HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

March 26, 2007
From Liberty Street

Islamic Women

John Turner


I have said from time to time, only partly in jest, that when it comes to relations between the sexes the human race is incurably insane. Geraldine Brooks's Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women more than confirms that judgment. Published in 1994, the book relates a half -dozen years of Ms. Brooks's conversations with women in the Middle East after she went there in 1987 to report for the Wall Street Journal.

She says near the beginning of her account: "I arrived as a Western reporter, living for each day's news. It took me almost a year to understand that I had arrived at a time when the events of the seventh century had begun to matter much more to the people I lived with than anything they read  in the morning paper." This introduces one of her major themes: that the rise of a radically fundamentalist Islam has been transforming many Middle Eastern countries in ways that are not only hard  for the West to grasp, but that have produced results few familiar with earlier Islamic history would have expected. And these transformations have affected the lives of women even more strongly than they have of men.

What Brooks wants us to comprehend is that the current position of women -- from northern Africa to Afghanistan -- does not represent a going back to anything as much as it does a new sensibility, that is fueled more by hatred of the West than it is by devotion to religious standards. For although the events from the first days of Muhammad's prophecies are much discussed now in Islamic countries, the discussions have not led to copying the society he created around himself. The irony is that women's lives now in much of Islam are more rigidly constricted than Muhammad could have imagined or would have approved.

Even though the leaders of Islam wouldn't admit it, their populations, with the advent of rapid, widespread communications, have been transformed into reactive societies that are fiercely driven by what they view as the decadent license prevailing in the West. They are determined not to succumb to it, and, in particular, not to permit their women to become like Western women, since as Ms. Brooks reports, they tend to believe the widely held assumption that all Western women are whores. It's a view more often expressed by men than women, but the women themselves are not immune to it. To think that most Islamic women secretly agree with the opinions of Western feminists is a serious mistake.

In Nine Parts of Desire there is much discussion of items of dress. The abaya, the burka, the chador, the jalabiyya, the magneh, the niqab are all sartorial devices designed to hide the bodies of women from all men who are not members of their immediate families. Together they make up hijab -- literally a curtain -- which is the term used for women's dress that, presumably, follows Islamic principles. This clothing imposes fairly serious inconveniences on women who are attempting to move about the world and do the world's work. But no inconvenience is considered more important than the practice of hiding women away from the view of strange men.

The most severe restrictions are imposed on the women of Saudi Arabia, where the rules about what they can and cannot do would strike the average American as completely crazy. They cannot, for example, get a hotel room unless they are accompanied by men, they cannot drive a car, they cannot travel without permission from a close male relative, normally a husband or father, they cannot sit in a classroom with male students. These are the dictates of Wahabi, an ultraconservative movement founded in Arabia in the 18th Century by a preacher named Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahab. Though Wahabi has heretofore held sway mainly in Arabia, it is beginning to spread, and has a firm foothold among the Palestinians in Gaza.

The condition of women in these places causes Ms. Brooks to exclaim: "Like most Westerners, I always imagined the future as an inevitably brighter place, where a kind of moral geology will have eroded the cruel edges of past and present wrongs. But in Gaza and Saudi Arabia, what I saw gave me a different view"

In that assessment lies the underlying message of this book. We can make no easy assumptions about what the future will hold. The universe decrees no particular path it must follow. The idea of progress as inevitable is fatuous. Westerners have a difficult time with these truths, but it's likely we will have to confront them more and more in the coming decades.
The lesson the lives of Islamic women should teach us is that if we really are going to promote freedom, we should have a more firmly grounded vision of it than the jejune mouthing of a George Bush. We feel, intuitively, that women in the Middle East are being severely mistreated. And our intuitions are probably not wrong. But we can help them, as well as ourselves, not by the employment of bombs, but by knowing more securely what we stand for, and why it is more in keeping with demonstrably healthy human existence than the practices that horrify us elsewhere.


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