The women of Islam
Book review by Fred Lane
Brooks, Geraldine. Nine parts of desire: The hidden world of Islamic women. Anchor Books: New York 1994. 255 pp, $17.95 (paperback)
Contrary to Norma Khouri’s reportedly faked Forbidden love reports, Nine parts of desire is based on the authentic experiences of Australian author Geraldine Brooks. After growing up in Sydney and working for The Sydney Morning Herald, Brooks became a highly respected prize-winning journalist for The Wall Street Journal. She spent many years in the Middle East observing and recording the often contradictory political, religious and cultural forces that shape modern Muslim women’s lives. She shows how selective interpretations of holy texts are used to oppress females in this, the fastest-growing religion in the world today.
Of course minority oppression is not the sole prerogative of this particular religion. It also happens perhaps as much outside religion as within it, and it is a very rare religion or social group that can rightly claim to be entirely free of sexist bias. However, it is usually the fundamentalists and extremists who preach the strongest bias and the same people are usually the ones who most strongly urge their followers to oppress.
The Prophet’s opposite early behaviour
The denigration of Muslim women is particularly oppressive because the Prophet’s own words and original example reflect an entirely antithetical position. The modern forms of Muslim oppression are particularly barbarous because the customs and laws that go with this denial of human rights encourage cruel genital mutilation, punishment and even murder on the specious grounds of a feudal-based “family honour” system. The same code of laws allows child marriage, polygamy and wife-beating.
In seventh-century Arabia, the illiterate, orphaned and poor Muhammad married Khadija, ten years his senior, his employer and his only wife for 24 years. She was never required to wear a veil or seclude herself. She guided him into a position of power within his tribe, but died some nine years after Muhammad’s first vision of the angel Gabriel pronouncing the word of God. Six years after Khadija’s death, Muhammad reported a series of “revelations” that at first permitted him four wives, then eight or nine. As Brooks reports, after taking multiple wives into his household, “Soon there was jealousy, intrigue and scandal.” Coincidentally, another “revelation” led him to seclude his wives “to protect them”.
Polygamy and seclusion
Other followers quickly adopted his polygamy and seclusion rituals, some more fundamental than others. The veil and seclusion recommended by the more militant clerics and observed by many women today in Muslim countries are by no means universal, even in adjoining Middle East States. The Emirates, for instance, have been training fully emancipated female soldiers since 1991 while neighbouring Saudi Arabia stones selected adulterers to death.
Brooks’s title comes from a quotation by Ali, the founder of Shiite Islam, who was also the husband of Fatima, one of Muhammad’s four daughters. “Almighty God created sexual desire in ten parts, and he gave nine parts to women and one to men,” Brooks cites him saying. Therefore, it may be reasoned, this “nine-part” sexuality must be controlled, for the good of society (and protection for those men unable to control themselves).
Brooks argues that the veil and seclusion of women, while seemingly innocuous at first glance, lies at the root of much of the discrimination in those nations that practise it. It goes with fundamentalism. It is a visible sign that one group of human beings is different from another and those wearing the visible sign soon find themselves assuming lesser roles in society. Hitler employed the same strategy with Jews.
Once the socially inferior Nietzchean undermensch have been identified, it is easier impose arbitrary and harsh penalties if they transgress a host of laws that might not apply to the ubermensch.
Genital mutilation, sexism
In many Muslim cultures this dichotomy supports female genital mutilation, on the specious grounds that the operation will discourage women from becoming prostitutes or exercise the same sexual freedom permitted to males. It has not discouraged prostitution. It allows some Muslim men, but not their wives, to initiate a divorce by simply saying, “I divorce you.” It condones some men, typically a relative, murdering a woman for suspected extramarital sex, while allowing the male partner, even a rapist, to go scot-free. It allows fatwas (directions to murder) against academics and authors who are perceived to have encouraged the faithful merely to question their religion (or the men in power).
Many advance excuses for this anti-humanitarian behaviour. As Geraldine Brooks points out in her final chapter:
Presented with statistics on violence toward women, or facing the furore over the Rushdie fatwa, progressive Muslims such as Ali Allawi, Rana Kabbani and others ask us to blame a wide range of villains: colonial history, the bitterness of immigrant experience, Bedouin tradition, pre-Islamic African culture. Yet when the Koran sanctions wife-beating and the execution of apostates, it can’t be entirely exonerated for an epidemic of wife slaying and the death sentences on authors (p 231).
Other Muslim women have a contrary view. Brooks points to Morroccan Fatima Mernissi, who is unusual in that she is a renowned Koranic scholar. She makes a powerful case for sexual equality and dignity based on the Koran. Her work is very popular in Western universities, but is rarely addressed in male-dominated Islamic establishments. This suggests yet another prejudice against yet another woman who does not know her place in Islamic society.
Richard Glover, discussing this book in the influential Media, Entertainment and Arts journal, The Walkley, says:
Read this and you’ll not only learn a lot about Islamic women, you’ll be convinced that journalism should always begin like this, with a reporter, a notebook and real people.
Nine parts of desire is an important primer for those seeking to understand the Muslim religion and some of the mind sets behind modern terrorism.
Misogynists will not understand it.
Glover, Richard. Bookshelf. The Walkley Magazine, Issue 28, August/September 2004, p36
Martell, H.M. Looking back:The world of Islam before 1700. Evans Brothers Limited: London 1998.
Mernissi, Fatima. Beyond the veil: Male-female dynamics in Muslim society. Al Saqi Books: London. 1985.