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Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women

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INTERNATIONAL BESTSELLER - Pulitzer Prize winning author presents the stories of a wide range of Muslim women in the Middle East. As an Australian American and an experienced foreign correspondent, Brooks' thoughtful analysis attempts to understand the precarious status of women in the wake of Islamic fundamentalism.

"Frank, enraging, and captivating." - The New York Times

Nine Parts of Desire is the story of Brooks' intrepid journey toward an understanding of the women behind the veils, and of the often contradictory political, religious, and cultural forces that shape their lives. Defying our stereotypes about the Muslim world, Brooks' acute analysis of the world's fastest growing religion deftly illustrates how Islam's holiest texts have been misused to justify repression of women, and how male pride and power have warped the original message of a once liberating faith. As a prizewinning foreign correspondent for  The Wall Street Journal , Geraldine Brooks spent six years covering the Middle East through wars, insurrections, and the volcanic upheaval of resurgent fundamentalism. Yet for her, headline events were only the backdrop to a less obvious but more enduring drama: the daily life of Muslim women.

255 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1994

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About the author

Geraldine Brooks

45 books7,624 followers
Librarian Note: There is more than one author in the Goodreads database with this name.

Australian-born Geraldine Brooks is an author and journalist who grew up in the Western suburbs of Sydney, and attended Bethlehem College Ashfield and the University of Sydney. She worked as a reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald for three years as a feature writer with a special interest in environmental issues.

In 1982 she won the Greg Shackleton Australian News Correspondents scholarship to the journalism master’s program at Columbia University in New York City. Later she worked for The Wall Street Journal, where she covered crises in the the Middle East, Africa, and the Balkans.

She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 2006 for her novel March. Her first novel, Year of Wonders, is an international bestseller, and People of the Book is a New York Times bestseller translated into 20 languages. She is also the author of the nonfiction works Nine Parts of Desire and Foreign Correspondence.

Brooks married author Tony Horwitz in Tourette-sur-Loup, France, in 1984. They had two sons– Nathaniel and Bizuayehu–and two dogs. They used to divide their time between their homes in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, and Sydney, Australia.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,397 reviews
Profile Image for Shovelmonkey1.
353 reviews887 followers
January 12, 2012
Aaargh. I just wrote a bloody long review of this book then the ******* goodreads website ate it. Anyway, starting over....

" Read, in the name of thy Lord
Who hath created all things, who
Hath created man of congealed blood.
Read, by thy most beneficent Lord,
Who taught us the use of the pen,
who teaches man that which he knoweth not."

The Koran: The Chapter of Congealed Blood

I have been living, working and travelling in the Middle East since I was nineteen years old. That's over eleven years now. In that time I have taken buses, boats, service taxis, trains, planes, lorries, scooters, camels and horses to get across Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Turkey. I've travelled from the Iraqi Border to Istanbul, from Aqaba to Aleppo and still have yet to reconcile my feelings on various attitudes towards women. I suspect it is something I will never fully make my peace with.

Geraldine Brooks has written an approachable, easy-to-read guide to the Koran and what is says about women. She makes a clear distinction between the teachings of the Koran and the Hadith as how they are then interpreted by various different groups. Interpretations vary widely across the pan-Islamic world hence the variety of rules and regulations which govern womens lives vary quite greatly from country to country. However, this is only a very introductory guide - this is not a definitive examination... go out, seek other books and talk to other women! You will not finish this book and walk away with a complete and unbiased understanding of the Islamic faith in its many, rich and varied forms.

Brooks, in a relatively privileged position as an established journo was able to talk to numerous successful powerful women, including Queen Noor of Jordan, several of her female advisers and one of the daughters of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Not your average cross section of middle eastern women by any stretch of the imagination.

My time in the Middle East usually involved living and working in fairly rural communities, although that said, I also lived in Aqaba for a fair period of time and the shores of Red Sea at Aqaba are graced with a pizza hut, a Radisson and a Movenpick hotel - not exactly small potatoes.

The women I have met, like Brooks' group, came from a variety of backgrounds; young professionals who went sans headscarf in the city, young village wives newly married, family matriarchs and government officials. A gentleman who used to work for me had two wives; a town wife and a country wife. Country wife was the first wife and a marriage of love. She lived off the desert highway in a small freeholding with goats, sheep, chickens, vines and a lovingly tended vegetable patch. She was unable to have children so a second wife, the town wife had been acquired through an arranged marriage. Town wife was young, spangly and lived in a small modern air conditioned apartment with a big TV. Quite a stark contract to the beautiful but humble dwelling of the wife out in the country who drew her water from the well. Both wives knew of each others existence but chose not to live together in the same house.

All of the men I have worked with have treated me with kindness, respect and deference. They have paid me what they believe is their highest compliment, often telling me that i'm "as good as man". As massively sexist as that sounds it is just the way they see things and I'm not about to cack-handedly try to alter their benchmark or world view. Through them I met their charming, erudite, spirited and happy wives and daughters who were knowledgeable and talented at things I was not. Sure I got my "good as a man tag" by being good at 4x4 off road desert driving and being a good marksman when handed a rifle or semi automatic, but I cannot sew, weave, bake bread, sing, dance or grow and maintain a magnificent garden in an arid desert environment. If I lived in the Middle East I think I would value those talents more too. As a woman who has lived and worked in these countries I can empathise with some of the situations that Brooks describes. Here are my top 5 "not great being a woman" experiences, in no particular order:

1. Having my ass groped in Martyr Square, Damscus (I avenged myself by punching the offending busy-handed git by smacking him in the side of the head. The two French guys I was travelling with were very surprised by the sudden flurry of violence as they hadn't noticed what was going on. NB many local gents drinking tea in the vicinity applauded - apparently avenging honour is not just a male perogative).

2. Having my breasts grabbed while walking along the Corniche in Alexandria. Strolling along, minding my own when a boy of about 13 ran up put out both hands, grabbed, squeezed and then legged it. Random.

