May 9, 2015

Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women, by Geraldine Brooks

The first thing to note about this book is that it was published in 1995, two decades ago. The second thing to note is its prescience and continued relevancy. An Australian journalist, Brooks traveled extensively throughout the Middle East in the late 1980s and early 1990s, meeting with Muslim women of many backgrounds, speaking with them about their faith and their private lives. The resulting book is, as The New Yorker exclaims on the front cover, "Frank, enraging, and captivating."

It is impossible to fully discuss the book and do it justice in the span of a short review, so instead I'll try to keep my points limited and succinct. There are aspects of Brooks' research that are horrifying, and many that are surprising, some even pleasantly so. Of the former: genital mutilation and clitidorectomy, the inability of women to vote/drive/travel without their closest male relative's written permission/work/learn, the hypocritical and expressly-forbidden-by-the-Koran punishment for women's crimes, Muslim women who fully believe in violent jihad and the death of infidels. Of the latter: women freely discussing sex with one another, women dressing very provocatively in private (ostensibly for their husbands), women distancing themselves from men and delaying marriage as a natural progression of enforced segregation of the sexes, women in positions of power trying to work within the Islamic framework to better the lives of women everywhere.

Brooks saw much of the vehement religious fervor that led to 9/11 and continues to fuel terrorism today, and it's worth noting that she dismisses apologists who claim "Islam is not like that." She argues that while pure Islam may not be like that, it has become so inextricably entwined with the social mores of tribal Arabia that it cannot be argued the two are separate entities. "Islam" means submission, but it seems that only women are expected to submit themselves entirely to men, rather than meaning the submission of believers to Allah. Human rights, Brooks argues, are truly universal and not merely based on culture, as many Islamists like to claim.

This is an astounding book, especially because it remains relevant - perhaps even more so - twenty years after its publication. Brooks's writing is very good, narrative and conversational. I encourage all women to read it, or at least do some research on its subject matter. A single woman subjugated anywhere makes slaves of us all.

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