14 November 2006
Nine Parts of Desire
I finally read all of Geraldine Brooks' Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women . I've tried to read it before, but this time I decided that I'd get past the first few chapters.
It's a good book in many ways. Brooks is well-travelled in the Middle East and has talked to many women in a variety of circumstances. She is accurate and tells her stories fairly. But I don't think she is as balanced or unbiased as she could have been.
While she does present a variety of stories throughout the book, I felt that she was specifically looking for negative examples even though she writes, "Once I began working on this book, I looked everywhere for examples of women trying to reclaim Islam's positive messages, trying to carry forward into the twentieth century the reformist zeal with which Muhammad had remade the lives of many women...It turned out to be a frustrating search." I felt like she was looking for the wrong thing- for women who were fighting for things that were important to Brooks, instead of looking for women who were fighting for changes that were important to them. There are many women working to reclaim Islam, but we in the West don't see it because we'd do it differently. It's difficult to imagine that there are women who are choosing this life- they clearly aren't thinking correctly.
Brooks also writes about a very limited number of Muslim women. There is hardly a word about Turkic or Southeastern Asian or Indian Muslims; Arab and Perisan Muslims are presented as being representative of the Muslim world. While Arab and Persian Muslims are unquestionably the most familiar in the West, they aren't even close to being a majority of Muslims.
It's also important to note that Saudi Arabia is even farther from being representative of Islam than the Middle East as a whole. Saudi Arabia's Islam is extreme and, despite all the money the Saudi government has poured into its proselytizing efforts, Wahabbism is not spreading. Too many Muslims see it for what it is- a repressive and backward interpretation of Islam. Brooks does acknowledge that Saudi-style Islam isn't likely to catch on in Egypt, but I think it's misleading to have several chapters about Saudi Arabia when it is such a small part of the Islamic world. There were no chapters about secular governments in Muslim countries.
Brooks also claims that the Qur'an mandates the death penalty for apostasy. The Qur'an itself does no such thing; that tradition comes from the hadith and is subject to interpretation. The Qur'an also does not specially allow for wife-beating. Again, the interpretation matters a great deal and Muhammad, who is the example many Muslims chose to follow, clearly taught that women should be treated with respect. The Bible was and still is sometimes interpreted as a document that is repressive to women, but Christian women have fought against those interpretations and made a lot of changes.
I did like Brooks' suggestions at the end of the book of making sure laws against female circumcision are passed in your own country (they have been passed in the US since the writing of this book) and for granting refugee status to women who fear for their health, freedom, or lives because of these cultural traditions.
But in the end, complaining about the practices like these is not useful, and can be counterproductive. Do you remember that silly petition going around the internet in the years before the Taliban was overthrown where you were supposed to protest to the government in Afghanistan about its treatment of women? I couldn't believe that people actually were signing the thing and thinking that the Taliban was interested in their opinion. When we spend our time criticizing cultural practices within Islam, many Muslims feel attacked. Why don't we spend our resources helping these Muslim women and men change things from within instead of shouting from the sidelines? Negative traditions that have been changed within Christian societies did not change because Muslims were telling Christians they were wrong.
We in the West are not the ones who need to be educated about this. It's women in Africa who need to be taught about the devastating physical consequences of circumcision so they don't allow their daughters to be circumcised, and so they teach their sons to not require it of their wives. Women in Saudi Arabia need to learn about moderate forms of Islam (and 95% of Muslims are more moderate). Education of women is the key here. And while it's not possible for anyone to go into Saudi and start up a system of liberal Muslim schools for girls, ideas can be changed in many countries. We always hear about the extreme examples and we feel that nothing can be done. But something can be done, and it's through education. And by simply being encouraging.