3. The Tampax Police, Amman - While departing from Amman I was searched in the ladies privacy booth by a female security guard who was lovely and polite and patient to my child-like arabic. She emptied my bag and out fell a cluster of tampons. She asked what they were. I tried to explain (cue basic arabic and a fairly graphic mime). No. She shook her head and called her supervisor. The supervisor turned up, opened all them all, snapped them in half and then gave them back to me. Uh, thanks, I kind of needed those. Needless to say they went in the bin.

4. Narrowly escaping serious sexual assault on board a bus to Van Golu.

5. Being chased by men on scooters near my pansion in Tripoli, Lebanon.

See, none of those experiences were exactly great but they have never deterred me from returning to work in this part of the world because the good far outweighs any bad experiences perpetrated by a few ignorant individuals. I have worn many elements of Islamic dress and have an extensive collection of head scarves. There is more beyond the veil than many might expect.

Profile Image for Janet.
335 reviews28 followers
September 20, 2017
Now that I have moved away from Arabia after living there for three years, I was ready to read a book about women and Islam. I tend to be dubious about any book that claims to have the real story on this topic, but found this book worth reading.
When I read the title, I thought I was going to learn more about the sexuality of Arabic women. Instead, the book was about the lives of Islamic women as wives, mothers, workers, and citizens. In her attempt to understand Islamic women, she also got to know some revolutionaries, politicians, athletes, and a queen along the way and I found her accounts of these encounters fascinating. She also dealt with the dress and health of women in the Muslim world. I was hooked by the end of the prologue as the author wrote honestly about her experiences as a journalist and a Western women reporting from Saudi Arabia. I kept reading the book with great interest primarily because of the stories Brooks shares with us about the amazing, regular women she had gotten to know in her work.
There is theory and argumentation in the book, too. While she strongly attacks the misogyny she sees in the Arab world, she also does a decent job of distinguishing which parts of religious practice in the Muslim world are based on the Koran and the Hadith, things Mohammed and his followers said, from what may be based on older, more misogynist cultural practices. The historical Mohammed was much more respectful of women than many religious leaders today in Saudi Arabia or Hezbollah, for example. However, she also shows that some parts of Islam today such as polygamy, the veil, and discouraging the adoption of children were based on expediency for the historical Muhammed or his whim.
Having said that, Brooks points out that Islamic women must know the Koran and Hadith well and use it to protect their rights as much as possible.
Here's an example. More than 30 Saudi women who held international driver's licenses protested the rule against women driving in Saudi Arabia by driving enmasse through the streets of Riyadh. They were arrested and the police released them because they had driver's licenses. The religious court tried them too and found, obviously, that there isn't anything in Sharian law, based on the Koran forbidding women from driving. The only relevant piece of information is that his daughter, Fatima, rode a horse, the car of Mohammed's time, so they were never charged with any crime. This example demonstrates that women in Saudi Arabia still aren't driving because of cultural beliefs, not Islam. Sadly, the names and numbers of the protestors were released and they received a good deal of harassment for their actions which probably "shamed' their families. Though not successful in changing this norm, I think the power of this approach is apparent.
Let me give you another example. Women's athletics suffered a terrible blow after the Shah was overthrown. Fortunately, some women argued that Mohammed recommnended archery, horseback riding, and swimming. After patient arguing of this point women were allowed to do these activities along with shooting, good for times of revolution, and running. Sports facilities were closed to men during certain hours, so women could exercise in private. Thus, they kept the opportunity to exercise.
According to Brooks, the fundamentalism of Islamic Jihad or Hezbollah is not based on the past in Palestine or Lebanon, but a much more radical Saudi Arabian-like model. The book is a bit old, so I don't actually know if things have become worse for Islamic women since she wrote the book, but it seems like my students in the UAE were covering their heads more than their counterparts in the recent past, at least in class and on campus they didn't their faces.
At the very least, Brooks has convinced me that it's important to know about Islam and pay attention to what is happening in the Muslim world. Like her, I definitely treasure the sisterhood I have felt with the Islamic women I have known through my work.
14 reviews2 followers
March 25, 2007
Before reading this book, I remember looking at the woman who were completely covered by their berka and thinking how repressed they were. I felt sorry for the freedom they were denied. My landlord at the time gave me his copy and I although I was hesitant, I agreed to read it...and I am so glad I did! The book delves deep into the roots of the Muslim beliefs and allows an outsider to appreciate a custom we would otherwise know little about. I learned that most woman (interviewed) do not feel repressed to be fully covered by their berkas, but are proud to wear them and prefer it to not wearing one. The book explains how God gave men one desire and women the remaining nine, hence the need to cover.
A friend in college, Zeneb, was from Turkey and fully agreed to being fully covered at all times when men were around. She never explained her religious beliefs to me, she simply said that's how she interpretted her faith. When I finally saw her at an "all girls night" at my house, I saw her exterior beauty as well as her inner beauty. Reading this book brought me closer to her and to all the women I once believed to be repressed...
Profile Image for Lindsey.
99 reviews11 followers
June 30, 2009
I live in Dubai and know a lot of people who have read this book, besides myself. I am an American, so you'd think my perspective would be similar to Brooks', but it's not. It is true, there are extreme, evil, awful and just wrong things that happen in the name of fundumental Islam, and I know I have shared stories with expat friends about them. But I and everyone I know who has read this book have been left with a bad taste. Brooks is a very good, engaging writer, and I did learn some things from this book, so I wouldn't disregard it completely. But I did find myself wondering why Brooks has such an agenda to convince the world of Islam's evil. Maybe she is bitter from her own experiences during the years she spent reporting in the Middle East. Brooks picks a lot of specific extreme examples and pretends to balance them with positive stories, but she alway ends on a negative note. I would have liked to see more discussion of the places in the world where Muslims live alongside other religions in relative tolerance. Places like the United Arab Emirates, where the government itself makes a concerted effort to inform people about the difference between the cultural traditions of Arabic lands and the practices which are actually drawn from the Koran. I felt the book omitted a needed discussion of the Muslim women (and men) who had left their home countries when fundamentalist regimes gained power. How many Muslim communities are there like this in the world? In Europe, for instance. And yet the book tries to pin the injustices it discusses purely on Islam, rather than the regimes in power in the middle east. Brooks seems to say, yes, there are Muslim countries where things aren't so bad, but still, all the problems they do have stem from Islam. If you are willing to do the work of reading a lot more to balance Brooks' perspective with more information, then it is probably worthwhile to read this book. On the other hand, if you only read one book about Muslims, do not make it this one.
Profile Image for Hafsa Umar.
1 review2 followers
October 29, 2013
As a Muslim woman I was interested in reading this book as to have an idea of how Muslim women are viewed by non-Muslim westerners.I was a bit confused reading this book as most of the issues discussed such as the honor killings or removal of clitoris have never even been heard by me. A distinction between culture and religion really has to be made as I sense that the middle Eastern have very deep rooted cultures that have tangled with Islam and because they form the bulk of Muslim population,at times there is a confusion.The more I study islam in its pure sense ,the more I am drawn into it .religion has been abused by man since the days mankind was created. This should not be a book for people to base their judgement on the way life is experienced by Muslim women and more so not to judge the teachings of Islam on Muslim women . this book was written more than ten years ago so it is most likely that there is a big disparity between life on muslim women then and now which is why I find it hard to believe some if the things I have read in the book and strongly but respectfully disagree with the opinion of the author .the author most be commended for her attempt to find things out for herself .
Profile Image for Cherisa B.
521 reviews42 followers
October 28, 2022
Trusting that Brooks’s research and experience as a journalist working in several Arab countries over many years, her access to actually see the private lives of many Muslim women, and her own tolerance for differences in beliefs and see without judging or causing offense, I believe that the author has given us a thorough, comprehensive, and dismal look at the lives of Muslim women.

