizational abilities moved the President of Lebanon to ask a women's committee to establish the Baalbek International Festival. Since then the annual summer cultural festival produced in the monumental Roman temples of Baalbek, has developed into a major production able to attract artists of world stature such as Rudolf Nureyev and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Recently the program became year-round under volunteer president Mrs. Selwa Es-Said, a sophisticated and attractive socialite who contributes a dozen hours daily to festival projects which have helped to develop national theater groups in Beirut as well as attract international tourism to Lebanon.

Typically, women's volunteer work has taken the form of numerous bake and handicraft sales by village religious societies or, among the more sophisticated, organizing benefit balls and shows to support a pet charity such as an orphanage or school. Also, of course, there were the dynamic women who pioneered the Red Cross-YWCA kind of organization at a time when cities such as Beirut and Cairo boasted a relatively high percentage of aimless femmes de luxe whose evenings were devoted to entertainment and entertaining and whose days were spent in rounds of shopping, gossiping and visiting.

One form of work common to women in the West—political activism—was not at all widespread in the Arab world before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. "With the shock and humiliation of defeat," as Amina El-Said puts it, "came an impressive change." One Palestinian mother explains that suddenly the loquacious, often wild optimism of the Arabs was shattered and women's action—purposeful action—came into vogue. Mrs. Rasha Khalidi, for example, is a professor's wife who had never worked in her life before. To help present the Arab case to western nations, she set up the Arab Women's Information Committee in a three-room office in her Beirut basement. Along the same lines some 20 professional women in Beirut began to contribute energy and talent to an organization called "The Fifth of June Society," which tries to explain the Arab view-point by providing speakers, films and information materials to writers, students and newspapers around the world. A third Beirut group, the "Friends of Jerusalem Society," with 200 volunteers, has raised almost $225,000 selling refugee-made handiwork and Christmas cards.

Changes of these magnitudes in women's professional and volunteer activities, of course, have not gone unnoticed by Arab men. The question is, what do they think of it? Do they approve? Or do they agree with the Bedouin farmer in Jordan who told a reporter: "It's not honorable for a woman to work outside the home if a man can support her."

Social experts, I learned, are divided on what the answer is. A woman executive in Aleppo says flatly that men don't like it ("I don't believe men like women working anywhere—only in the United States where women first began it."), while an American male sociologist in Beirut believes Arab men are getting used to it. ("A few years ago women studying and working scared the living daylights out of the men. They were really uptight. Now after steady confrontation, the men are relaxed, even protective of the women.")

There's no doubt in my mind that many men do not like it. In the words of a pretty Beirut lawyer, they're "really frightened." This is considered especially true of the "threatened," less educated man. But there are also some men who do like a career wife, such as the engineer husband of Cairo physicist Mrs. Ingy Zein El-Abedine. "Before I was married," he says, "I thought women should be at home. Now I see that a working wife is better. They are more broad-minded, they understand life and appreciate a husband's efforts, and socially it gives a couple more opportunity to be together in leisure time."

A similar view is expressed by Silvio Tabet, Paris-trained and prize-winning film maker of Lebanon, whose wife, May, works with him ten hours a day in their SMT studio, but also takes care of their young daughter. Handsome, energetic Silvio says, "I would not want to be married to someone who sat at home all day." Many of Silvio's friends ask the tall, glamorous and clever May, "Where can I find a wife like you who helps her husband instead of just spending his money?"

Another question is what effect is emancipation going to have on basic values of the Arab world? Or more to the point, in view of those values is true emancipation possible?

These values, like many traditional Arab viewpoints, were shaped in the days when tribal codes and behavior literally determined life or death. Just as the Arab's open-hearted hospitality was based upon the state of human helplessness in the desert, so matrimony was based upon the survival and betterment of the tribe or family. Since a woman's role in this was a primary determinant of children's character her own moral standing was more important even than her wealth. As a corollary, one of man's primary obligations was her moral as well as physical protection.

Unfortunately, what was then a sound code has today come to mean that girls' social life must be rigidly supervised and the individual's needs and wants—like a daughter's wish for a specific mate—must often be sublimated to the family's desire for economic and social betterment.

