A Border Passage
Leila Ahmed’s memoir, A Border Passage, is an extremely complex book, encompassing
political history but even more so personal and familial history. The memoir is entirely about
“border passages” beginning with the transformation from childhood to adulthood, the differences
between women’s communities and highly patriarchal communities, as well as the journey from
immigrant to citizenship.
Leila Ahmed was overwhelmingly affected by her understanding of the flagrant
differences amongst the sexes. She writes very eloquently about her mother and the other women
of her extended family who created a world apart from men in their home in Cairo and their
summer days at their seaside home in Alexandria. This woman’s community that they created,
overflowing with the oral teachings of Islam, oral tradition, and oral culture, is referred to as a
“harem.” Ahmed utilizes her vivid memories of her friends and family, especially and most
significantly this harem, to explain the drastically opposing ways Islamic women and men
decipher their social and religious convictions.
It is obvious that while these women may not have viewed themselves as inferior beings,
the men most certainly did. Men and women lived very different and extremely isolated lives.
Consequently it is extremely likely the two sexes held contrasting views of their society as well as
the nature of men and women. Thus, men spent the majority of their time with other men, just as
the women spent the bulk of their time with other women.
Ahmed spent a great deal of her childhood with the women of her extended family at
Zatoun, her mother’s paternal home in Cairo, or at the family seaside home in Alexandria. She
acquired her view of the world and the true meaning of life from the women, not the men. In
retrospect, she believes it is the pleasure and warmth she derived from the women’s gatherings in
her grandmother’s receiving room that stands out most vividly in her memories. Going to Zatoun
and spending a couple of hours together was a significant source of emotional and psychological
support. As a child, being permitted to sit with the women and witness their conversations was an
enormous privilege. It served as an outlet to renew connections, in addition to helping figure out
how to deal with problematic situations concerning husbands, children, or servants.
Whenever her grandfather would return home a message would somehow circulate
throughout the household alerting everyone of his arrival. Subsequently everyone visiting with her
grandmother would scramble, rearrange how they were sitting in addition to concealing any
laughter. If he were to enter a room where the women were seated, they would immediately scatter
to their feet and present themselves to him in a formal gesture of respect. This simple and
seemingly insignificant act is a superb example of gender differences and the apparent superiority
The Alexandria house is where the entire “harem,” mothers, aunts, grandmother, and
children, spent their summers together. Supposedly her grandfather purchased the house
specifically for his daughters and their children to spend the summers together. However, he
himself rarely visited much, just like the husbands, visiting a weekend or two at most. Thus it had
many of the same pleasures as Zatoun but none of its atmosphere of bleakness.
The essential element of the pleasures of being in the Alexandria house was simply being
with each other. Ahmed’s most momentous memory was of the night her grandmother took her up
on the roof to watch for angels. She endured feelings of happiness, security and a sense of the
looming “nearness of the marvelous,” that only being at her grandmother’s side could bring about.
The moods of the Alexandria house and the regularity and flow of its life were theirs, those of
Ahmed’s aunts, mother, grandmother and the other children.
In addition to living in women’s time, women’s space, and women’s culture, they
indisputably had their own understanding of Islam, presumably a “woman’s” Islam due to its
divergence from “men’s” Islam, otherwise known as the “official” Islam. In this memoir of
identity across cultures, Leila Ahmed looks back at a youth engrossed in a woman’s Islam. For all
the women, religion was a fundamental tool of understanding and making sense of their lives.
Ahmed learned about religion by watching her foremothers, and through them she perceived Islam
as gentle, pacifist and inclusive. The messages were hidden in attitudes, posture, or even an
occasional glance of approval. “For women, being in tune and aware of the wonder of life was part
of what Islam was. It was not the ritualistic things one reads about, or the official Islam. It was
about the sense you make of your life and how aware you were of other people and the stars and
rhythms of existence.”
Generations of intelligent, considerate women, observing the Koran, understand extremely
well its central themes and notions. Furthermore, looking around them, they also seemed to
understand what a mockery men had made of the faith. The men were following the ancient
medieval texts reverberated through intermediaries in mosques. The men who wrote the
foundational Islamic texts were living in societies filled with chauvinism, and they believed that
God had granted them complete domination of women. Thus, for a variety of reasons, women
acquired an ingrained low opinion of these intermediaries ultimately seeing no need for them in
the realm of spirit. While prayer in mosques is essential to the lives of most Islamic men, women
rarely even go to the mosques. “We grew up understanding that nothing came between you God.”
Nonetheless, in Ahmed’s view, the women of Islam remain as true to the spirit as any man.
Ahmed also makes an extremely interesting point about Western educational systems.
These systems unfortunately disseminate the patriarchal ideas of Islam, which obviously gives
more credibility to the ancient written word rather than the oral tradition of the living religion.
Although the ancient Islamic texts were written by powerful, privileged men in their societies, this
does not mean they have the ultimate right or the ability to forever describe what Islam is and what
the rules should be. Consequently, in her view, the ancient written word of Islam being
communicated to the world is that of a “bunch of dead misogynists.”
A Border Passage embraces numerous issues in a natural, reflective approach. It
encompasses social, political, and psychological concerns all brought together by one underlying
theme of self-identity. The author, Leila Ahmed, derived much of this self-identity as a result of
being raised in the “harem,” a world made up exclusively of women. She often refers to this
background with reverence and affection and also credits it as one of the most formative periods of
her life. Although ever evolving, her social, political and religious views, as well as her views on
life in general, initiated from this background and shaped her to become the person she is today.
This is basically another example of how women can come from a background of inferiority in
society and can become through their experiences strong viable people.