Brooks moves through topics that include education, marriage (and divorce), sexuality, autonomy, athletics, politics and economics. She talks of women’s infantilization, piety, radicalism and strength.

We get an intro to the prophet, his wives, hadith, or the sayings attributed to him or his contemporaries about his teachings that illustrate how a good Muslim will act or what to believe. It seems a lot of his and the Koran’s principles have been corrupted by blatantly misogynist mullahs and the money and power of the Sauds. There’s also the syncretism with local tribal and cultural practices that further separate practice from the prophet’s intent.

Fundamentalism that oppresses huge swaths of society, that allows hypocrisy and injustice, that gives fanatics a pass based on corrupted religious historicity, whatever religious creed or dogma, makes the world so much harder and uglier than it needs to be. Here’s evidence from or at least commentary on one such religion.

Some of this was very hard reading.
Profile Image for Jalilah.
378 reviews92 followers
March 22, 2015
Hmm... Personally it always makes me uncomfortable when an outsider criticizes and analyzes a religion that is not their own. There are enough people from Muslim countries who are scathingly critical of their own culture and write about it. When someone from the West does it, it always appears to be condescending even when they are trying to be objective.
This book was written in the 90s, so while not all the information is necessarily dated, it's definitely not up to date. This was also the time period when I was traveling regularly to the Middle East and was reading a lot about the region, so there was really nothing new in it regarding the religion, history or culture that I didn't already know about. What was different of course were our personal experiences. I was traveling to countries that were stable at the time; Egypt, Yemen, Turkey and Morocco and my experiences were overwhelmingly positive. I never traveled to the trouble spots; Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Iran or Iraq.
I did very much enjoy the chapter that takes place in Cairo where the author wants to learn to dance, finds a teacher, buys a costume and finally performs in the lowest of lowest class night clubs to make a statement about the treatment of dancers. It made me laugh!
All and all, this book might be an interesting read for people who have never been to the region, however for those many Westerners who are already biased toward that part of the world, it would only further confirm all their negative feelings. What makes me so sad is that as I write this, in 2014, the situation is worse than ever, with ISIS making the Ayatollahs of Iran seem moderate in comparison!
I do agree 100% with her assertion that the real villain has been Saudi Arabia ( the government and not necessarily the people themselves) all along and it is time for the Western countries to accept this.
Although this book truly was well written, I am fed up with reading books "about" the Middle East or Islam from Western authors (memoirs excepted). If I am going to read anymore books on the subject, I'd rather read authors from the countries of origin.
Profile Image for Dem.
1,190 reviews1,135 followers
August 18, 2013
Nine Parts Of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women is a wonderful informative read.

The author an Austrailian reporter who spend the late 1980s and early 90s in the Middle East as a reporter, and during her time there decided to get to know the women of Islam and spent a lot of time interviewing and getting to know these women of different social status and different ages to bring us a very interesting account of Islamic history, Islamic women and the traditions of today.

I love reading about different nationalities, religions and customs and have always been interested in learning how other cultures live.
I really enjoyed this book and feel that the author did an excellent job without coming across as judgemental or preachy. At times throughout this book I found myself exclaiming out loud and other times I found myself angry but I felt I got to know a part of the world that I knew very little about and I am glad to have had the opportunity to read this book.

I loved the closing few lines of the book which read as follows;

I lost the chador in which many of my memories were wrapped, yet they are with me always the women who trusted me across the chasm of faith and culture, when I think of them I think of faith and kindness, warmth and hospitality, I think of the things that united us rather than on those things that we disagreed. They wanted to live to see their children live. That at least we had in common, that at least is a place to start.

I listened to this as an audio book which was narrated by Geraldine Brooks herself and while it was adequately narrated I did find her voice a tiny bit annoying at times and not because of her accent but because of her tone.
Profile Image for Wendroz.
125 reviews
July 2, 2008
This should be required reading.... or at least strongly encouraged, this book was written in 1994. THis was entertaining with a lot of research and facts made more interesting by interviewing and living with the people she wrote about. I am buying a copy ASAP (borrowed from the library)
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.”

