Sunday, January 27, 2008

nine parts of desire

This is the hidden world of Islamic women as seen through the eyes of a secular feminist westerner. Geraldine Brooks, originally from Australia, worked as a middle east correspondent for the Wall Street Journal from 1987 to 1993. The book was published in 1995.
She writes of her own experiences as a "Jewish" woman living amongst Muslims. (She converted to Judaism when she married a Jewish man. But she does not strike me as a religious person.) She writes of her impressions of the Muslim women she meets as well as the violence and repression they experience. The best thing about the book is that she is able to write about women in many different Muslim countries: Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Saudi, Palestine, Jordan, and Ethiopia. I found the author's impressions of the Ayatollah Khomeini's widow, Khadija, and her daughter, Zahra, very interesting. She also meets several times with Queen Noor of Jordan. It was fascinating to read about these prominent Muslim women and the roles they play in their society. Almost equally interesting were the author's stories of women she knew as friends or acquaintances, like her assistant in Cairo, a highly-educated member of Cairo's upper crust, who becomes a Muslim fundamentalist.
There were some not-so-interesting parts. I was bored with the pathetic story of the poor woman in a polygamist marriage. Surely Muslim people do not have the market cornered on unhappy marriages. Brooks also puts before us the overworked Saudi woman who works a full-time day job and then goes home to hours of backbreaking housework to serve her husband, brother-in-law, and whatever other man happens by. Brooks points out that the men do not help around the house. I think there are probably a few Christian, Jewish, Hindi, Buddist, and possibly Wiccan women who could identify with this Muslim sister.
Brooks sometimes strikes me as surprisingly naive for a hard-nosed member of the press.
The back of the book blurb says this book is "Brooks' 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." Yes, Brooks does a first-rate job of showing the contradictions. However, I don't think the aim of this book is understanding. Brooks' agenda is to reveal the Muslim faith as a foe of women's rights. She also calls for action: "If some ninety million little boys were having their penises amputated, would the world have acted to prevent it by now? You bet." Hmm. Nothing is ever that simple. Welcome to the unfair world.
I don't mean to sound callous. I'm not. I just don't see how the western world can force millions of Muslim men to treat their women right. For the past week I've been thinking a lot about the violence done to Muslim women and the injustices they suffer. It is awful. It is sickening and barbaric. It makes me cry. J and I have talked several times about it this past week, wondering why it happens. Islam did bring unprecedented freedom to women of the 7th century. Why not now?

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