For girls, this sublimation is manifested most often in submissive acceptance of an arranged marriage. In Lebanon, even today, according to Dr. Ala'ud-Din Drooby, an American-trained psychiatrist, nearly 80 percent of marriages in the lower economic class, about 35 percent in the middle class and 10 percent in the educated upper class, are arranged. His estimates for Egypt and Syria are much higher: nearly 50 percent in the two upper classes.

This is not, says Dr. Drooby, automatically bad. Since a family's criteria are essentially sound, more arranged marriages succeed than fail. Furthermore, husbands and wives in arranged marriages can, and do, fall in love. Love matches have higher expectations and a much greater chance of failure—especially today when divorce is easier. On the other hand, as a highly successful businesswoman in Cairo makes clear, arranged marriages are not ideal either.

"After living abroad for many years," she told me, "I returned to marry a government official as arranged by my family. I wanted to know him, but the family said, 'No. Get engaged and then you will know him.' There was no dating alone until we signed the marriage contract. We were different in every way, and I did not care for him at all. People said that we would love each other after marriage, but it was like a nightmare. We had two children, were very unhappy together and after 10 years got a divorce."

Getting to know a potential mate is still difficult. Casual dating as it is known in the West simply does not exist. Even university students must usually be content with meeting afternoons at the campus coffee shop; on formal dates a brother or a relative usually accompanies a girl. Teen-age girls and boys can go out together, but usually in groups.

For Arab girls the hardest problem of dating alone is that if a man takes her out three times she is considered engaged by parental and public opinion. If she is not engaged, her reputation could be damaged—with the result that many professional and working girls in their twenties, especially in Egypt and Syria, have never dated a man alone. Even successful professional women, says a psychiatrist in Cairo, would hesitate to do anything "to hurt their professional standing." A 27-year-old secondary school teacher in Aleppo, for example, confesses that she is terribly lonely, but says it is impossible for her to go out to a movie with a man as she did on trips to Paris, London and Beirut. "I always date in Beirut," she notes happily.

If public opinion makes it difficult for a girl to date alone, it can be appreciated that it is almost unheard of for a girl to live alone. Only the girl who has spent some time in Europe or America, or the divorcee, has her own apartment—and then only if she is particularly independent financially as well as emotionally. The persistent question is, "Why would a girl want an apartment alone except for boys and bad reasons?"

What then do Arabs, admittedly an emotional people, do? They wait! While young girls own up to amorous urges, they say that doing anything about it is "out of the question." In fact, most women of any age over 25 years in Lebanon, the UAR, Syria and Jordan (again except for the few who have lived in the West) are visibly outraged by the idea of pre-marital sex. And although more girls are dating alone, and even going to men's apartments in lenient Beirut, they are rarely, if ever, going to bed in them—even with fiances. To do so, they know, could mean they would never marry.

As I said, this is changing. Younger women are demanding—and achieving—more honest and mature male-female relationships. In Cairo young couples can be seen holding'hands in public, an act for which they could have been arrested a decade ago. Last summera Beirut couple drove to Europe with only a 12-year-old boy for "chaperon." And when "Le jour," a Beirut newspaper, recently published a survey on free love, many girls under 20 said they approved of it.

Inevitably, such attitudes make for greater liberalism in marriage. Girls whose grandmothers' husbands were chosen for them, and whose mothers' husbands had to be at least approved, are beginning to insist on the right to chose their own. Today, they can marry younger and sooner. With state-approved birth control, girls can keep studying and working without the risk of having a family too soon.

It is particularly significant that there is a noticeable increase in inter-religious, inter-racial and international marriages. Up to 15 years ago, it was shocking for members of different faiths to intermarry in the Arab world, but today they not only do but get heretofore heretical support from women like Madame Linda Sursock, grande dame of Lebanese society, and Mrs. Selwa Es-Said. "There are many more mixed marriages today between Arabs and foreigners, between Muslims and Christians," says Madame Sursock. "And I'm for it." Mrs. Selwa Es-Said agrees. "Intermarriage, just as it did in the old tribal days, unites different groups and contributes to understanding and peace."