Profile Image for Shahd Fadlalmoula.
74 reviews18 followers
January 13, 2016
How does one start to review this book without pointing out the obvious?*sighs*
She is an Australian who hasn't even bothered to learn the language of the Quran, and readily provides distorted translations which make her lose credibility. I also wish she was more careful with her choice of words and her relay in a lot of parts. Like I don't want someone who doesn't know anything about Islam to read this and think Muslims go to shrines and offer "prayers to saints" (we only offer prayers to God, FOR/on behalf of people. There is a huge difference, and as a writer myself, not paying attention to details like this makes your work seem flimsy and careless).

But for the most part this book was very informative. It was entertaining to read her relay of experiences and her observances. I was curious to see what a woman who experienced a taste of the Middle East would say, in hopes that I wouldn't find the mainstream "women in Islam are oppressed omg we need to save them" narrative and I wasn't disappointed, at least not disappointed by like 65% of the book (which is more than average for any western commentator who writes about the east). Actually, when I read the first few pages of this book, I thought GOOD GOD THIS REAKS WITH EUROCENTRIC STEREOTYPES! It made me so mad I didn't even want to read the rest of it. I slammed it shut and tried to return it because I felt like I'd wasted my money. But I came on here and found some controversial reviews(duly noting that most people who gave this book high ratings were outsiders, and we all know everyone loves a good heartbreaking story about the injustices of the developing world no matter how distorted it is) so in an attempt to understand what all these people were being told about the Muslim world, I decided to let my curious cat give it another chance, and I'm genuinely glad I did, you should too even if the first few pages, and some pages in between are rubbish.

She tried to be neutral I guess, and a lot of the contrasts she drew up were very sadly true (as much as any human hates to have an outsider criticize their culture and norms, I must admit she makes good points.) I just wish she'd revise and republish this for accuracy, we really have enough misconceptions and generalizations attached to Islam and it's a shame I can't give this a higher rating because it does have some substance of value. Moreover, had she tried to balance the book a bit more, without painting outliers and extremes as spokespeople for the whole region, I would've readily said this was a great read.

She also seems very bothered by the fact that many Middle Eastern women were relatable to her. Sorry we turned out to be normal, Brooks. I do wish more of us were oppressed, backwarded, orientalists so that you could've realized more of your expectations of the Muslim world.

So should you read this? Yeah, definitely! Just be sceptical, and don't, by any means, make any general assumptions about the Muslim World based off of it.
Profile Image for KatieMc.
818 reviews87 followers
June 24, 2016
I read this as part of a bookclub discussion. The book was selected by a lovely woman who fled Iran 24 years ago, and had lived through the revolution, war and economic sanctions against her country. She said she started reading it a year ago but it was just too emotional and so she thought with the support of the bookclub she could get through it. I was grateful for her choice as this was interesting, informative and a unique perspective on the topic. Instead of a classic 'book report' I have decided to share the bookclub discussion experience.

So, the group met yesterday evening, 9 women and 5 men. The group on the whole is well educated, well informed, well read and generally progressive. After everyone has takes a turn to give their impression of the book, open discussion follows. And guess what followed? MANSPLAINING! The book was about women in Islamic middle eastern cultures, told through very personal stories. Some were positive, but many very illustrative of how women are subjugated, abused and repressed. While political and economic policy are relevant to such a book, this wasn't a book about politics or policy. Nevertheless, a subset of the men in the room hijacked the discussion into that. When the woman from Iran (who lived through the revolution) explained that Iranian revolution in 1979 was not entirely rooted in the rise Islamic fundamentalism, she was corrected. When she described the economic disparity in Iran (no middle class) she was corrected. When I brought up my opinion that it's not the Islamic faith that leads to repression of women, but rather patriarchal cultural practices, I was corrected. The irony of the whole situation was not lost on me, nor was it lost on many of the other women in the room.

To be fair, these men aren't misogynists and they are probably sympathetic to feminist causes. But they have also been raised to be more assertive and are better skilled at inserting their opinions into the discussion. They may not consciously discount a woman' s opinion, but they probably are oblivious to their subconscious biases. Even in 'so called' enlightened western culture, in one of the most liberal cities in America, you can find micro aggressions against women in the context of a book discussion about the oppression of Islamic women. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Now, turn a subconscious bias against women into one that is culturally sanctioned through religious interpretation and you have the plight of many many Islamic women in the Middle East. Even though this book is 20+ years old and not without flaws, it is informative a worth a read.
Profile Image for Christine.
6,675 reviews489 followers
August 30, 2011
A very detailed examnation of first hand experiences with Islamic women in the Middle East. I hadn't read anything by Brooks before, though two of her novels are in my TBR pile, and picked this up at Borders going out of business sale because it looked interesting.

Brooks is one brave mama, I must say.

The presentation is rather interesting and it is somewhat surprsing, at least to the reader, that even women who are fundamentalist or anti-American (or Anti-Jewish even) are presented in such a light that while you dislike or hated thier politics (or isms), you like the women. This is a far more open approach than what it makes it on to American news, and reminds me of the International News Network before Al Gore brought it and turned it into Current. Thank God, for MHZ.

At times the book will make you laugh, as when people show up to a college wanting to arrest St. Thomas Aquinis. At times, the book will frustate you, as when when talking about female geneital cutting (ruining, mutialating(and strangely timely for me, considering I know a woman who revealed that it had be done to her). Imensely readable.
Profile Image for Mehrsa.
2,234 reviews3,649 followers
September 16, 2018
This book is well-written, but it's quite dated and a bit biased. A lot has changed in Iran among feminists--same with Egypt though maybe not enough has changed in Saudi Arabia. Brooks wants to contrast Muhammad's open views of women in his Hadith with how current Sharia law are more oppressive. It's an interesting contrast and the point is well taken. However, she presents too much of a monolith of brainwashed muslim women. There are many feminist movements and dissident Muslims in these country that recognize the double standards and have been pushing back for years. However, she's right that it's not acceptable that these regimes oppress women and to be clear, it is oppression--the mandated hijab, the marriage and divorce rules, etc. It all needs to change. Hopefully Muslim women will be the agents of change.
Profile Image for Anna.
67 reviews
February 10, 2009
I'm currently obsessed with this book. It's coming up in all my conversations. I even made my 102 students listen to a page and a half or so. Fascinating, horrifying, and terribly important stuff for anyone who cares about women and girls, religion, war and peace. I'm reading and re-reading (when I should be reading and writing other stuff!) and hoping I remember it all.
Profile Image for Chrissie.
2,783 reviews1,458 followers
September 19, 2013
Definitely worth reading, but do NOT listen to the audiobook narrated by the author. She is a good author, but not a good narrator. Dreary, let me just leave it at that......

