Saturday, February 6, 2010
Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women by Geraldine Brooks is the story of the author's journey through the Middle East as a foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal and her examination of Middle Eastern women and the cultural, religious and political influences which shape their lives. In each Middle Eastern country, she befriends and interviews women who tell their stories and describe their experiences living under the laws of their countries and within the requirements of their religion (often one and the same).
Brooks tells the story of a variety of women - poor and uneducated, highly educated, western converts to Islam, royalty, political figures and from a variety of Middle Eastern countries. I found the story of Asya, a recent graduate of Gaza University particularly compelling. Asya, a 29 year old unmarried woman who worked as journalist's assistant and breadwinner for her family, also adhered strictly to the laws of her religion and maintained a life segregated from men and shrouded in hijab. She struggled to find a husband (ok - I can relate to that!) who she could dialogue with and who, while respecting the requirements of their Islamic religion, would also respect her intellect and education. As much as I support and believe in the power of education to overcome injustices and ignorance, it seems almost unfair to educate women in countries where they are often restricted from using that education and many times not respected for their intellect. The author provides an update on Asya (and some of the other women) in the afterword to the book which appears on her website.
I thought this book was very well done and it certainly educated me on the variety of practices within Muslim countries and their impact on its women. Brooks expertly weaved excerpts from te Koran throughout the book and tried to dispute how some fundamentalists had misused the holy text to justify severe restrictions on women. She explores the teaching of Mohammed in an effort to distinguish between his teachings, generally allowing much more equality for women, and those of the more conservative political powers within many Middle Eastern countries. I appreciated the references to the Koran as is helped to substantiate the author's position that many of the oppressive practices enforced in these countries are, in fact, not mandated by the Koran. In addition, it emphasizes that the religion of Islam itself is not to blame for the violation of women's rights and other extremist views but rather the politicization of Islamic religion which has fueled fundamentalist extremism.
This book was written in 1995, and while reading it, I wondered how relevant its explanations of cultural and political influences still were 15 years later. I came the conclusion that in many cases things have likely gotten worse for women in these countries with the move towards a more conservative states which required strict adherence to Islamic law. Brooks seems to have done an excellent job of predicting to spread of fundamentalism throughout the Middle East. The afterword that appears on her website is written in following the terrorist attacks on 2001 - after reading this book, I found her perspective on this event interesting.
If you are looking for an introduction to the Muslim religion as it is practiced throughout the Middle East and its impact on women and their rights within those countries, I would recommend this book. It reads like a memoir, not a textbook, and artfully weaves stories of women with explanations of the Koran and the political forces at play within the Middle East. Excellent!
This book was my selection for January's theme of religious freedom for the Social Justice Challenge ; it also applies for the World Religion Challenge and for the "win win" category of the TwentyTen Challenge