The answer to my question, therefore, is yes, true emancipation is possible. And the Arab woman will achieve it—but wisely, on her own terms rather than those of the western woman. For although the Arab woman wants greater freedom and independence, more self-expression, more chances to prove her capabilities, more responsibility and less dependence on the men of her family, whether father or husband, she still wants to keep her special role as a woman. "Equality of the sexes," she says, "does not mean identity of roles." Over and over Arab girls say, "We do not want to change valuable traditions. We don't want to destroy man's supremacy or the feeling that men are stronger and that we are dependent." As a Beirut artist puts it, "We may want to change how we select a mate but not his position as head of the family. That is what makes us feminine."

To try to loosen family ties in one way and maintain them in another is a very delicate process, and although the modern Arab woman seems to be managing it nicely, it is anybody's guess how long she can continue. Mine is that she can continue as long as she likes. Like Emerson, I think civilization is "the power of good women." And I find that Arab women are not just good, they're great.

The Arab Woman—and the Western Male
Written by Anne Turner Bruno

There is an old Arab proverb, "It is better to eat your own barley than to buy foreign wheat," but when it comes to Arab women a lot of men disagree.

Not everyone would go as far as one American free-lance writer who proclaims forcefully that the Arab woman is "one vastly superior creature," but then not everyone has a wife to match his: a handsome, stylish, intelligent woman who has two children, speaks three languages, edits several publications, serves as a board member of a worldwide organization and has traveled throughout Europe and America.

Such women—usually well-to-do and products of European and American educations—are by no means the norm in the Middle East, but neither are they rare. Western men who have married them praise them lavishly. Such girls, they say, combine beauty and sophistication with a very eastern desire to please her man.

Many western men not married to Arab women find them alluring. Some rave about the charm of girls who are naturally exotic, boldly stylish yet genuinely shy and even innocent. One man says that as soon as the Arab woman discovers dieting her beauty will explode on the international scene the way once equally robust Italian and German beauties did during the lean years after World War II.

The single man in the Arab East is less enthusiastic. He does say that the educated, westernized Arab girl is often more attractive, usually more sophisticated and always better dressed than most American girls, but adds wistfully that it is almost impossible to meet and get to know them. One American bachelor who worked in the Middle East for 10 years says of the Arab women he meets at diplomatic functions and dinners in Cairo, Beirut and Amman: "Generally the wealthy, upper class women are de-tribalized as a result of education and travel, but when you drop down the social ladder, it is almost impossible to meet the average Arab woman. And even with the upper class, there is a conservative streak. The old families invite you to tea, cocktails and dinner, but you can never invite their daughter out to dinner after dark. They stay close to daddy and the hearth after dark."

A British newspaperman in his early thirties, who covers the Middle East for a news agency, agrees. "If a girl takes her family seriously, one can't really talk to her, get to know her, at any length. In any possible friendship, there is a tension, not the relaxed atmosphere as with a western girl in London. One never gets close enough to know any of them—except those who have trained or lived in Europe. It is a shame. The women of Lebanon and Egypt are so beautiful, but you cannot get to know them."

John Riddle, a forthright, 22-year-old American photographer, who studied Islamic history and culture in the United States and Lebanon, dated an Arab girl every day, but usually at her family's.

"The principal problem for a girl dating a westerner is that of reputation and family honor," Mr. Riddle says. "The family is closer and worries more about her. They want to know exactly what a man is doing here and how much money he is making." One girl, he said, was so close to her family that she told a suitor "I don't know if I should marry you or not. I don't want to leave my brothers and sisters." One point most western men agree on is that Arab girls are more feminine than American and English girls. "I admit I am annoyed at not being able to see girls alone," says an American diplomat, "but I never see an Arab girl in curlers either."

Bob Smith, an Arabic language student at the American University of Cairo, likes Arab women for their more feminine attitude and appearance, but adds that sometimes an Arab girl's sub-missiveness may have an element of deceit in it because she plans to rule the man indirectly later. Students he knows have an "illusory attitude toward love," he says. "They see someone and stare across a room and think they are in love, but it is not a sustained emotion. And with this over-romanticism, their parents force a materialistic preoccupation which favors older, financially-established men. They have marriage on their minds, but also are in confusion as to their role and relationship with men." He concurs with American girl students at AUC that Arab girls of 18 are not as emotionally mature as his sister citizens.