The writing reflects that she is trained as a journalist. However, the book is rather unstructured and reads as a group of different stories. Story after story of different Muslim women's experiences in the Middle East in the early 90s. Even if it isn't totally up-to-date you have to understand the past to understand the present.

I liked how the author distinguishes between different sources for current Islamic beliefs - the Koran, the Hadith and cultural practices.

I was upset by the double standard so often evoked in the stories.

The author clearly attacks the misogyny central to many Islamic beliefs...... She is a converted Jew. I was a teeny bit uncomfortable sometimes worrying to what extent her statements were completely objective. She did usually balance different views against each other, but I could hear through her intonation her own personal view on a subject. (Bad narration!)

Very interesting, but not a book where you engage yourself in the lives of the people mentioned.
Profile Image for saïd.
6,321 reviews978 followers
March 17, 2023
First, a paragraph I really liked:
While I would champion any campaign to support Muslim women who do not wish to cover, I would now also protest vigorously for the right of a woman to wear that covering, if it is what she wants and believes in. Ayatollah Khomeini and Jacques Chirac have much more in common than either of them would care to acknowledge. Each tried to solve overarching social problems by imposing his will on the bodies of women.
Any societal institution that can be abused will be. This includes politics, it includes education, and it most certainly includes religion. No matter the reason a man uses to justify his desire to control a woman’s body, he is still attempting to control a woman’s body, which is not his to control. The extremist Muslims who force their wives and daughters to wear the niqab when in public are no different from the French politicians who force women not to wear burkinis, never mind that a non-religious swimsuit covering the same amount of skin would be perfectly permissible. In short: unfortunately, everyone is stupid.

Anyway. This book has two major factors working against it: it was published in 1994, and it was written by a non-Muslim. Now, to be clear, I don’t believe that outsiders who have judiciously done their research are any less qualified to speak on a subject than insiders; I’m by no means an advocate of segregationism in any format. (To be even more clear, this applies to speaking on a subject, not deciding legislation or whatever—a man is perfectly allowed to have an opinion on abortion, but that doesn’t mean he should be allowed to control whether or not women get them.) But in a time when there are an increasing number of Arab and/or Muslim women speaking out about what aspects of Islam are oppressive and which aren’t, books by white Western non-Muslim authors seem less and less necessary. The question I had was: what can Geraldine Brooks contribute to the discussion that others can’t?

I’m having trouble coming up with a good answer. Often when Westerners, specifically those in the core anglosphere, write about foreign cultures, the result feels condescending and rather smarmy even if the intention was benign. Well-intentioned cultural imperialism is still imperialism, in simple terms; because English speakers have so dominated the information superhighway in so many and such pervasive ways—particularly on the internet, no small matter in the Information Age, particularly when increased internet access has been a literal lifesaver for countless women in underdeveloped and/or conservative countries where communication with the outside world or even with each other is restricted—following in the footsteps of a deeply rooted physical domination of so-called ‘third world’ countries, including the majority of the MENA area (Siri what are the British colonies?), this interventionism, however well-meaning, often causes as many problems as it purports to solve, particularly amongst vulnerable populations, the majority of which are women, resulting in an understandable distrust when Western countries extend a ‘helping’ hand even in good faith... uh, in less simple terms.

Perhaps it’s because I’m writing this in the aftermath of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, which has utterly ruined the lives of countless Afgan women. The US was ‘helping’ when it invaded Afghanistan, it was ‘helping’ when it kept its troops there for 20 years, and it was ‘helping’ when it recalled them, only for the Taliban to seize control of the country almost immediately. But the intentions were benign... right?

Obviously I’m not saying Geraldine Brooks is personally responsible for the abuse, rape, and murder of Afghan women at the hands of either US soldiers or Taliban militants, because that would be absurd. I’m just uncomfortable with the presence of this sort of book, no matter its intentions. Sometimes these sorts of books—‘introductory’ texts written by Westerners—can serve very well in convincing people that Arabs and/or Muslims are also human beings (what a sad world we live in, isn’t it?), but I don’t even think this one would be able to achieve that purpose. Brooks spends a fair amount of time detailing all the various evils of Islam, and while many of her points are supportable, and indeed I agreed with her on several arguments, this is not the material to hand to an already prejudiced Islamophobe in hopes of opening their mind.

I remember, when I was younger, seeing a political cartoon—this was during the American war in Iraq, if I remember correctly. The cartoon was of a world map (Mercator projection), but with a smoking bomb crater in place of the Middle East. The caption said: ‘PROBLEM SOLVED.’

The joke is that many of us would feel the same way about the West. See? Isn’t it funny?
Profile Image for Tuscany Bernier.
Author 1 book118 followers
January 16, 2016
For being a book on Muslim women written through the eyes of a non-Muslim, I enjoyed it. The writer is a Jewish lady who travelled all over the Middle East to find the truth about Islamic practices. Which things were sanctioned by Islam and which ones were cultural? She discusses issues through the lens of a Western lady who struggles to understand the why and how of certain things, yet she touches on these issues in such an straight forward yet kind way. She asks repeatedly why imams, clerics, and clergymen don't speak more on anti-Islamic practices like honor killings and female genital mutilation while respecting the Islamic context for polygamy or veiling (issues she doesn't like but understands is religious in nature).

