I wanted to read this book years ago, when I first heard of it, but I had a hold on it at the library for ages and then I think they lost their copy or something, and I forgot about it. Since writing this non-fiction book, journalist Geraldine Brooks has reinvented herself as a novelist,and I’m a huge fan of her fiction. But only when I noticed the other day that my library had Nine Parts of Desire available for loan as an e-book did I remember that I’d intended to read it. In the era of Trump’s “Muslim-ban-not-a-ban” and ISIS terrorism, understanding the role of women in Islam seems more important than ever.
I was really enjoying this book and felt I was learning a lot from it when a friend on Facebook — someone who, though not Muslim herself, has a great deal of academic knowledge and personal experience about Muslim culture in the Middle East — told me I should throw out the book, that it was considered very biased against Islam and not well-regarded by those who are knowledgeable in Middle Eastern studies. I didn’t, of course, throw out the book (how would you throw out a library e-book anyway?), and I did continue reading and enjoying it, but I proceeded with more caution.
It’s important, I think, to remember that this book is not a scholarly or exhaustive study of women’s roles in Islam. Rather, it’s a cross between memoir and journalism. The Australian-born Brooks, who was raised Catholic and converted to Judaism when she married a Jewish American, was working as a journalist in Egypt in the late 1980s when she was shocked to see her co-worker, a very Westernized, secular young Egyptian woman, show up to work one day fully veiled. Her co-worker’s conversion to a fundamentalist form of Islam that required her to cover up in public and seek an arranged marriage with an equally fundamentalist man (which does not seem to work out very well, but frustratingly, Brooks never tells us the end of this story), drove Brooks’s curiosity. She wanted to know what would make a modern woman step back into what appeared to be a regressive, ancient culture.
This curiosity fuels Brooks’s investigations, both into the history of Islam and into the lives of dozens of women she interviewed in Egypt, Iran, Saudia Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Palestine, and Eritrea. She talks to women about wearing the veil, about marriage and sexuality, about sports, about politics, about belly dancing. She interviews Jordan’s Queen Noor and the Ayatollah Khomeini’s daughter as well as many ordinary women from all walks of life. The experiences of the women she interviews are extremely diverse, but she does mainly focus on women who, either by choice or by the edict of their government, wear the veil (often the full chador) and follow a fairly strict fundamentalist form of Islam. Some of the women she spoke to were very happy with a fundamentalist life; others actively rebelled against it.
I didn’t find Brooks’s book to be anti-Muslim; she is often at pains to go back to the original texts — the Quran, hadith, and legends of the Prophet and his wives — to show how today’s Islamic fundamentalists interpret women’s roles in far harsher ways than the texts prescribe. She also makes it clear there are Islamic cultures and Muslim women who aren’t bound by such narrow literalism, and that many of the practices she condemns — female genital mutilation, forced marriages (including child marriage) and honour killings — are more cultural than religious in nature and are practiced by non-Muslims in similar cultures also. However, her disapproval and astonishment that women could choose, support, and defend lifestyles that restrict their freedom in so many ways definitely comes through, even when interviewing women she clearly likes and admires.
This book was published in 1995 – before 9/11; before the second Iraq war; before ISIS. Misconceptions about Islam and anti-Muslim prejudice are more extreme here than they were 22 years ago when the book came out, and I can see how my more knowledgeable friend’s frustration with Brooks’s work might partly stem from concerns that reading this book might make readers more likely to write off Islam as a backward, repressive religion. I didn’t come away feeling that, but I did feel, as Brooks clearly does, how incomprehensible it is for us Western feminists that some women choose a form of their religion that seems to repressive to us. Even more, I felt that we have to champion the rights of those women who did not choose this form of Islam but have had it forced upon them by religious authorities, family, or government — young girls who do not want to be married off to strangers or have their genitals mutilated; young women who want the freedom to pursue whatever careers they desire or choose their own life partners. Whether these abuses of women’s rights are carried out in the name of Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, or native/pagan religions in any part of the world, they are to be resisted and spoken out against.
This was the message I took away from Nine Parts of Desire, and it didn’t decrease my respect for Muslims or my desire to speak out for their rights to practice their religion freely, even while recognizing that some extreme expressions of that religion are not compatible with the values of our society (but the same could be said of many religions, including Christianity). I found Geraldine Brooks’s reflections, as an outsider in Middle Eastern culture, intriguing and insightful, but I will also take my friend’s recommendation and seek out books that might provide a more research-based and well-rounded view of Islamic women’s lives.