Monday, August 20, 2012

Review: Nine Parts of Desire

Geraldine Brooks’ Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women (1995) is another one of those great nonfiction books written by journalists, a style I raved about here.  I found this one at the public library’s 2-for-1 sale.  It was actually an afterthought.  I had purchased Girl With a Pearl Earring because I’d been on the lookout for a copy with an illustrated cover, rather than one with a still from the movie version.  When I took it to the desk to pay my 50 cents, the woman kindly recommended I choose another book from the shelf, because it would be free.  Nine Parts of Desire was the only one that looked interesting, and when I took it home, my husband knew of it and was sure I’d like it.  I didn’t just like it, I devoured it.  It was a perfect follow-up to Nectar in a Sieve.  Even thought this one wasn’t about an Indian woman, it similarly introduced me to the struggles of a huge set of women from a culture I was unfamiliar with.  After reading this tremendous book, I’m convinced that you can’t be an American feminist without caring about, and worrying about, the plight of Middle Eastern women.

Geraldine Brooks was (still is?) a Western reporter assigned to cover Middle Eastern politics.  As a woman in a male-dominated society, she had difficulty obtaining permission to go to the places and speak to the people that she needed in order to write her stories.  Eventually, she realized that her gender made her uniquely positioned to write a different kind of story: that of the marginalized and often under-represented or misunderstood Islamic women, their changing place in religious society, and their response to the roles assigned to them.  As Brooks put it:

“Was it possible to reclaim the positive messages in the Koran and Islamic history, and devise some kind of Muslim feminism?  Could Muslim fundamentalists live with Western liberals, or would accommodating each other cost both of us our principles?  To find the answers, I did something so obvious I couldn’t believe it had taken me a year to get around to it.  I started talking to women”  (11).

Each of Brooks’ twelve chapters covers a different aspect of Islamic women’s lives, everything from the clothes they are required to wear or prohibited from wearing, society’s obsessive focus on virginity, honor killings, polygamous marriage, the example set by the prophet Muhammad’s relationship to his wives, women’s participation in the military or in sports, women’s right to vote, and even belly dancing.  I learned so much about Islamic society and religious doctrine, about how religion and politics are often inseparable in Islamic countries, about how Islamic countries all differ from one another in their laws and their level of extremism.  The first chapter alone provided an endless source of conversation with my husband, as I tried to work out the many contradictions Brooks brought to light.

For example, women in many Islamic societies are forced to wear hijab – literally, “a curtain;” an Islamically-approved women’s style of dress that covers their entire bodies and veils their faces.  When there’s a certainty of verbal abuse or even physical violence if a woman goes out-of-doors without veiling herself in this manner, the practice of requiring hijab is abusive.  On the other hand, when wearing hijab was outlawed for a time in the 1930s and 1940s, many women were terribly upset and humiliated at the loss of a style of dress that was comfortable and familiar.  Is hijab liberating or repressive?  Over the last century or so, wearing hijab or deliberately not wearing it, have been overtly political acts in defiance of the current government’s policy on women’s sexuality.  Does the veil make a woman more eye-catching, or less?  To offer an alternative, Brooks discusses the Tuareg, a nomadic tribe in the Algerian Sahara, who believe that men should be veiled because then, enemies will not know what is on the mind of the male warriors – whereas women, who have nothing to hide, go barefaced.  How does the political pressure for women to wear the veil help the economy, particularly clothing retail, a sector that provides many jobs for women?  What did Muhammad really have to say about women’s clothing, bodies, and place in society – and what happens when contemporary religious teachers interpret his words?  And how come Islamic men aren’t required to abide by Islam’s dress code for men?  All of these questions and more are pursued in what I believe to be a fairly balanced approach.  Both extremes of any issue are presented, along with personal stories of individual women experiencing the middle ground.  And this is all just the first chapter.

The founder of Shiite Islam (yes, the difference between Sunnis and Shiites is explained in this book for people like me who don’t know the difference between sects), Ali ibn Abu Taleb said, “Almighty God created sexual desire in ten parts; then he gave nine parts to women and one to men.”  The title of the book comes from this quote, and the entire book is interested in how Islamic practice is concerned with gender and sexuality.  The author’s background, coming from a Catholic school, gives her a unique perspective, allowing Brooks to view Islam with a sympathetic eye.  She points out that Islam, after all, is no different than Catholicism in that devout members seek to follow God’s word on holy living by regulating the activities of women in respect to men.  As Brooks writes, “Women bear the brunt of fending off social disorder in the Catholic tradition because they aren’t considered sexually active, and in the Muslim tradition because they are” (40).  It is a praiseworthy gesture in a book that could have so easily become, through criticism of Islamic tradition, an attack on Islam itself.  Instead, Brooks reminds us that all cultures and religions, all across the world, have to deal with issues of gender and sexuality, and that none have always managed to do so in a liberating way.  Nine Parts of Desire is thus a surprisingly relevant book for readers of any gender and any nationality.

Books I’ve completed (reviews forthcoming):
Engaging Music: Essays in Music Analysis, ed. Deborah Stein

Books I’m currently reading:
If Minds Had Toes, Lucy Eyre
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain (audiobook)
The Trumpet of the Swan, E.B. White
The Stripping of the Altars, Eamon Duffy
William Byrd and His Contemporaries, Philip Brett
Tricks of the Trade, Harold Becker

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