This book was written in the early 90's so as it reaches over 20 years old, it's easy for me as a modern Muslim to be excited about the changes that have occurred between now and then in the Islamic world. We ARE seeing more clerics now speak out against domestic violence, FGM, honor killings, etc. We're seeing more men and women get involved with how women were treated in the time of the Prophet and expanding their rights on earth to those Allah already gave them. We're seeing more muftis and maulanas discussing the rights of women and minorities as well as how they can to be restored. We're seeing more people growing tired of fundamentalism and literalist interpretations. Alhamdullilah!
Profile Image for Moonkiszt.
2,168 reviews214 followers
January 22, 2023
Geraldine Brooks is one of my favorite authors, and when looking for her books I came across this one, a non-fiction work, and one of her first, based on her experience working with Muslim women - a topic about which I know little, I was interested.

Ali, was the first Shia Imam, and he said, "God created sexual desire in 10 parts; then he gave nine parts to women and one to men." In other words, a woman is a dangerous creature. Hmm. From this springs the title of the book.

The author covers personal stories, retold stories, stories from Islamic scripture. She covers countries and nations that come to their culture through Islam in very different ways: Iran, Jordan, Sudan, Kuwait, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Eritrea. She shows how interpretation of scripture and application of social tradition has affected the lives of women throughout those regions - and advocates against FGM and honor killings.

A worthy read, to learn more about our sisters in this world, and hope for their happiness and health.
77 reviews
November 28, 2007
This book is by the author of last year's Pulitzer winner "March", Geraldine Brooks. This was written based on her experiences as a reporter in the Middle East, trying to understand what it's like to be a Muslim woman in a number of different Islamic countries. Along the way, she studies the Koran, shedding some light on Mohammed's writings. My book club read this book long before the current interest in all things Islam. I would recommend it for that reason; Brooks has no political agenda. She has a humanist agenda, trying just to understand what the pull is for women in Islam, and what their lives are like. It's like sitting down with a friend for coffee to read this book. Very conversational, not didactic or off-putting. I really recommend it.
Profile Image for Sara.
758 reviews13 followers
February 19, 2015
I had a really hard time getting through this book for two reasons- first it was extremely repetitive, covering the same subjugation of women in Muslim countries. Second I became frustrated with these same issues and found myself boiling with rage, mostly because I see so many of these things happening in our country in the radical right's war on women. The religious fundamentalists of all denominations seem to have an irrational fear of women as an educated, equal segment of society. This book was written in 1995 , with an Afterword added post 9/11. The issues are unchanged, if anything have become more extreme.
Profile Image for Jenny (Reading Envy).
3,876 reviews3,119 followers
April 24, 2007
An interesting look inside various groups of Islamic women, contrasted with what the Koran says, what the cultures practicing Islam have ended up doing, and other surprises. Good for a general overview, and good for breaking stereotypes. Has a good glossary and excellent bibliography at the end.
Profile Image for Suzannah.
Author 31 books490 followers
September 11, 2022
I was surprised by this book: I expected a brief introduction to Islamic feminism, but while it definitely contained elements of that, it was far more a Western critique of Islamic women's issues. Written by an nominally Jewish white Australian journalist who must have spent about a decade in the late 80s and early 90s working and living in the Middle East and making connections with women from Iran to Eritrea, the book, while no longer up to date, and undoubtedly an outsider's view, does offer a fascinating snapshot of the lives of Muslim women under Muslim regimes at a specific moment of time.

And that snapshot is often pretty counterintuitive. We've all seen those cranky Facebook memes showing photos of life in Iran under the shah versus life in Khomeini's revolutionary regime, insinuating that most Iranian women before the revolution were getting around in miniskirts and thigh high boots. In fact, Brooks shows, the shah's attempt at equality by fiat was a terrible failure for the Iranian women she spoke to, who were sequestered at home by traditional families worried that life in the shah's regime would hopelessly corrupt them: the more traditional society set up by the ayatollah's revolution allowed these women to leave home and attend school, host sporting events, teach at university or enter other jobs. Then, we've all seen photos of Jordan's glamorous Queen Noor, who (for me at least) always used to project an image of a forward-thinking country where women can look up to a queen who isn't required to hide her face or hair. But Brooks, who became a personal friend of the queen's, shows that Jordan wasn't always like this: Queen Noor and her husband had to navigate religious extremism and international crises on their way to modernising Jordan, and not just for the women. That chapter was the standout of the whole book and left me in tears - so happy and encouraging that I almost don't want to look at what's happened in Jordan since.

But the usual dark underside is here as well - honour killings, FGM, modesty police. I think one of the ways this book is helpful is that it shows how extremely different it is for women in places like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Jordan, Iran, Eritrea, and so on. Saudi Arabia probably comes off worst, but it's important to note that things have been changing there in the past decade, too. Moreover, Brooks is careful in noting where a particular practice has grounding in the Quran and/or hadith, and where it does not. If there is a central message of the book, it is this:

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. It becomes insufficient to look at Islam on paper, or Islam in history, and dwell on the inarguable improvements it brought to women's lives in the seventh century. Today, the much more urgent and relevant task is to examine the way the faith has proved such fertile ground for almost every antiwomen custom it encountered in its great march out of Arabia.

As I've been studying the history and teachings of Islam off and on over the years, one thing that strikes me as a feature of Islam is its reliance upon consensus and tradition. If there's a doctrine of "sola Qurana" in Islam, I have yet to stumble upon it: the hadith, traditional accounts of the life of Muhammed, and the sunna, the consensus of the Islamic community (especially what can be historically reconstructed of the consensus of the Islamic community at the time of Muhammed) are seen as essential sources of Islamic faith and practice. I wonder if this might partly answer the question posed by Brooks; it might also answer why Iran, dominated as it is by the Shia regime which Brooks argues relies less upon the authority of the majority consensus by virtue of its adherence to a minority sect, is better able to set aside extra-Quranic cultural accretions than many other Islamic regimes.

