By Geraldine Brooks.
New York: Anchor Books, 1995
ISBN # 0-385-47577-2
255 pages.

Comments by Bob Corbett
August 2010

Geraldine Brooks spent a significant amount of time from autumn 1987 into the early 1990s living among Islamic woman, living as they lived in significant manner, and making a serious effort through her experiences and her interviews and reading, to come to understand the place of WOMAN in Islam.

I learned a good deal from this book, hopefully gained some insight into this mysterious world of Middle Eastern Islamic women, yet I was a bit troubled by the anecdotal nature of the evidence and the huge gaps in historical connection. Brooks provides significant evidence via interviews in many Islamic nations, but I was wishing there were more scholarly inquiries to larger historical events and their impact on Muslim women. I came away concerned that too much weight had been placed on individual cases, and not as strong a case and I would have wished for a general understanding.

I did learn a good deal from her harking back to the time of Mohammed and how his life and his founding of the religion carried on to influence the present time. However, I was suspicious of the enormous gap. There was very little mention of anything within Islam between about 750 and 1950. I rather suspect other important influences must have occurred in those missing years.

Despite these reservations, I would recommend this book to all. It is an engaging read, well-written and even gripping in many of the personal stories she reveals. There is also some delightful humor, including my favorite observation of Brooks. After sweltering many times in the heavy required clothing of Islamic women, she observes:

“An irreverent thought occurred to me: if God really liked woman, He would have revealed the Koran to an Inuit fur trader rather than an Arabian camel-caravan manager.”

I especially liked the historical analysis she did pointing up the slow growth of Islamic radicalism, beginning to grow significantly in the 1980s as a way to protect Islamic culture and society. The center of the concern was cultural, but these ideologies came in significant measure alongside of economic penetrations. She says of Egypt

“Flirtation with socialism and capitalism had failed to arrest Egypt’s economic decline. The Islamic movement worked to abandon these recently imported ideologies and follow the system set down so long ago in the Koran.”

While she shows this trend in many nations, I was a bit surprised to read of even Egypt having been a ground for this movement, but she focuses more fully on Iran with the overthrow of the Shah and establishment of Khomeini’s strict Islamic Republic, the sort of frightened radicalism of the Saud family in Saudi Arabia and the satellite states surrounding it. There is also a useful treatment of the growth of radical Islam in Algeria.

However, her primary interest is not the development of Islamic radicalism and conservatism, but the place of women in those movements and the treatment of women. Brooks herself found surprises in the fact that two movements – the growth of radical Islam and the improvement, even modernization of the treatment of women – were at times not as clearly separable as she had supposed.

She discovered that through Iran’s Khomeini many Muslim woman were moved to retreat into to more traditional Islam. There seemed to be mixed feelings among the women. They disliked many of the practices which made them chattel of the men. In the main they either hated the practices of sexual mutilation, but also many unlearned women had been so indoctrinated with these practices that they didn’t know how to evaluate them or denounce them. However, the increasing pressure on their culture, which appeared significantly to be anti-Muslim as well, left many feeling the need to resist, and resisting by moving toward a more militant Islam seemed a hopeful path even to many learned women.

Brooks spends a lot of time in comparing and contrasting Sunni and Shiite Islam. The clear implication is that many of the practices of Islam which she finds abhorrent are today much more supported in the Shiite world than in the Sunni world.

She notes that her friend and western educated Iranian woman began to follow a strict rule of dress beyond what the Koran itself demands. She defended this on the grounds that one must go beyond the mere rules. Brooks seemed both surprised and somewhat disappointed in this move. However, I thought it made sense. If, as Brooks claims, this revival is in great measure a reaction to Western culture invading Muslim culture, then I would see that a serious resistance movement would have to be quite radical, even fundamentalist, in order to resist.

I’m not convinced such a tactic can long succeed in open culture, but the logic of the position makes sense to me. I can remember in the early 1960s when many of us in the simple life movement wanted to resist the growing materialism of our culture, we tried retreating into intentional communities like rural and urban communes, the Catholic Worker movement and other such communities. It may not have worked, but I’m not sure how else one fights off such a cultural upheaval.

Another feature of the book is the analysis and condemnation of sexual mutilation and other aspects of women’s world being one that is beneath the world of men and under their control. Those criticisms were well defended, just and necessary. It seems so bizarre and crazy to us in the west, yet she makes clear the history and origins of such behaviors, yet justly evaluating them..

I was struck how much the split between Sunni and Shiite Islam sounded a great deal like the split in Christianity with Luther, between the Roman Catholic Church and then the rising power of Protestant Christianity. The roots were different, but there were striking similarities which could allowed me to think of these issues within Islam by harking back to similar clashes between the two forms of Christianity.

I remain troubled by the missing years. This suspicion also harks back to my own mind’s doing this comparison between the split between Protestants and Catholics and the split between Sunni and Shiites. I have a hard time thinking that all the practices that the modern Shiite movement have introduced in the past half century are harking back to an older version of Islam at the time of Mohammed. I would suspect there were many influences in those intervening years, as there were within Christianity, such as the 15th century’s selling of indulgences, the moral lives of the clergy of that time and the trauma of the Avignon papacy.

I do wish Brooks had explored more within those missing years in arriving at the contemporary situation with the lives of women within Islam.

Nonetheless, I would recommend this book to all. It helps to look at these traditions, horrible as many are, and to at least see them within the culture and to come to FEEL the threat that the incursion of western culture into the Muslim world presents to contemporary Muslims.

Bob Corbett

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Bob Corbett