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Geraldine Brooks: "Nine Parts of Desire" (Review)

Early Islam Was Never Like This

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As in many religions or ideologies that stray from their founders’ intent, Islam’s establishment has had a lot to do with perpetuating repressive and barbaric practices that have nothing to do with Koranic teachings. “Islam did not have to mean oppression of women. So why were so many women oppressed?” It is the question Geraldine Brooks wants to answer in her fascinating first book, “Nine Paris of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women.” (Brooks has written three books since, including two novels.)

"There Is No Fun in Islam"

Ayatollah Khomeini had made it clear in one of his earliest radio sermons in Iran: ‘There is no fun in Islam.” Least of all for women. Some of the unfun practices are well known, like the ban on women drivers in Saudi Arabia, genital mutilation in North Africa, the utter segregation of women from men in public places, the odd stoning or beheading. Some practices are less known, like “honor killings” (the murder of a woman by a kin should she dishonor the family by having pre-marital sex or committing adultery) or in Algeria the occasional gunning down of women who don’t wear “Islamically correct outfits.”

As in many religions or ideologies that stray from their founders’ intent, Islam’s establishment has had a lot to do with perpetuating repressive and barbaric practices that have nothing to do with Koranic teachings. “Islam did not have to mean oppression of women. So why were so many women oppressed?” It is the question Geraldine Brooks wants to answer in her fascinating first book, “Nine Paris of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women.” (Brooks has written three books since, including two novels.)

Groundbreaking Reportage

As reportage goes, there has been nothing finer on the subject from a western writer (Brooks is Australian). Morocco’s Fatima Mernissi and Egypt’s Nawal Sadawi, the latter briefly exiled to North Carolina when there was a price on her head, have done similar and much deeper work, but their renown doesn’t extend beyond the university circuit. Brooks, who spent five years as correspondent to the Middle East for the Wall Street Journal, is now as much a bridge to their ideas as an original traveler, for our sake, into a world we tend to look at too much from above, or from behind a scope.

She looks at it from the heart, with something like loving dismay, telling her story in few words that say plenty, mixing historical perspective with her distinctive brand of observant journalism. Always, the journey is made vivid by the many real voices Brooks brings to her narrative — not the “Orientalist” or “Arabist” experts who manufacture opinions on their laptops, but wives or daughters of kings or Ayatollahs or “terrorists,” mothers of students and stone-throwers, converts, office assistants, athletes, professors, belly-dancers.

What Would Muhammad Do?

Whether examining the idea behind the wearing of the veil, of genital mutilation, of women’s humiliatingly limited rights within marriage or their limited if not barred access to education or economic or political power (“politics needs a certain mental ability. Very few women have this kind of mind,” the spokesman of the Islamic University of Gaza declaims), Brooks makes devastating contrasts between the practice in Muhammad’s time and comparatively regressive practices today. Muhammad had his well-stocked harem, but he paradoxically liberated women from centuries of subjugation. His death in the seventh century extinguished a blip of feminism in Islam’s history. Brooks thinks it can be rekindled.

There have been gains. In Egypt most women work. Women are making advances in Jordan, where the late king Hussein was married to an American (Brooks’ portrait of King Hussein and Queen Noor is the most tender and partisan in the book). Women are welcome in Iran’s political structure. Turkey, Pakistan and Bangladesh are all Muslim countries with women leaders at one time or another (take note, Hillary Clinton).

Saudi Arabia's Grim Model

But Saudi Arabia is the other extreme toward which, if the fundamentalists have their way, the world of Islam could backtrack. Or may well be backtracking. I would have liked to read more about women who live in Indonesia or the Asian Subcontinent, where the majority of Muslims live.

But the book limits itself to the Middle East, and more often than not to “Saudi Arabia’s grim reality,” Brooks writes, “because this is the kind of sterile, segregated world that (fundamentalists) are calling for, right now, for their countries and for the entire Islamic world. None of these groups is saying, ‘Let’s recreate Turkey and separate church and state.’ Instead, what they want is Saudi-style, theocratically enforced repression of women, cloaked in vapid clichés about a woman’s place being the paradise of her home.”

There is no room for currently-fashionable relativism. “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,” Brooks writes, with 240 persuasive pages behind her. The arguments of cultural relativists, she says, boil down “to this ghastly and untenable position: a human right is what the local despot says it is.”

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