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Nine Parts of Desire by Geraldine Brooks

January 30, 2010
Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women by Geraldine Brooks
published by Doubleday December 1, 1994

I chose this book for this month’s Social Justice Challenge topic, Religious Freedom, after seeing it at Lakeside Musing.

Geraldine Brooks spent six years in the Middle East as a foreign correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. As she traveled around the region, she talked to Muslim women about their lives, their struggles, and their faith. From the first page, I found it fascinating.

Brooks spent a great deal of time in Iran, which has seen a resurgence of Fundamentalism since 1979, when supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew the Shah’s oppressive, secular government and seized control of the country. She explored Palestinian culture. She went to Jordan, where she chronicled the life and achievements of Queen Noor. She delved into life in Egypt. She studied life in Saudi Arabia, where women are forbidden to drive and have no role in public life, and United Arab Emirates, where women serve in the military. She also touched on Lebanon, Iraq, and other places.

She studied the varied, complex roles of women throughout the Islamic Middle East. She discussed hijab (traditional Muslim dress), marriage, including child marriage and polygamy, “honor killings” of women suspected of being unchaste, the role of women in politics and in the workforce, and other topics.

She also studied the history of the Prophet Mohammad, including God’s revelations to him, his teachings, and his relationships with his many wives. She analyzed the way his teachings are reflected in — or have been distorted to justify — treatment of women.

Brooks is Australian, raised Catholic and a convert to Judaism. Her values are thoroughly Western, and she was shocked by the widespread oppression of women she saw. Nevertheless, although I have little knowledge of Islamic culture to draw on, I found her discussion to be respectful and balanced, trying to understand the faith and lives of Muslim women within the context of their own cultures.

I certainly found her work to be more balanced and complex than other things I have read or heard. For example, after the revolution in Iran, Fundamentalist Muslims came out of hiding, establishing single-sex schools and workplaces designed to adhere to strict Islamic principles. Women were losing freedom at an alarming rate, facing violence and repression from their new government. They were discouraged from leaving their homes, severely punished for small transgressions in the strict dress code, and forbidden to travel without the permission of a male relative. For more insight into this, I recommend Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi.

Yet ironically, women were also gaining freedom. Fundamentalist families who had never let their daughters leave the house began allowing them to attend school, since single sex, religious education was available, and some women were afforded the opportunity to leave their homes for the first time. Now in spite of oppressive rules they face, Iranian women have a vital role in public life.

I gleaned a wealth of knowledge from this book, and I felt I gained some insight into religious freedom and Fundamentalist Islam — from both angles. As frightening as a Fundamentalist Theocracy is, I was also saddened by the way Fundamentalist Muslims were repressed and kept in hiding under the Shah’s regime. Restricting religious freedom is a double edged sword, and those who are oppressed are predisposed to become oppressors.

One thing Brooks didn’t explore, perhaps because it was simply beyond the scope of her book, was the role the other major monotheistic religions — Christianity and Judiasm — play in the lives of women. Christian and Jewish Fundamentalism also places strict rules of females. Exploring this might put her study of women and Fundamentalist Islam in perspective.

Another drawback, though this isn’t a criticism of the book, is that all the works I’ve read on Islam, including Nine Parts of Desire and A History of God by Karen Armstrong have been written by Westerners. Even Reading Lolita in Tehran, which I mentioned earlier, is written largely from a Western perspective. Although she is Iranian, Azar Nafisi was raised in a family that had been heavily influenced by Western thought and has lived in the United States for many years. It would be interesting to look at these issues through the eyes of faithful Muslim women, many of whom have embraced a strictly observant religious life by choice. Geraldine Brooks addressed this by talking to religious Muslim women, including some American converts, but it still left me with questions.

I believe this book is unique, and it combines the author’s work as an experienced journalist with the gorgeous writing that shines in her novels, including March and Year of Wonders. Any reader interested in this subject will find it thought provoking and richly rewarding.

Read More Reviews:
Islam for Today
Jannah.org Islam Peace
Invitation to Truth: Islam Explained
Daniel Pipes
Hey Lady! Watcha Readin’?
Did I Miss Yours???

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