Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women
by Geraldine Brooks
Genre: non-fiction, religion, Islam, feminism, history
As a prizewinning foreign correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, Geraldine Brooks spent six years covering the Middle East through wars, insurrections, and the volcanic upheaval of resurgent fundamentalism. Yet for her, headline events were only the backdrop to a less obvious but more enduring drama: the daily life of Muslim women. Nine Parts of Desire is the story of 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. Defying our stereotypes about the Muslim world, Brooks’ acute analysis of the world’s fastest growing religion deftly illustrates how Islam’s holiest texts have been misused to justify repression of women, and how male pride and power have warped the original message of a once liberating faith.
Truly fascinating book that delves into things and issues we only now hear more about when faced with these issues in Europe. The author has visited and lived in various Middle Eastern countries. The book finds a nice balance between criticism and understanding traditional female roles in Islam. The authentic Muslim female voices give us a far more sympathetic and grounded look at their human rights. I loved to read about their experiences living under Islamic rules, their very different positions in life and opportunities, and also the small ways they are claiming back public spaces and important public positions.
I found the parts about Iran very educational – some women were empowered by the Islamic revolution (often the ones coming from very poor and traditional families), while others lost a great portion of their rights, most often their voice (the educated, liberal). I also find it ironic that Khomeini himself was not a man endorsing having multiple wives but his Islamic revolution and the aftermath of a bloody war with Iraq created just that – men with multiple wives. Also, the legal ‘short-term’ marriage certificate in Shia Islam made it possible to marry women for a night as both parties freely set a time limit on their marriage. It is mind-boggling – a man or a woman might enter a stream of short-term marriages but that is not considered unmoral or a kind of legal prostitution. But god help you if you step outside the house without a chador veiling your head and body… The contradictions can drive one up the wall.
As in the case with any society, you’ve got good and bad people. There are many stories of happy, fulfilling marriages, and a truly marvellous family oriented set-up of society that gives fathers and mothers a lot of time to raise their children. The whole culture of interacting with family members, visits, outings, and other group activities paints a positive picture of what Islam can be, but then we get to see the dark side. Beatings, separation of divorced mothers from their children, inequality between wives and fears of the husband bringing home a second wife, the oppression of female relatives and invisibility of females in society, female genital mutilation, child marriage and risky pregnancies, poverty due to an over-abundance of children… The tales about violence in Muslim lands show us the bottom human nature can sink to, the dysfunction of society in general, and the ways people try to eke out a living.
Some use religion as an excuse to oppress people, especially in Saudi Arabia. The far-reaching influence of their oil money, the modern information technology, and the seductive ideology of their version of Islam has shaken the cultural and historical foundations of their Muslim neighbours. Their views about veiling, the appropriate roles and jobs for women, the gender segregation in workplaces and society – they all transform existing and distinct cultures into copies of Saudi Arabia. The beautiful traditional costumes, songs and dances, literature, and architecture are being erased. The rules that kill people are especially heinous and the entire system of Sharia law makes it patently clear women are second class citizens and subjects.
The truth is that Islam nowadays offers a far more damaging view of human and especially women’s rights than other religions. But where more freedom to interpret the Koran and rules is given to people, new ways to address the inequality are found. I loved the way Iranian women fought for their right to healthy living and sport, to have their own gyms, days at a park, to even start their own Muslim championships. They loved to interact with other women, to share their experiences and ideas, to promote equal rights. I found the protest of fathers that they should be allowed to cheer on their daughters and that they aren’t sexually aroused by children, a great example of a blowback to the strict gender segregation endorsed by some high-ranking fanatics. If Muslims are moral and clean people, they argue, why should their daughters hide their bodies (and especially their hair) from them? Good question. If you’re a moral person, not even a woman parading on the street naked can tempt you to commit a crime against her, no? Some men don’t even shake hands with women since this is considered forbidden, but they will gladly harass an unveiled woman on the street. A woman may not raise her voice when asking who’s at the door because her voice is considered sexual, enticing, and reserved only for the pleasure of her husband, but she must dress provocatively in the bedroom and be sexually available at all times. Contradictions abound and this book is great at listing them and the reactions of Muslim women to these rules.
The book also shows us Muslim men that are observant practitioners of their religion and egalitarian husbands who aren’t above helping their wives with domestic chores, but there are also lazy and abusive ones who see women as their maids, sexual slaves, objects of aggression, and convenient scapegoats for their failures in life. It takes all kinds but a religion that allows beating ones wife does not help keep them in check. Add a culture that prohibits others from interfering with what goes on behind closed doors and this can turn into a disaster. Honour killings and acid attacks are something unthinkable to our minds, but the immigration of people with culturally entrenched views on female sexuality and rights has made such depraved acts an urgent western problem as well. We have to step up to protect the victims but also address the underlying problem itself – educate both adults and children that such actions are wrong and prosecuted by law. Secular countries, far from perfect themselves, are nowadays more open and accepting of religions but they also have a duty to keep religious excesses in check. And support of Muslim women striving for change in their lands is a powerful tool in their struggles.
Clear breaking down of holy scripts of Islam – Koran, Hadith – shows the historical background of the rules governing women in Islam. The explanations of the roles women had in the early days of Islam paint a very rich picture and are highly educational for the situation nowadays. The influences of various readings, and the creation of new rules in the past century with the rise of Wahhabism or Salafism, negate the positive aspects of the faith for the lives of Arab women and make it clear we are facing new problems. I’m just sad that the revolutionary and emancipator elements within Islam are suppressed and denied by bigots and terrorists. Every religion has to adapt to the changing cultural mores, new understanding of justice, morality – Islam can learn from the West and still keep their philosophy and culture. They just need to support and endorse the positive elements inside the religion and let women create a new, more egalitarian Islam. But development of religions also incorporates regressive tendencies – this is made clear throughout this book with painful examples. Women may have been given “nine parts of desire”, but it is made clear the men received the tenth, largest and most uncontrollable one.