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Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle East

3.99  ·  Rating details ·  387 Ratings  ·  56 Reviews
Over the centuries and throughout the world, women have struggled for equality and basic rights. Their challenge in the Middle East has been intensified by the rise of a political Islam that too often condemns women’s empowerment as Western cultural imperialism or, worse, anti-Islamic. In Paradise Beneath Her Feet, Isobel Coleman shows how Muslim women and men are fighting ...more
Hardcover, 352 pages
Published April 27th 2010 by Random House (first published January 1st 2010)
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Feb 08, 2013 rated it it was amazing
I lived in Saudia Arabia in 1984 and 1985 and recognized the two part system. In public women were treated one way and in private they were treat much more as equals. Visit any Saudi friend and in the privacy of his home you would think you were in any westerners home. Relaxed atmosphere. Wife not only uncovered, but in the current western fashions –Jordache at the time. What happens in public and private are two very different things. Through my graduate school education, the Middle East was vi ...more
Jeanette  "Astute Crabbist"
Isobel Coleman is senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations (an independent, non-partisan organization not affiliated with the U.S. Govt.). This book is the result of nearly a decade of travel, study, interviews, and writing about women in the Middle East.

Paradise Beneath Her Feet is an overview of both the history and current state of affairs with regard to women's rights in the Middle East. Each chapter is devoted to one of the major Middle Eastern nations. Iss
Julie Christine
Apr 17, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Recommended to Julie Christine by: Jeanette
"A mother is a school. Empower her and you empower a great nation." -Hafez Ibrahim, Egyptian poet (1872-1932).

This quote opens Paradise Beneath Her Feet and serves as a guiding theme throughout this extraordinary book. With a simple statement, an Arab poet from a previous century contradicts the outsider's view of Muslim women as victims of an authoritarian, patriarchal religion.

Isobel Coleman, a senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, takes us on a journey t
Apr 16, 2016 rated it it was amazing
it is a very unbiased and informative book. It talks about the reform movement that is currently led by women, an islamic feminism, across 5 countries: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, KSA, and Iraq. The most valuable lesson I gained from this book is that secularism cannot be applied, or enforced, in very religious, conservative and poorly-educated socities. Secularism scored a high level of failure in the Middle East, like in Iran and Eygept, especially that it was accompanied by harsh dectatorshi ...more
Luna Selene
Oct 23, 2012 rated it it was ok
I had high hopes for this book, but this book seemed to have even higher hopes for itself.

First, I would use the term "Middle East" lightly with this book. I think MENASA (Middle East, Northern Africa, Southeast Asia) would be more appropriate, kind of, minus the Northern Africa bit in a large part. Even then, Somalia is not a MENASA country, so the Somalian stories are inappropriate examples, so maybe she means Muslim-majority countries? I know that sounds like nit-picking, but really, someone
May 15, 2014 rated it it was amazing
I really loved this book. It opened my eyes to the challenges women in the Middle East face with regards to their rights. Islam is often misinterpreted and combined with old traditions to deny women their rights. I learned a lot about how Islam empowers women and protects their rights. I will never make assumptions about a veiled woman again after reading this.
Oct 13, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Coleman provides compelling arguments for the need of Islamic feminism.

For someone with limited previous knowledge of the islamic region the book provides interesting insights to the history and rise of islamic feminism and why it is needed and should be supported by muslims and secularists alike.

The book deals primarily about the pragmatic reasons for why islamic feminism is needed, and less systematically on the theoretical content of Islamic feminism. Each chapter illustrates the battle of d
Nov 13, 2011 rated it liked it
While reading Isobel Coleman’s “Paradise Beneath Her Feet,” I couldn’t help but think about the revolutionary wave of demonstrations and protests known as the Arab Spring that started in December of last year and has carried on through the bulk of 2011.

In its wake, we’re seeing the rise of Islamic political parties — and you can’t help but wonder how it will all play out for women, in general.

While women all over the world have, for centuries, fought for equality and basic rights, the fight stil
Nov 05, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a really interesting examination of feminism and women's rights in several Middle Eastern countries. Reading this book was a roller coaster ride for me... Delight at some of the success women have had in furthering their rights, and depression at how awful things still are in many countries.

