This is the first in an ongoing series the Los Angeles Review of Books will publish throughout the year on women and the Middle East. The series will include interviews, on-location reporting and review essays.
All photographs by Mya Guarnieri
THE FOLLOWING INTERVIEW was conducted with four 18-year-old Palestinian women who attend a university in the West Bank. All of the women are Muslim, though they run the gamut as to the extent of their religiosity: Nawal self-defines as liberal, Salma says that she and her family are conservative. Salma and her parents’ religious/political leanings are reflected in the jilbab [long, loose coat] she wears to cover her clothing as well as by the fact that she doesn’t wear makeup. Noor and Amira both describe themselves as moderate, saying that their commitment to Islam falls somewhere between Nawal’s and Salma’s.
All wear the hijab though it signifies different things for each girl. Nawal says she would prefer to be without the veil and that it is not an outward symbol of faith. Rather, she wears it because her parents and society expect her to.
It’s worth pointing out that a number of female Muslim students do not wear the hijab. One such woman considers herself deeply religious and, for years, has struggled with her peers’ assumptions that she is unobservant just because she does not cover her hair. The girl, who has spent a lot of time in the United States, resents her peers’ judgments as much as American stereotypes that Arabs are terrorists — something she has confronted often since 9/11.
Nawal, Salma, Noor, and Amira all come from middle-class families. All of their fathers work. Two of the girls’ mothers hold college degrees but none of their mothers are employed.
Two of the girls are refugees from “’48,” as they call it: the land that is now known as Israel. Their families were expelled or fled during the fighting that began after the United Nations Partition Plan was passed in late November of 1947; the exodus of between 700,000 to 800,000 Palestinians during 1947–1948 is known in Arabic as the “nakba” (catastrophe), or is sometimes referred to as “1948.”
The other two women come from families who have lived in West Bank villages for many generations.
All names and some identifying details have been changed so that the girls felt free enough to talk about the issues at hand without repercussions from their families and peers.
— Mya Guarnieri
Mya Guarnieri: Why are you pursuing an education?
Noor: I guess it’s more for me, for myself, it empowers me. You know, like there was this discussion the other day on, I don’t know if you watch it, it’s called “The Talk,” and they said that men are intimidated by women who are educated. And so it was kind of interesting because they shouldn’t … they shouldn’t feel intimidated. Sur...read more