Woman to woman

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 Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women
Preconceptions unveiled

Almighty God created sexual desire in ten parts; then he gave nine parts to women and one to men.âe"Ali ibn Abu Taleb, son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad and founder of the Shiite sect of Islam

In 1987, the Australian-born journalist Geraldine Brooks was posted to Cairo as the Wall Street Journalâe(TM)s Middle East correspondent. As a woman operating in a male-dominated society, she soon bumped up against seemingly immovable barriers. She found herself stonewalled by bureaucrats, consigned to âeoethe flypaper of Arab officialdomâe ; on the street, her encounters with men were severely circumscribed by her gender, not to mention by many menâe(TM)s assumptions about Western women. So Brooks decided to turn her biggest liability âe" her sex âe" into the key that would unlock a world barred to her male colleagues: the hidden world of (mostly Arab) Islamic women.

Over the next six years, observing the rising tide of religious fundamentalism in the region, Brooks, herself a convert to Judaism prior to marriage, studies the Quran and Islamic history, and sets out to understand how women in these cultures live behind the veil. Had it been possible, she wanted to know, for them to devise some kind of Islamic feminism?

Donning hijab, Brooks spends time among Muslim women of varying backgrounds and circumstances throughout the Arab world. Her journey begins in Tehran, at the austere residence of the Ayatollah Khomeini after his death in 1989, where she meets with Khomeiniâe(TM)s widow and granddaughter. Here, Brooks says, was where what was happening from Algeria to Afghanistan had its roots; here was where Khomeini had persuaded women that the wearing of the chador and the return to sharia, a code of laws allowing child marriage, polygamy and wife beating, was a revolutionary act.

Her journey takes her to Jordan, where a friendship with the progressive Queen Noor grants her a front-row seat for the countryâe(TM)s delicate political balancing act during the Gulf War. She travels widely in Saudi Arabia âe" no small feat for an unchaperoned woman âe" and talks to journalists and professors who risk the wrath of the local religious police, the mutawain, daily. In the United Arab Emirates, traditionally one of the most conservative Muslim societies, she meets the first class of graduates from the womenâe(TM)s military academy, trained by U.S. women soldiers. In Eritrea, she looks on as a doctor tries vainly to repair the physical ravages of female circumcision. In a Palestinian refugee camp she meets a woman whoâe(TM)s been forced to accept her husbandâe(TM)s taking of a second wife.

Geraldine Brooks

Brooks also talks to many women, young and old, who are completely content with their lot. She gets to know one American convert married to an Iranian whose day-to-day life âe" shaped by religious devotion, eased and enriched by emphasis on family âe" gives her, she feels, an enviable kind of security. Another convert, less affluent and temperamentally unsuited to a life of submission, would love to return to the U.S. but is unable to leave the country without her husbandâe(TM)s permission.

Brooks aims to provide a more complex vision of Islam for Westerners than that which prevailed in the mid-nineties. She examines how the Quran, a progressive document by the standards of the 7th century, treats womenâe(TM)s sexuality and the way its words have been distorted by despots who seek to consolidate their power. Paradoxes abound, such as the one created by the opening, in the 1960s, of Saudi universities to women. Where formerly, Brooks points out, wealthy families had sent their daughters abroad to be educated, the availability of a segregated, religiously observant system at home resulted in greater numbers of women being educated, but with a much narrower world view. When, in 1990, some of the older female professors demonstrated in Riyadh for the right to drive, their own students were among their most vocal opponents.

This is sensitive territory for any writer, Western or otherwise, to navigate, and Brooks manages to walk a fine line between criticism and respect without compromising her moral clarity. She is conscious of her limitations as an outsider, and careful to note that of the more than one billion Muslims in the world, only one in five is an Arab. What emerges is a riveting, surprising, broadly drawn cross-section of a particular slice of the Muslim world at a particular moment in history.

Read in combination with more contemporary books such as Irshad Manjiâe(TM)s clarion call for Muslim dissent, The Trouble with Islam Today, and Nazar Afisiâe(TM)s memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran, Nine Parts of Desire helps illuminate the lives of women who are too often shrouded in shadow âe" be it by choice, by force, or by our own ignorance.âe"Gillian Burnett

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