Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women is the story of Brook's intrepid journey toward an understanding of the women behind the veils, and of the often contradictory political, religious, and cultural forces that shape their lives. In fundamentalist Iran, Brooks finagles an invitation to tea with the ayatollah's widow - and discovers that Mrs. Khomeini dyes her hair. In Saudi Arabia, she eludes the severe segregation of the sexes and attends a bacchanal, laying bare the hypocrisy of this austere, male-dominated society. In war-torn Ethiopia, she watches as a female gynecologist repairs women who have undergone genital mutilation justified by a distorted interpretation of Islam. In villages and capitals throughout the Middle East, she finds that a feminism of sorts has flowered under the forbidding shroud of the chador as she makes other startling discoveries that defy our stereotypes about the Muslim world. Nine Parts of Desire is much more than a captivating work of firsthand reportage; it is also an acute analysis of the world's fastest-growing religion, deftly illustrating how Islam's holiest texts have been misused to justify the repression of women. It was, after all, the Shiite leader Ali who proclaimed that "God created sexual desire in ten parts, then gave nine parts to women."
The subject matter (‘the hidden world of Islamic women’) is perhaps bound to create controversy, and reviewers appear to differ in their opinions of the objectivity and accuracy of the book’s content.
On the plus side, I felt that it opened my eyes further to the variety and diversity of experiences of Muslim women. I'm glad I read the book, and I acknowledge that it would be difficult if not impossible to cover this material in an entirely impartial and objective fashion.
My preference would have been for more about the experiences, opinions and world views of the women Brooks was interviewing, and less of her own opinions, judgements and occasional editorialising about what she saw and experienced - although this is a personal preference and not necessarily a criticism of the book.
On the negative side, I found the tone a little harsh (bordering on snarky at times: “I couldn’t check myself into a Saudi hotel room in the 1990s because thirteen hundred years earlier a Meccan named Muhammad had trouble with his wives”, p. 3), and felt there were some biases in terms of the content.
Overall, I'm glad I read this, but I would want to temper some of its conclusions with further reading/ research.
In the end, what [progressive Muslim scholars] are proposing is as artificial an exercise as that proposed by the Marxists who used to argue that socialism in its pure form should not be maligned and rejected because of the deficiencies of "actually existing socialism." At some point every religion, especially one that purports to encompass a complete way of life and system of government, has to be called to account for the kind of life it offers the people in the lands where it predominates.
It becomes insufficient to look at Islam on paper, or Islam in history, and dwell on the inarguable improvements it brought to women’s lives in the seventh century. Today, the much more urgent and relevant task is to examine the way the faith has proved such fertile ground for almost every antiwomen custom it encountered in its great march out of Arabia. When it found veils and seclusion in Persia, it absorbed them; when it found genital mutilations in Egypt, it absorbed them; when it found societies in which women had never had a voice in public affairs, its own traditions of lively women’s participation withered.
Once I began working on this book, I looked everywhere for examples of women trying to reclaim Islam’s positive messages, trying to carry forward into the twentieth century the reformist zeal with which Muhammad had remade the lives of many women in the first Muslim community at Medina. It turned out to be a frustrating search. In most places the direction of the debate seemed to be exactly the reverse. Palestinian, Egyptian, Algerian and Afghani women were seeing a curtain come down on decades of women’s liberation as Islamic leaders in their countries turned to the most exclusionary and inequitable interpretations. For those women who struggled against the tide, the results were a discouraging trio of marginalization, harassment and exile.
Read this book in conjunction with Haideh Moghissi’s Feminism and Islamic Fundamentalism: The Limits of Postmodern Analysis for a powerful condemnation of religious, political and academic myopia.
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!
In the conclusion, Brooks writes what I find to be a fitting summary of the book: "Once I began working on this book, I looked everywhere for examples of women trying to reclaim Islam's positive messages, trying to carry forward into the twentieth century the reformist zeal with which Muhammad had remade [note of the reviewer: for the better] the lives of many women (...) in the first Muslim community at Medina. It turned out to be a frustrating search. In most places the direction of the debate seemed to be exactly the reverse. Palestinian, Egyptian, Algerian and Afghani women were seeing a curtain come down on decades of women's liberation as Islamic leaders in their countries turned to the most exclusionary and inequitable interpretations. For those women who struggled against the tide, the results were a discouraging trio of marginalization, harassment and exile." (p. 232 of the recent edition with an afterword, in paperback - can't find a trace of the year which is bizarre).
Fifteen years after the book was first published, I gather no sign that the situation has improved, and am afraid that if it's out of date, it's not in the way I would have liked it to be.
I enjoyed her writing, which I think on the whole was careful considering the difficulty of addressing such a deeply angering topic. I think she made wise choices in both researching and narrating the book. She must have often felt like she was walking a very thin line when reporting information from her sources, and considering the difficulties of the task I think it is very well done.