Some western males remark that though the Arab woman is initially more exotic than a western woman, her interests and personality are shallow and in a sustained relationship she is less intriguing. Her lack of casualness and flexibility, they say, prevents her from wearing well. They feel that while a submissive attitude may make a man feel more masculine at first, after a long time flattery can be cloying.

All Arab girls, of course, are, ecstatically happy about being married to western husbands, all of whom are handsome, intelligent, urbane, kind, loving, generous and considerate. I know they are because their husbands told me so.

Inside an Arab Marriage
Written by Anne Turner Bruno

Scattered through this article are the comments of a new breed of Arab women. They are the western wives who have married Arab men and, "for better or for worse," are living in any number of places between Beirut, Cairo and Riyadh, generally happy and always flexible, sometimes more Arab than their husbands in appreciating the slow pace of life and accent on human values and relationships.

Arab intermarriage with western women began about 40 years ago when Arab sons first went abroad to study in France and England, but in the last decade the trend has accelerated rapidly. Many professional and governmental leaders in Arab capitals have imported spouses from the United States, England, Germany, Sweden, France and Italy—even in Syria, which has a recent law forbidding marriage with foreign women—and in Lebanon there are at least 500 foreign wives, almost half being American.

For the most part, the Arab man meets his foreign wife while studying abroad at his most marriageable age. He is often an older, mature graduate student and she is usually attractive, intelligent and well educated; she knows who she is and what she wants to do. And while it is not a prerequisite, it doesn't hurt one bit if she is blonde. Most of them are.

More than half the women marry at home and couples usually live several years in the bride's country, where they both work until the first child arrives. Since the couples almost always expect to settle in the husband's country ultimately, it is not uncommon for the girls to visit their fiances' homes before marriage. It's also not unwise, according to Mrs. Darla Brooks Shehadeh, a bright, likable and happily married Texas blonde who lived in Beirut three years before her marriage to a fellow reporter. She proclaims, "Any girl who marries an Arab and doesn't know his background is a fool. If she doesn't like his background and still marries him, she is twice a fool." In that blunt comment is a great deal of common sense. For the way an Arab lives in his own country has shattered more than one otherwise sound international marriage.

In the Arab world, the family is the beginning and end of most personal and social life. Families are so close that they can make or break any marriage—particularly an unapproved international marriage—and Arab sons are often so attached to their parents that it is to please them that they bring their foreign bride home.

The first shock for a western girl can come when they move in With the husband's family and she finds that every decision is subject to the discussion of his parents, brothers sisters, uncles and aunts. Today many couples are resisting this intrusion; yet there are still some patriarchal homes in which the father or older brother will select the pair's household furnishings down to the pots and pans, will decide their children's education, will ask the daughter-in-law where she is going every time she plans to leave the house, and can, in fact, forbid her such public activities as shopping or walking down a street, unless accompanied several women, a male relative her children.

Such unrelenting supervision is demanding, but eventually most wives—admittedly the ones in happy marriages, the failures having ended in divorce or departure—come to see this family closeness and unity as an emotional haven, full of love and security, that they would never want to give up.

One American in her early thirties, who has lived more than 10 years as the wife of a leading university figure in Saudi Arabia says, "It's nice to have lots of people looking after you. When I first came here and saw how all of the women in the family helped each other I thought it was too good to be true."

Mrs. Virginia Khuri, a petite, pink-cheeked brunette married to one of Beirut's leading young architects, says "I like the close family ties. Sometimes I feel I have more in common with his family than I would have with an American family. And it's wonderful for our son to know his grandparents so well."

Another foreign wife, a slim blonde in her mid-thirties with several children, has adopted the Saudi viewpoint. "After seven years here, I can still see the differences between western and Saudi women's lives, but I don't look on most women outside Saudi Arabia as feminine. Women in the United States, for instance, have so much freedom they lose their femininity. When I was there on a visit I cringed to see a married women tell her husband to get up and make the coffee."

Another difficult problem is the Arabic language, one of the three hardest in the world. While their children pick it up quickly and fluently, most mothers have to work terribly hard even to get a smattering and five years intensive study usually achieves no more than an adequate conversational level.