In any case, this is one of the more fair and balanced books I've ever read on women's issues in Islamic countries, not that I can claim to be widely read on the topic. Islam is a huge subject and its adherents are as diverse as those of my own faith, so I don't pretend to understand it, but I enjoyed seeing a few more parts of the picture in this book. And, as always when reading a critical account of another faith, I couldn't help seeing certain parallels with my own. Christianity also has a lot to answer for in terms of patriarchal traditionalism and extrabiblical accretions. We judge each other in matters of food and drink and clothing all the time even though that sort of thing is expressly called out in the Bible. There are certain mistakes and abuses that are rife within all religions, but I have faith that God can bring all of us in time to a better knowledge of the truth, and a greater love for one another.
Profile Image for Reem.
50 reviews3 followers
September 5, 2014
I hated this book. Right from the introduction I got annoyed and knew I was gonna be in for an annoying ride. She starts off this book saying outright that Muslim women are oppressed. What the hell?

bell hooks,Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black, writes "When we write about the experiences of a group to which we do not belong, we should think about the ethics of our action, considering whether or not our work will be used to reinforce and perpetuate domination."

In this case I think she's definitely perpetuating domination. She writes 'about' muslim women, she doesn't tell their story. Not by a long shot. She 'others' them.

What annoyed me the most, what I couldn't figure out, is how she's a journalist, but she's unable to tell a story without blatantly stamping her own opinions all over it! Karen Armstrong is a religious historian. She's written countless books on various religions and religious figures, Mohammed included, but one doesn't get this personal opinion shining through like in this book. Brooks' version of Mohammed is extremely biased. I can't imagine a Muslim woman not being offended by it. So it speaks to how she views the people she's writing the book about. It's insensitive.

She also doesn't do a good job separating the religion from the cultures she encounters. Over and over again she mentions misogynist practices and outrageous inequality but it's always cultural. What the heck?! If you're trying to show how Islam is oppressive, then stop giving me accounts of how different cultures are misogynistic! It's either Islamic or it's not. You can't talk about the misogyny and then say but it's not Islam. What's your point then?

The only redeeming quality of this book for me were the stories of the various people she comes across. I found that interesting. I can't imagine living in Saudi Arabia, or Palestine. I'm in New Zealand, with freedoms and rights and all that.

I read this book at the same time that I was reading the bell hooks book I mentioned above, as well as From My Sisters' Lips. I thought it would be interesting to read feminist theory, along with a white woman's view of muslim women, as well as a muslim woman's view. Brilliant. I could really see what hooks was talking about. And it just annoyed the crap out of me.

"For white and non-white women, black people and all individuals from ethnic groups who are gay there have been historical moments wherein each of our experiences were most studied, interpreted and written about solely by white males... They became the authority to consult if anyone wanted to understand the experiences if these powerless groups. This is the politics of domination."

So, my overall opinion is that she's racist. This was a major feminist fail for me. This book was written a long time ago, so maybe she's learned about Intersectionality since then.
Profile Image for Emma Deplores Goodreads Censorship.
1,162 reviews1,262 followers
August 30, 2015
This is a fascinating, if poorly titled, work of nonfiction. Brooks spent several years as a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, where she spent time with hundreds of women – some of them newsworthy in their own right, others just average people.

The title gives a false impression of the book on two counts: first, while sex and marriage are discussed, these topics are not the primary focus; and second, the book doesn’t pretend to discuss the lives of Islamic women everywhere – Brooks traveled in the Middle East and a bit in North Africa, but this region is actually home to a minority of the world’s Muslim population. That said, the book draws clear distinctions among Middle Eastern societies, from Saudi Arabia to Iran to Egypt to Palestine, and provides an overview of a wide variety of subjects. Big universal topics like education, marriage and employment are covered, as well as practices associated with Islam, such as veiling, honor killings and female genital mutilation (a horrifying chapter – and as Brooks points out, while Islam may not promote this practice it isn’t doing much to end it either). There are also chapters on women in the military and guerrilla movements, in politics, in sports and the arts, and the success or failure of feminist groups. The book is now 20 years old, but still very relevant today; Brooks caught an earlier stage of trends that continue today, specifically the rise of fundamentalism.

All this is conveyed in a clear, precise journalistic style, mixing anecdotes from people Brooks met with personal stories she witnessed or experienced, along with her research; the chapter on the Prophet’s wives surprised me with the amount of information available about them. Brooks doesn’t try to hide her own worldview – she’s a progressive, secular feminist – but she relies on facts and observation rather than stereotypes, and clearly worked to understand the people that she met. And where the book makes judgments – well, there are moral issues where neutrality is not a virtue. Brooks is also careful to distinguish between what the Koran says, and what some societies choose to do.

If I have a complaint, it’s that the book is very short for the amount of material covered; as another reviewer stated, it piqued my interest rather than satisfying it. Also – there is more great novel material in the subjects covered in this book than the most prolific author could exhaust in a lifetime, but instead of writing those novels, Brooks went off and wrote about the Plague, and the American Civil War, and a past/present historian story. Dammit, why couldn’t she write the novels I want to read?
Profile Image for Ramiz Qudsi.
143 reviews32 followers
June 5, 2016
I have read at least 10 books about the history of Islam and have never come across the fact that Ayesha took arms against the Caliph himself, or that Fatima never approved of one of the Caliphs. Both are arguably the most prominent women in Islam. Surprisingly, Mom (a well read woman in Islamic history) didn't know either.
I guess we (the Islamic scholars) tend to write the history forgetting any instance which may stain the otherwise pristine sheet of Islam. Unfortunately though, the history shows it has it's own share of blots.

For most of the book the writer mentions the status of women in various Islamic countries. How pitiful they all are, and what a dismal life they all are living. Though mostly true, one can feel certain bias in reporting. Or may be it was just me. She got the bull's eye though while explaining why the status of women is what it is. Yes it is the hypocritical society of ours and the fact that men dominates.