I actually learned a lot about Islam from this book and I now understand how a woman can identify both as a Muslim and a feminist, so that was very enlightening. I also learned a lot about the history
Jan 26, 2014 rated it it was amazing
I absolutely loved the style of this book! I read it as part of a research exercise and found I couldn't keep myself from turning the pages! As far as biographical re-tellings/research/non fiction novels go, this is a must read for anyone with in interest in how other cultures interpret and structure femininity and gender. A big eye opener! It has a great way of minimising ethnocentricity in its storytelling. It's now up there on my "most respected" list. Absolutely fascinating and thought provo ...more
Kirsten Allen
Mar 04, 2010 rated it really liked it
This story details the rise of Islamic Feminism in the Middle East. Islamic Feminism seeks equality between men and women while working with the framework of Islam. The goal is to demonstrate that the discriminatory practices against women in the name of Islam are actually the result of tradition (which are obviously wrong) or the patriarchal nature of societies where Muslim women live.

Using the foundational texts of the Islamic faith, Islamic feminists (or what ever they call themselves) creat
Mar 04, 2012 rated it really liked it
This was a really great read. I helped me get a good background on the condition for women in different countries in the middle east and that progress or lack there of, in getting more equal rights for women. That being said it was a bit tough to get through because it was very heavy content, written like a scholarly paper. Not a quick read. There was also a bit of unnecessary repetition, but as there were so many different people, places and concepts mentioned, I understand her desire to furthe ...more
Mar 06, 2012 rated it it was amazing
It is highly unusual that I like a book I am reading for one of my classes, but this book was pretty amazing. Coleman is a truly great storyteller and made this book flow so well that I had difficulty putting it down.
I recommend it to everyone. Especially people who are interested in the feminist movements within the Middle East. However, I was disappointed that she didn't include Egypt, my home country, in the book. With everything that is going on there now it would make for an interesting pi
Dec 07, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Very interesting read on how women in Muslim countries are working together to better their lives and change both laws and people's beliefs that it is part of the Islamic religion that women should be treated like possessions of their male relatives or spouse. Change is slow but there is much hope that as women learn to read and thus can study the Qoran, they will begin to change many of the degrading practices that still happen: child-brides, spouse abuse, honour killings because their own scri ...more
Laura Cairns
Oct 21, 2017 rated it liked it
I live in Saudi Arabia, in Riyadh, and so I can only comment confidently on the Saudi chapter. Riyadh and Jeddah are very different. The female elites and the average Saudi woman are worlds apart. The writer chooses to write about elite women in Jeddah for the most part. This is like saying a female, high-flying, New York CEO is the average Saudi woman. She does acknowledge that she’s talking about elites, but that acknowledgement doesn’t really cut it. Why is it only elites? It is not difficult ...more
Scott Haraburda
Feb 03, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: first-reads
Goodreads First Reads Giveaway Book.


In a world where a male-dominated powerful society routinely ignores and persecutes half of its people, there is hope for a positive transformation. That is the message that Isobel Coleman offers its readers in her 2013 edition of Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women Are Transforming the Middle East . Her book helps us understand the cultural and religious aspects of Islam. Using several short sketches of a handful of accom
May 12, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Recommended to Sara by: Monitor
This book is such a fascinating look at feminism and Islam, and I'd highly recommend to to everyone (especially females). Broken into two parts, this narrative lays the case for how women are gradually changing the way females are treated under Islamic law and how trailblazing women are using their religion to improve the plight of women.

Part 1 explains how females have been treated in Islam and how women got to the place they are today. This is quite a well-researched section, giving plenty of
Won this in a Good Reads First Reads giveaway.

Coleman's vision of these nations is troubling and thorough; I learned a hell of a lot more about their histories and theocratic architectures than I've ever known before. However, she is not always a reliable objective guide, allowing the contempt she feels for some of her subjects to occasionally peek through (e.g. "I brace myself for another lecture about Iranian family values, but Ebtekar answers her ringing cell phone and I am spared") and omitt
Alex Kartelias
Nov 12, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: feminism
A necessary book to read. Many westerners both misunderstand the Islamic world as being monolithically repressive and feminism as being the self-righteous pleading of elitist, white women. Both of these generalizations still persist today and this book shows how both of them are false.

