Fe-Mail Fail: Amy Mowafi’s Attempt to be Carrie Bradshaw

The desire to crown an intelligent, sexy-yet-fashionable lady as the Carrie Bradshaw of the Middle East has been a fierce competition, because, you know, there is nothing more mysterious than the lack of sex and dating in the Middle East.

With the help of a string of labels, high society, and awkward adventures in romance, Amy Mowafi makes a convincing effort to win the Bradshaw title with her novel “Fe-mail: The Trials and Tribulations of being a Good Egyptian Girl.”

Mowafi tries to satirize the unfair standards placed upon young Egyptian women, as well as the obsession with labels and status in the modern Arabian society. She speaks about transitioning into a society that is not as tribal or monolithic as some may believe (she was raised in the United Kingdom and moved to Cairo in 2002).

What works about Mowafi’s approach is that she writes in an accessible and humorous voice while writing about heavy topics, such as the importance placed on virginity and the inequalities that young Arab women may face. She speaks a great deal about what she calls “good girl syndrome,” which entails the expectation that young women always be pure within the public sphere, while it’s accepted that young men have a wild life before marriage. Mowafi succeeds in taking something that seems heavy and scary and making light of it, which makes it easier to discuss.

In her quest to run in the circles of high society, Mowafi paints an image of young women that would not be very different than the life of women in the same position in another part of the world. The adventures she writes about in Cairo—a life of shopping, status, and parties—is akin to tales about young professional women in New York City.

Mowafi does well in showing that the vapid and superficial exploits of high society women transcend culture. She writes about parties and dancing in an attempt to show that life in Cairo was similar to life anywhere else. She even explicitly makes references to imitating Bradshaw in her writing, particularly in reflecting upon her love life.

While there were some positive aspects of the book, I am critical of this obsession with wanting to create a voice akin to that of Bradshaw within the Arab world. Mowafi’s book is a collection of her columns published in the magazine Engima—much like Sex and the City, which was a compilation of Candace Bushnell’s columns in the New York Observer. Mowafi’s book blatantly aims to be the Middle East’s answer to Carrie Bradshaw by poking fun at some of the gender-based double standards and superficiality of Egyptian high society. She describes her column as a version of Sex and the City “without sex or Manolo Blahniks.”

I argue that this voice that Mowafi has is not the voice of the Middle East, but rather the voice of privilege, thus the exact same voice represented in Sex and the City. The only thing that has changed is the city.

In a review in the Los Angeles Times, Mowafi is hailed as the “Muslim Carrie Bradshaw,” and the review claims that her book is a reflection of the conflict between East and West, and modernity and a traditional culture, thus reinforcing my favorite Orientalist binaries. In an article entitled, “Arab Women Stretch Limits,” Mowafi is celebrated as someone who pushes the boundaries by speaking about the unspeakable in the Middle East: the love lives of spoiled young women. The article is used as an opportunity to bring up the veil, which Mowafi never actually mentions. However, the review positions Mowafi (the cosmpolitan and sexy Middle Eastern voice) against the repressed and taboo voice of the veiled woman.

Though the Los Angeles Times celebrates Mowafi as provocative, she touches on important issues without taking the opportunity to provoke a discussion. I was a bit torn—on one hand, as I mentioned before, I liked that she introduced some of the conflicts that I know many young Middle Eastern women have in a non-threatening manner. On the other, I felt that this was overpowered by her devotion to trying to be the Middle Eastern version of Bradshaw, rather than being faithful to her own voice.

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  • http://burdenedmary.blogspot.com Khadeja

    I had to admit that I am a little fed up of the Western media’s obsession with Middle Eastern sex lives. I get it – women in the Middle East have sex too. I agree with the author of this article in the sense that very difficult topics dealt with humourously can be eye-opening for readers while being entertaining and informative, and I also agree with the idea that this kind of book is about the “elite.” The women written about, these mysterious, sexy Middle Eastern women with money and prestige do NOT represent the Middle Eastern woman in general. The image being portrayed here is deceptive.

  • http://dgreymatter.wordpress.com Alicia

    Ha! I like the way one of half the “she-devil” has curly hair. I wonder what that suggest about curly-haired types like myself!