Almost everything that is wrong with Islam is wonderfully summarized in the concluding chapter of the book, "It becomes insufficient to look at Islam on paper, or Islam in history, and dwell on the inarguable improvements it brought to women's lives in seventh century. Today, the much more urgent and relevant task is to examine the way the faith has proved such fertile ground for almost every antiwomen custom it encountered in its great march out of Arabia. When it found veil and seclusion in Persia, it absorbed them; when it found genital mutilations in Egypt, it absorbed them; when it found societies in which women had never had a voice in public affairs, its own traditions of lively women's participation withered."

Yes, this is the problem. A large part of Islamic world can no longer differentiate between the customs adopted because of geographical expansion and those that were actually asked in Islam. Same goes for the non-Islamic world. They too need to study and understand that everything that a Muslim does is not necessarily what Quran has asked. It might have been born out of the land he grew up in.
Profile Image for Louise.
1,672 reviews301 followers
May 13, 2013
Islam means submission. This is just one of the facts that I learned from this book. It became not just a fact but an insight as I continued reading it.

The book's excellence is demonstrated in that 13 years after its publication it is still being read. Since its publication there have been many books on this topic, including social studies and personal narratives, but this one still stands out.

Brooks spent 6 years in traveling to Middle Eastern Islamic countries covering the plight of women. While there is a chapter on Queen Nour, the book is primarily on the many anonymous middle class women who must submit to decisions about their lives, their health, their time, their children, where they can travel and even their dealth, all made by men. These men are not required, and most are not conditioned to, value her or consider her opinions or needs. They seem to be driven by their "honor" which is reflected by how well she masters the art of submission.

Brooks gives the clearest presentation I've read on the origins of the anti-woman practices that are permitted. She describes Mohammed's relations with his wives and the aftermath of his death which set the stage for others to interpret and misinterpret his words and actions.

The last chapter, where the author summarizes the issue and the lack of attention it receives world wide is pithy and strong.
Profile Image for Ladan F.
32 reviews
August 16, 2007
This is an absolutely fascinating book. Brooks doesn't really bog the reader down with too much "research" - she gives you a good historical and literary background, but she fleshes out that framework with anecdotes from her meetings with Muslim women. Though it is obvious that Brooks abhors the treatment of women under most forms of Islam, she is very careful to show that this is mostly a political issue and NOT actually advocated in the Koran.
Profile Image for Q.
449 reviews
December 20, 2022
I read this when it first came out in 1995. 26 years ago. It was an eye opener to me. I’m grateful for Geraldine’s offering of this. This was not the norm for publishing then. Publishing has gotten a lot broader in global people scope in these last 26 years - and may it be more expansive; may we hear more peoples voices and open our hearts wider and and hear each other.
Profile Image for Noel.
835 reviews33 followers
July 28, 2009
This book was written in 1994, pre-9/11 and pre my interest in the Middle East. I mean I knew a little bit about a couple of countries, but not much. This book changes that. I had read Brooks book, Year of Wonders about the plague, and March, about the Civil War – both excellent books, but I had no idea she was an accomplished journalist whom the Wall Street Journal had sent to the Middle East as a foreign correspondent – and not for six month, but for 6 years. Her curiosity, open mindedness and intelligence turn what could have been a scholastic, academic subject, into a readable, understandable short enough to get through work of nonfiction. The fact that she wrote it before 9/11 gives it perhaps more of an unbiased view, although I dare say I think it would have been unbiased anyway. It is, however, one woman’s experience – hers and hers alone. She donned the abaya, the scarf and whatever other garment she needed to wear and introduced herself into the lives of these women to further understand it. She herself is not muslim, and it is strictly her perspective that dominates the book.

The book is well researched. And as Salmon Rushdie said to her “make no mistakes.” It’s the kind of book which is easy to criticize as it touches on the touchiest of subjects, Faith and Religion. There is only one thing worse than a critique of someone else’s religion – it’s a critique of your own faith. And so it seems to me that Brooks dotted all her I’s and crossed all her t’s. She researched and explained all her points, and illustrated them with real people.

Brooks organizes the book into chapters that talk about childhood, education, female genital mutilation, politics, work, family life , to name a few, and gives a wealth of historical background information on the Koran, on Mohammed and his wife Fatima – to bring the reader to the point of understanding how the Islamic world has arrived at their positions regarding women now. She also distinguishes between the different countries (although she doesn’t much touch progressive Turkey), she does go into a bit of the history of Jordan, Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabia being the most repressive of the Middle Eastern societies, Iran and Egypt being the most progressive.

To me, in particular, I see the world of Islam, and most especially fundamentalism, as female apartheid. It is a world of rules set by men for the betterment of men. Men who cannot keep it zipped if they hear the voice of a woman, who cannot contain themselves if they see an ankle, or a bit of hair. Men who place so much emphasis on their lack of self control, that sexuality (or lack thereof) permeates every aspect of every bit of their lives. And in doing so, deny 50% of their human population the right to live, the right of choice, to make decisions, to fulfill their dreams to create a purposeful life, to make mistakes. In the end, I just don’t get it.
Profile Image for Nisah Haron.
Author 24 books361 followers
September 15, 2012
Membaca buku ini membuat saya bersyukur bahawa saya muslimah yang tinggal di negara yang lebih aman. Bayangkan saya tidak boleh memandu kereta sendiri, seperti wanita Arab Saudi? Memakai tudung (chador) hanya berwarna gelap dan pudar di Iran. Islam di Malaysia lebih rasional namun, masih tidak terkikis nilai-nilai Islaminya.

Penulisnya membuat kerja lapangan sebelum menulis buku ini. Dapatan beliau adalah berdasarkan apa yang dilihat dan diberi faham kepadanya pada ketika tersebut. Ada yang kita boleh bersetuju, ada yang memerlukan kita berfikir semula. Saya masih kurang jelas, mengapa buku ini perlu diharamkan oleh KDN Malaysia.

Saya suka cara penulisan Brooks. Dia wartawan yang pandai memilih kata-kata. Bukan sekadar melaporkan dengan polos tanpa emosi. Melalui tulisannya, pembaca dapat mengikuti pergolakan emosi penulis dan wanita-wanita yang terlibat di dalam bukunya.
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