In A Border Passage,Leila Ahmed searches for the meaning of her identity as a woman, an Arab, and an Egyptian, as well as an understanding of how being in those categories shapes her place in the world. As a child, she moves unthinkingly between the imaginative realm of her home, the women’s community at her grandmother’s house, and an English school in which Western ideas are revered over all others, but she ultimately learns that negotiating such cultural and social borders has serious consequences. Her playmates hail from many parts of the world and from many different faiths, and Ahmed understands the implications of those cultural and religious differences only after experiencing the turmoil of her country’s quest for independence and leaving Egypt to explore the larger world. While at Cambridge, Ahmed struggles to understand how her intelligent classmates can practice such a genteel form of racism, lumping together all students from the third world under the banner of “black.” Ahmed’s investigation of such categories becomes central to her academic pursuits.
Through her highly personal writing, Ahmed makes many connections between her own experiences and politics, showing how personal decisions and identities resonate in the larger world. Ahmed locates her political awakening in her childhood, when she first discovered the contrast between men’s and women’s ways of knowing and discussing Islam in her grandmother’s living room. This discovery colors her further investigations into religious, race, and gender studies, as Ahmed works to unravel the diverse strands of her upbringing. In her memoir, Ahmed reveals what it means to move across the world’s increasingly fluid borders, and she offers a view of history that is more powerful because it is so personal. Her identity is shaped by a feeling of cultural displacement as an Egyptian student in an English school in Cairo, and then as a minority student at Cambridge, and Ahmed applies keen insight to the question of what it means to be an Arab woman in the modern world. As an adult, Ahmed is able to embrace varying labels—Muslim feminist, intellectual, Egyptian, Arab—while bringing a nuanced understanding of how those labels both limit and define those who adopt them.