Hospitality, the keynote of Arab life, can also sour a western girl's outlook. A wife is usually expected to receive other women at any hour, give or go to an afternoon tea party, and entertain dozens for dinner at a minute's notice.

Many wives acknowledge that "it's hard to keep up with," but others, like Darla Shehadeh, a very hospitable Southerner herself, find it fun. "I do a hundred times more entertaining here than we do at home," she says, "but everyone helps and I enjoy it." Outgoing Mrs. Betty Badawi, a regal strawberry blonde, comments, "I love the entertaining. I was not used to so much, but I got into the spirit of it. It took a whole year to pay back the calls."

One basic difference the foreign wives all find is in attitudes toward children. Under seven years, the boys and girls both can be extremely spoiled, are rarely made to obey or given any responsibility. It is heresy to ask a boy to do anything in the house, even carry a plate. Hand in hand with the permissiveness allowed the children is their overprotection, which can hinder a child's ability to learn, develop or express emotional needs.

Many foreign mothers say Arab fathers are more affectionate with children than men of their own nationality, playing with them and pampering them constantly but then, when the boy turns seven, abruptly expecting him to become a disciplined young man overnight. One gracious auburn-haired American who has spent more time in Beirut than her handsome, Egyptian husband says, "I try to reason with the children. He gives them orders."

The Arab approach to child raising, according to Mrs. Diana Abizaid, a stunning blue-eyed blonde from Poughkeepsie, N.Y., can make the children too "docile." Mrs. Abizaid, the mother of six children between 13 and 2, says she is criticized for allowing them to speak up in company, but that she prefers it. "Until the age of 12 years, Arab youngsters sit politely and say nothing unless spoken to. As a result they find decisions very difficult later in life."

Interestingly enough, Arab husbands seem to object much less to foreign wives working than they do to Arab women working. Mrs. Ruth Borel Fahmy, for example, a Swiss-born, American-educated economist who before the age of 30 had been the only woman advisor on the Pakistan President's staff and an administrator of a $60 million estate in New York City, is president of a company of which her Egyptian husband is the vice-president. Her husband, Mustafa Fahmy, is so progressive that he accompanied his wife when she was six months pregnant with their daughter so that she could fulfill her management lecture contract in the Sudan, and his family, Mrs. Fahmy says, accepted her completely. "I never made an effort to fit into the Arab woman's role. I have been myself and there is no friction," she says happily.

Numerous other women reported the same: Yugoslav-born Vojslava Fakhro, an architect who is a partner with her husband in their Bahrain architecture firm; Mrs. Ali Fakhro, from Atlanta, Georgia, now for more than 10 years the wife of Bahrain's distinguished, bearded Minister of Health; Mrs. Osman Jamjoom, an attractive Britisher with black hair and a model's figure, who for four years has been broadcasting in English and arranging programs for Radio Jiddah.

A western wife has other advantages over the Arab girl too. Her smoking and drinking are accepted immediately as is she into the men's circle for worldly talk. It may take years for a local woman to get that acceptance.

But there are limits. AnneZahlan, an English teacher, and Darla Shehadeh, both of whom knew Southern conservative upbringings, now dress much more carefully, practice "lady-like reticence" and "would never go to a movie alone again." Anne's husband discouraged her from talking to taxi drivers, Darla's from greeting and smiling at everyone on the street.

In many of the Gulf states women cannot wear bathing suits but can only wade in their long robes. Even in Lebanon hill villages women have been criticized for playing tennis on private family courts. And if a wife wears lipstick or does not wear black after a death in the family, she is severely condemned. Husbands will not let even their foreign wives publicly kiss them goodby.

For all that—mother love versus smother love, family support versus family suffocation, entertainment versus exhaustion—most foreign wives would re-affirm their choice tomorrow. After a look at home, many insist, they could never live in the pace and rush of the West again. And wives concur with Diana Abizaid that although mixed couples can never stop working at their marriages and must be more understanding and tolerant, it's worth it. As Diana says, "No one should make an international marriage if she is looking for an easy marriage—only if she wants one that is challenging, very interesting and never dull."

This article appeared on pages 26-40 of the March/April 1971 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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