The only criticism I would make of the book is the lack of clarification about the scope from the beginning. I can now see that she wrote primarily about Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, countries where she conducted the research and experienced womanhood herself. These are important countries, but by no means the only ones in the Muslim world, or even the more narrowly defined "Islamic" world. This is fine - one could not write a first-person book about the entire Muslim world - but I think that the implications of this limited scope should have been discussed in the introduction.
I am perhaps a little disappointed at the fact that Brooks offers a rich description, some analysis, and little interpretation of the situation, but this would be an unfair criticism. Brooks is a journalist, not a scholar, and as noted above her relationship with her sources would have made such writing very difficult. However, I hope that readers who might be wondering why women remain perceived as property rather than persons in many cultures and political regimes (not only those she describes), and why some consider that women should be so tightly controlled, will have to seek other books.
The book also offers a good opportunity to think about moral relativism: what should I acknowledge as a cultural difference to be respected, and what do I consider unacceptable? Despite being, to a large extent, a very open-minded relativist, I maintain that human life and integrity is to be respected, and that no person (male, female, or somewhere in between) can be treated as another one's property. Thus I conclude that my anger at many of the situations reported by Brooks - and at countless others I am aware of in my own country and elsewhere - is legitimate. I only wish I had a hint or two about what to do now.
But it's not as simple as that. The further Brooks delves into the world of Islam and where women fit in, the more stereotypes are defied. There are the women who do what they can for women's rights, like Jordan's Queen Noor, but there are also those who welcome opression, like Brooks' Egyptian assistant, who, after many years of concerning herself with fashion and her career, makes the decision to veil before her marriage, and grows more and more devout.
This book was certainly eye-opening ( it desperately needs an afterword regarding the Middle East today, given all that has happened in the last ten years), and introduced me to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, and the way texts like the Koran have been misued to set women's rights back centuries.
An illuminating read, and definitely recommend for anyone who would like a greater understanding of the role women play in a part of the world that is so frequently misrepresented in order to create a culture of fear and paranoia.
It seems she comes to the conclusion that much of the matter has to do with the actual practice of Islam which has, over time, absorbed from cultures it encountered such practices as veiling and seclusion, genital mutilation, and the absence of women from public affairs.
She therefore often uses the terms extremism and fundamentalism to imply there is a purer Islam that would not support this sort of behaviour. And yet she notes how few examples of real equality or freedom there are for women in Islamic cultures, and how women seeking greater freedoms must walk a very dangerous and difficult line while many women become promoters of their own restrictions. Brooks knows that the dilemmas of Koranic authorisations of wife beating and apostate executions which vie with the prophet's own great admiration for women, the traditions of their military involvement, and such surprises as Khomeini's happy home life are not easily resolved.
Speaking as a westerner, she knows that women's rights are not to be determined by cultural or local stances but are human and universal, yet she also sees that western leadership often remains ignorant of the difficulties for Islamic women within their borders and does not sufficiently protect them from the horrors of honour killing or clitoridectomy.
One over-riding impression remains with me - that the company of so many women she has encountered in the course of her travels and research has enriched her personally. In the midst of her discoveries and conclusions, her frustrations and confusions, the abiding and fundamental story is a human one, and any way forward is along this path.
I learned a great deal from this book, about Islam, the Middle East and its history, and the state of women in that part of the world. I have often said that I think of Islam as "younger" religion that is about where Christianity was in the Middle Ages. Certainly, Christianity could be accused of many of the injustices against women that are documented in this book as well as the intolerance of other faiths, but I like to think most Christians have progressed past some of that. It is easy for Westerners to say that Muslim culture is backward and flawed, but I think it's dangerous to think we are very much better; Islam has some appealing characteristics and some progressive followers.
Each section in this book addresses a different aspect of women's lives, from marriage and family to education, work, the arts, and sports. Brooks tells the stories of women from countries throughout the Middle East and also Africa and Asia. I enjoyed "meeting" the various women in this book and seeing the variety in their experiences of Islam.
I also learned more about the controversial (at least in my part of the world) faith of Islam. There are many parallels between Islam and Christianity, including both having a charismatic founder and each having both a sacred "source" text and supplemental interpretive texts (the Koran and hadith for Islam, the Gospels and Paul for Christianity). Some of the differences that I find pivotal are the fact that Muhammad was a warrior while Jesus was decidedly not, and that Muhammad left a record of his behavior as a husband and father while we have no such record related to Jesus (though I have often wished we Christians did have his example to follow in those areas).
This book increased my already high regard for Geraldine Brooks, who is a wonderful writer and inquisitive and daring reporter. While it is clear that she doesn't agree with all of the practice of Islam, she generally maintains an objectivity about her subject and manages to find the beauty and positive features of her subject as well.
I highly recommend this book!
A very worthwhile book that takes a deep and personal look at the hidden and often surprising world of Islamic women from different countries and regimes. The parts examining the basis of some of the rules and regulations in everyday life when the Koran and Hadiths were put together are very interesting. But however valuable it is as a historical document, it has become just that, in my opinion, as it was published in 1995 and worked very much in terms of a coverage of current issues, so it is rather outdated now. A shame, as a lot of effort clearly went into it. One can't help but wonder what became of the women featured in this book.