The Arab Woman—an untypical view
Queen Elizabeth recently offered an opinion that we are certain will go unchallenged. "It is becoming more generally recognized," she said, "that the home is not the only place for women."
That splendidly cautious observation capsules what we hope to prove in this very special issue: it is no longer possible to ignore the fundamental changes now transforming the lives of women in the Arab East.
These changes are by no means the ominous rumblings that presage social upheaval. Kate Millet will never reach the Best Seller lists in Cairo and at this writing no one was burning bras in Baghdad. We would not be too surprised either if the veil survives not only Miss Millet but also her generation.
Yet there is change. From Beirut, where wispy bikinis give agreeable notice of the extent and direction, to Jiddah, where voluminous abayas conceal, among other surprises, a new commitment to education and advancement, the Arab woman is quietly redefining a role that has been too often restricted to fetching, carrying and breeding.
We know—too well—that to one school of Make-Believe travel writing this is sheer heresy. The customs and costumes of a retreating culture are, like Irish thatch and Japanese Geishas, infinitely more photogenic than the dull realities of canning factories and drainage projects, or the invisible momentum of curriculum improvement and public health programs.
That is why we decided to present, for once, a view that is not at all "typical". That is why we deliberately instructed contributors to focus exclusively on Arab women who are smart, sophisticated, talented, intelligent, athletic, and, when possible, beautiful—women like Sulafah Bassam.
Miss Bassam, whose photograph by Nik Wheeler adorns our cover, is a perfect example of the Arab girl few westerners ever hear about. She is lovely, literate cooly independent and impressively educated; she is a candidate for her M.A. in sociology in the American University of Beirut. Yet Sulafah Bassam is also a Muslim and a citizen of Saudi Arabia, citadel of conservative Arab traditions.
Necessarily, our conclusions are more impressionistic than scientific. Yet we believe that they are also statistically sound. Our writers talked at length and in depth to nearly 300 women and men in seven countries and our photographers and illustrator, working in 11 countries compiled some 5,000 photographs and 200 drawings. We doubt, in fact, that a more extensive study of the subject has even been made, and hope it will at least modify the worst distortions that have been imbedded too long and too deeply in western imaginations. —The Editors