Sir: Richard West pokes fun, in his article 'No third world feminists' (7 August), at Western feminists with 'their crackpot ideologies' by drawing comparisons with the attitudes of women and towards women in predominantly Islamic societies, Egypt in particular. He cites a recent BBC documen- tary, a debunking of simplified Western no- tions of Islamic women, which I also liked for its freshness. Nevertheless, as a personal view, it was quite confused, perhaps because the presenter Dr Atif had not made up her own mind. Richard West selected from it what he wanted to find in it, to sup- port points about 'fundamentalist' women in the West.
Dr Atif's discussion revolved round the feeling that 'the return to Islam is a means for Muslims to reclaim a very greatly damaged sense of self-esteem and honour'. To a great extent she shares this feeling. The pleasant and articulate psychiatrist in- terviewed at length by her was by no means so clear about the connection between honour and the revival of Islamic values. Although he sensed a greater spirit of tolerance in Egypt, and observed that the effect on Egyptians of Saudi Arabia, Libya and Iran was salutary, he seemed unlikely to be impressed by the different, mostly very conservative women that Dr Atif chose to interview. Rather, he came across as a civilised and humane intellectual making a plea for broad-minded attitudes in his country.
Richard West approved of this Dr Shaalan but actually settled in his piece for a more romantic point of view. After quoting Dr Atif on Bedouin men, who see their women 'as flowers blazing in the desert', he gives his amused but apparently approving comment on a group of drab, traditionally dressed women who obviously take Dallas seriously, like millions throughout the world. My reaction, as I watched these young women answering questions, was a sense of their incom- prehension of difficult personal problems facing them all the time, underlying their reversion to traditional dress. It was hard to see this fairly typical group as having a superior sense of purpose in their lives, though they may have a certain serenity, which attracted Richard West.
It is fine to speak of the need for a return to Islamic basics, to a purer form of Islam in which women are well treated. But this programme, appealing as it was, did not convince me I had witnessed a small part of the process occurring.
49 Noel Road, London NI