The so-called 'clash of civilizations' argument that rose post- 9/11 is a blind accusation because it refuses to see how even within civilizations, there is much diversity in opinion. In the same way that feminists
Oct 25, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: women
So far I was particularly impressed by the story on pages 4-6 about Dhabo Issa and other Somali women's creative efforts during the 1991 civil war to get food to the hungry and bypass looting by having the Red Cross bring the food in small shipments by donkey to communal kitchens in neighborhoods across the area rather than using big central supply stations that were more vulnerable to looting. I thought that was a great idea. Also the way they used some of the food aid to keep schools running. ...more
Vika Gardner
May 26, 2010 rated it really liked it
(Based on a pre-publication version)

This work examines "Islamic feminism" in several countries: Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. The sections on each country vary in length. The approach is largely anecdotal: Coleman uses the lens of individuals to examine and complicate ideas of what a feminist might be in the context of Islamist and politically complex arenas.

The section on Iran is the longest, and it is a credit to the author and publishers that it focuses on the time duri
Sep 04, 2011 rated it liked it
Over the centuries and throughout the world, women have struggled for equality and basic rights. Their challenge in the Middle East has been intensified by the rise of a political Islam that too often condemns women’s empowerment as Western cultural imperialism or, worse, anti-Islamic. In Paradise Beneath Her Feet, Isobel Coleman shows how Muslim women and men are fighting back with progressive interpretations of Islam to support women’s rights in a growing movement of Islamic feminism.

In this t
Oct 03, 2010 rated it really liked it
I originally checked this book out so I could suggest it to my book group. We didn't pick it, but I decided to read it on my own. It is an excellent overview of what is going on with women, politics and religion in the Middle East at this point in time.

This book showed me gaps in my education about so many things. I don't have a firm grasp on the history of the area, on the Islamic religion or even what women go through in that part of the world. There is so much to know in the world and none of
I received this book through the Goodreads First Reads giveaway! (Thank you!)

I wanted so badly to love this book. It's an incredibly important topic and a sad majority of
Americans seem to be woefully ignorant about the Quran and are far too quick to blame any problems in the Middle East on religion. And it that way, this is a great book that I would recommend to anyone interested.

My complaint is this: The entirety of the book only touches as recently as 2009. While the histories of the differe
Oct 08, 2012 rated it liked it
Interesting stories of women struggling for equality throughout the middle east. The author seems overly optimistic, in my opinion, that the efforts of the many she has interviewed constitute a wide-ranging movement that will change culture. The book is full of anecdotal experiences but provides little demographic data on societal trends in the nations of Iran, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan. It did provide interesting insights into the harsh conditions that women face under shari ...more
Sep 23, 2010 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
This is a wonderful, hopeful, and seemingly realistic look at women's movements in Islamic countries. Coleman starts with an overview of Islamic feminism, which includes studying the Quran and hadithas to try to separate what Islam says about women from the paternalistic cultures that dominate many of the Islamic areas. She details the leaders, movements, different circumstances and histories in Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. These women and groups are working from within fo ...more
Sep 21, 2011 rated it really liked it
The author does a good job throughout the book explaining how Islamic Feminists go to the Koran and other early Islamic sources to sift through what is religious and what is cultural with respect to women's rights. As with other religions, sexist rules are rarely actual religious decrees - but rather male interpretations based on culture and patriarchy. Unfortunately, I think the author does herself a disservice at the end by stating that the Islamic Feminist movement will eventually become secu ...more
Miranda Root
May 28, 2012 rated it really liked it
I really enjoyed this book. It was a great overview of how women are taking back their religion and using it to prove their worth and equality. The strategy of using religious arguments when speaking to people who claim religion as their motivation. For example, in this country people claim to be devout Christians but at the same time say hateful things and don't take care of the poor. To really help them see the importance of taking care of and loving all people, you have to prove to them it is ...more
Hallie Jackson Brackett
Mar 01, 2016 rated it really liked it
The good: This is a really well written, informative book for adults that addresses multiple issues within Islamic feminism. Coleman does a great job weaving different elements together (religious, political, historical, cultural, etc) without letting things get muddled. I'd recommend this to anyone who is interested in women's issues, the middle east, and/or Islam.

The bad: Some of the language is quite scholarly. I don't think that a person who hasn't encountered academic writing prior to readi
Dec 11, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Clear explanations for what I know so little. It is comforting for the outsider to learn how the educated women understand their role in changing the customs.
But, it is likewise, a courageous feat for them to undertake in in her own land/area/country. The women are on their own but are growing into consortiums, teaching each other, and attempting to prove the writings in the Quran. It's so little to do with religion as it is with the culture beliefs and education. I'm very glad I read this book
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