The Hidden World of Islamic Women
by Geraldine Brooks
First sentence: “The hotel receptionist held my reservation card in his hand.”
Support your local independent books: buy it there!
When I read this back in 1995, when it first came out, I remembered being floored by it. It was fascinating, powerful, interesting, moving. It’s what put Geraldine Brooks on the map for me (I loved her husband’s, Tony Horwitz, writing, too), which is not something I regret.
Before I go on, this book is Brooks’ investigation into the lives of women in Islamic countries. It’s something only she can do — obviously, being a woman — and she tries to cover all aspects of how Islam, and the laws in majority-Islamic countries, affect the lives of the women in those countries. It runs the gamut: from veiling, to polygamy, to clitoridectomies, to travel, to politics and education. It focuses mostly on the Middle East: Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and a little bit of Iraq and Kuwait. She does dip into Pakistan and Africa, but only incidentally.
The thing that struck me most, this time around, was how much I wish that there was an updated version of all this. How did the Taliban change things in Afghanistan? Or the second Iraq war? How is the situation now, thirty years on, in Iran? The whole book — while still interesting — just felt dated.
Part of that was me, obviously: I think this was the first book I’d ever read on Islam, and while I’m not as well-read as some (like Amira), I do have a basic idea of the religion these days. And so I noticed things this time around that I didn’t last time. Like, while Brooks has respect for the basic tenets of the religion, she really doesn’t have much respect for those who try and interpret the religion. She’s very critical of most Islamic governments, and many of the individual men. It’s firey feminism at its finest, and while it’s justified in many ways (genital mutilation is just wrong, period.), it’s also heavy-handed. It’s not that it’s a bad thing, but (especially for a convert to Judaism, and someone who grew up Catholic; or maybe it’s because of those things), it’s almost like she willfully doesn’t understand someone who could actually submit to the things these women submit to. Or why they would do it happily. It’s like she’s thinking: doesn’t everyone want what a Western secularist wants? And if not, why?
I’m not sure I liked it as much this time around. Then again, I’m not sure how much it matters anymore. Brooks has written better books, and there are more interesting ones on Islam. Though sometimes it’s nice to revisit old books just to see how well they hold up. Even if it’s not all that well.