Fe-Mail Fail: Amy Mowafi’s Attempt to be Carrie Bradshaw
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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 is similar to life anywhere else. She even explicitly makes references to imitating Bradshaw in her writing, particularly in reflecting upon her love life.
While the book has some positive aspects, I am critical of this obsession with wanting to create a voice akin to Bradshaw's 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 Mowafi's voice 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.
A review in the Los Angeles Times hails Mowafi as the “Muslim Carrie Bradshaw,” claiming that her book is a reflection of the conflict between East and West, and modernity and traditional culture, thus reinforcing my favorite Orientalist binaries. In an article titled, “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.