Leila Ahmed begins her autobiography, A Border Passage: From Cairo to America A Woman’s Journey, “It was as if there were to life itself a quality of music,” immediately entrenching the spirit of her early life story in the senses, in instinct–the tools that, above all else, enable her and the reader to retrace her steps from curious, observant girl to introspective, self-determined woman.
This story, however, is not only about Ahmed’s self-discovery as a woman and feminist, but also about the sociopolitical and historical events that took place in Egypt during the 1940s and ’50s. As a witness to her country’s most dramatic period, from the end of British influence to the birth of Arab nationalism, Ahmed’s childhood is permanently shaped by the loss of Egypt’s multicultural and tolerant identity.
Escaping a country she no longer recognizes, Ahmed is seemingly left with only her father’s values of education, her mother’s perspective on religion through the oral tradition, and the memories of past places and people that rise to the surface like oases by which to navigate a new world. This new world, surprisingly, is not without its own lack of tolerance, an experience that alters her preconceptions of Western civility.
Though Ahmed does, at times, disturb the natural and sensual narrative of the work with clinical and academic passages (most are near the end of the novel), she rarely writes from a place of finality or total understanding, giving the impression that her journey as an Egyptian-American, Arab, and modern woman is far from over, if ever.
Leila accounts a personal chronicle of her childhood in Egypt, education in England, and teaching in America. Being a competent and fine educator, she tempts with seemingly casual talk; it is only afterwards that it is realized how much she has given and how mesmerizing the voyage has been. She reports a large amount of Egyptian culture, customs, history and sociology.
This also includes some background on the idea of “Arabness,” as well as a sparkling preface to the distinction between the Islam of men and the Islam of women. The portrayals of her grandmother’s store will certainly ring the bells of memory with any Western woman who spent time listening to older women in the kitchen at family meetings. (Shereen, 2003)
Woman has always been distinctly seen as a creative cause of human life. Traditionally, though, woman has been thought not only rationally subordinate to man but also a key source of appeal and sin. In Greek mythology, for instance, a woman, Pandora, opened the prohibited box and caused epidemics and sorrow to mankind. Ancient Roman law depicted woman as children, forever lower than man.
In the East, initially, the behavior for woman was more encouraging. In Early Egypt, for instance, women were privileged by some property rights and personal freedoms after marriage, but obligated submission of women toward men.
Wives had to walk behind their husbands. Women did not have the right to own property, and widows could not marry again. In East as well as West, male children have a preference over female children.
On the other hand, when they were permitted personal and rational freedom, women made important accomplishments. Nuns played an important role in the devout life of Europe during the middle Ages. Aristocratic women benefited from authority and status. Whole eras were effected by women leaders for example, 16th century Queen Elizabeth of England, 18th century Catherine the Great of Russia, and 19th century Queen Victoria of England.
Customarily a middle-class girl in Western society was inclined to be educated from her mother’s pattern that cleaning, cooking, and caring for children were the deeds expected of her. Tests made in the 1960s proved that the scholastic success of girls was better in the lower classes than in higher education.
The key cause given was that the girls’ own hope declined as neither their relatives nor their teachers want them to arrange for a future other than that of matrimony and parenthood. This propensity has been altering in last decades.
Proper education for girls traditionally has been less important as compared to that for boys. In colonial America girls have separate schools for girls, where they could get education. They could go to the master’s schools for boys if there was any room; this happened generally in summer time when majority of the boys worked.
As the 19th century ended, the number of female students had improved significantly. Higher education specifically was widened by the increase of women’s educational institutions and the entrance of women to colleges, institutions, and universities. In 1870 an estimated twenty percent of college and university students were females. By the advent of twentieth century the ratio had improved to over one third.
By the beginning of the 20th century, 19 percent of all undergraduate college degrees were obtained by women. By the year 1984 the number had penetratingly improved to 49 percent. The number of graduate students was also increased significantly. By the mid of 1980s women obtained 49 percent of all post-graduate degrees and around 33 percent of doctoral degrees. Women constituted up to 53 percent of all college students in the year 1985.
Ahmed concentrates on how historical and political pressures formulate individual identities, specifically those of Arab Muslim women. Here, though, the theme is Ahmed’s own individuality as an intellectual; a woman, a Muslim and an aristocracy Egyptian at home in both East and West. In graceful literary style, she narrates her childhood in Cairo, Egypt, her college years at Cambridge and of teaching in America and Abu Dhabi.
In Ahmed’s shaded depiction, politics are not the background to people’s lives but their fashion. The internalization of colonial conducts, the 1952 revolt and Arab nationalism, persuade of Zionism, class issues, and the political affairs of gender functions are embedded into her life and her near one. Most emotional is the conversion of Ahmed’s contempt for her “traditional” Arabic-speaking mother, who spends her life with female relatives, into a consideration of how these women made logic of their lives.
Certainly, all through this runny chronicle, she offensively refines the terms by which men “Western and Arab” have defined women through her own cross-cultural judgments of women’s communities, as when she explains the Girton College (at Cambridge) for women as a ‘harem’ “the harem as I had lived it, the harem of older women presiding over the young.” (Ahmed, pg. 183)
A Border Passage is not a usual memoir. It has many factors of an autobiography, but it is also a collection of well rational essays on some of the most complicated phases of the Egyptian history and culture.