    I actually find this book interesting in its mimicry of Sex and the City, but “without the sex and Manolo Blahnik”. I do wonder though: without the sex and Manolo Blahnik, what would one have left in this SATC copycat without its fundamental elements? Not a carbon copy of Carrie Bradshaw and her life that’s for sure, but a lifestyle far removed from the reality of many women in Egypt I imagine.

    “I argue that this voice that Mowafi has is not the voice of the Middle East, but rather the voice of privilege, thus the exact same voice represented in Sex and the City. The only thing that has changed is the city.”

    It’s kind of obvious she does not represent the voice of the Middle East, but then again, very few people can claim that title. As for the voice of privilege, yes. But many men in the Middle East have privilege, but of a different kind. I would imagine Mowafi *does* represent a particular voice in the Middle East, one that reflect her background, upbringing, and multiple privileges.

  • Fatima Seedat

    mowafi’s work is refreshing in its perspective on one egyptian woman’s reality. it is fun reading in itself and yes, privileged and elitist. the merit of that lies in the insight it offers into the aspirations of the egyptian elite, as these contrast to the austerity of the egyptian street and further contrast to the orientalist-inspired western writings on middle eastern elites/women etc.
    however, the irony of characterising mowafi as “the carrie bradshaw of the middle east” is that cb is a fictional character! unless mowafi believes that western fiction equates to mid-east realities, the designation is not exactly ennobling of her cause. if anything, to assume that the designation is a positive one is to accept that mid-east elites aspire to live out the fictions of the west …

  • Sara

    @Alicia:I think that is a fair point. my problem isn’t really that her voice is represented, but that it is being celebrated as this brave and marginalized voice. The review I read in the LA Times treated her like this refreshing and controversial figure…in some sense, she is refreshing, because there were quite a few things that she spoke about that I’d never heard spoken about in public before. However, it was a silly and fun book, that was hardly a dramatic step forward or anything of that nature.

    this book really left me confused. I wanted to like it. but the voice of the narrator was completed shafted by her attempts to sound like CB, that I didn’t feel like she was true to her own voice.

  • http://culturalfascinations.blogspot.com/ SakuraPassion

    I certainly don’t see the need to create a new Carrie Bradshaw. Or at least a Middle East version of her. I agree with Khadija, I mean, why is there a need for people in the West to be so preoccupied with the sex lives of people in the Middle East. However, judging from your review it sounds like it offers some much needed social commentary.

  • http://www.marwaelnaggar.com Marwa

    It’s interesting that I just read Marwa Rakha’s own book The Poison Tree, more or less about the same topics. I haven’t read Fe-mail, but from your article, I would guess that Rakha did a more serious job of actually discussing the issues. The problem is that both these books seem to be collections of their authors’ articles in magazines, and therefore lack the depth and structure that a well-written book would have. To take the discussion of the topics further, I would love to see them develop their ideas into discussions that are — though not necessarily humor-free — more in-depth. I’d also like to see them publish in Arabic, so that the discussion can be directed internally, where these double-standards and problems they raise exist, rather than externally.

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  • Dina

    I am very intrigued some women start addressing the massive double standards between young Arab men and women. Not that I personally think a wild love life, or sex life, is liberating per se; I think it is a problem when people are not free to make their decisions without massive societal pressure though. And I am very, very fed up with many male Arab youth’s “vulgarity” in their dealing with sexuality, with seeking sexual experience and with talking about it, to be exact.

    I am fine with strict standards – I am however not fine with men and women being on complete polar opposites: Women facing much pressure to remain “pure” (I personally believe a love relationship can be something “pure”, whether married or not). Men being very “out” there with relationships I personally consider extremely impure, vulgar, degrading to their partner and ultimately themselves.

    I am not 100% happy with that Carrie Bradshaw theme. I find her to be a less than liberating role model for Western women for many reasons, not just moral concerns about her sex life, but Western feminist positions. She is a woman who very heavily rides the stereotypically feminine wave, with all that concern about makeup, SHOES, clothes, and little to no understanding or interest for culture, arts, politics (in one episode she says she never voted), economics.. She is a very bad role model, and in my opinion one the “traditionally sweet Arab kitten” shares some bad traits with (precisely, the “politics is nothing for limited female minds” cr**).

    So, yeah. Interesting this topic is out there. I think Arab societies ought to start discussing how they oddly are very tolerant of male pre-marriage promiscuity, when it clearly violates both broader cultural and religious rules on sexual conduct. Not entirely happy with this disturbing Bradshaw iconization :)