Nine Parts of Desire

The Hidden World of Islamic Women
by Geraldine Brooks
ages: adult
First sentence: “The hotel receptionist held my reservation card in his hand.”
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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.

6 thoughts on “Nine Parts of Desire

  1. Interesting post. I read the book years ago too, must have been about 1997 'cos it was shortly after I came back from my own trip to the middle east. Like you back then I thought it was great, wonder what I would think now. Might even go and dig it out. Thanks for these insights

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  2. I already read the book. If there is anything the book lacks it is more of this universal perspective. Only one real statistic is given comparing the fate of women in Islam to the fate of women in the West. And this figure applies to Britain, not the United States, where murder rates are vastly higher. How does America, where so many women are beaten and killed by their husbands, compare to Muslim countries? Brooks does not address this question. It also is worth noting that it has only been in the past 20 years that American men have started to receive harsh sentences for beating or killing their wives, and U.S. law still is limited in domestic violence disputes. Is it possible that Islamic cultures need more time to progress in this way as well? It may be left to another book to show that the social forces fighting against women in Islam are similar to those social and cultural forces that subjugate women he ME, MYSELF AND I

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  3. I thought the book was okay. I liked that it gave me some new things to think about and it gave me some perspective – but I had some of the same issues you had. I will say, however, that our book club discussion of this book was one of the finest and deepest I've ever hard. I don't remember what tangents it took us to, but I remember it was amazing 🙂

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