by Geraldine Brooks
Epiphany library section 7C: The Church in the World, Society/Human Rights/Justice.
This prize-winning journalist published this book in 1995 about the lives of Islamic women in Islamic-dominated middle eastern nations. While some regimes have become less repressive toward women since that time (women in Saudi Arabia can now book hotel rooms unaccompanied by a male), other nations are still very repressive as their leaders rise and fall, or chaos reigns, particularly in today’s Syria and Iraq.
Brooks first gives us background information about Mohammed life, his marriage to an older businesswoman, and his Koranic writings concerning relationships between Islamic women and men.
Then she introduces us to actual women from Islamic nations, from American-born Queen Noor of Jordan to college professors in Gaza, doctors in Saudi Arabia, and outlawed belly dancers in Egypt. While some women in Islamic countries are married, have children, are educated and have careers, Brooks introduces us to many more women repressed by Islamic law. The way these women dress, speak, worship, are educated, marry, and raise families are all designed to keep women at home. If they are in public they are chaperoned by male family members, and dressed to be anything from merely modest to completely invisible under head-to-toe cloaks with tiny fabric grilles over their eyes for peering outward as best they might. Brooks discusses the Islamic laws concerning polygamy and divorce, female mutilation, honor-killings, lack of educational and job opportunities, and the disparities in educational opportunities between these women’s sons and daughters.
There are very different interpretations of sharia (religious) law depending on whether the woman’s nation conforms to Shi’ite or Sunni Islam, and differing degrees of enforcement depending on how strong the “religious police” are. The variety is bewildering, and a woman’s chances for fulfillment, self determination, and happiness are extremely dependent upon the nation she is born in, and also the decade in which she is born. At times, these laws persecute even wealthy and royal women. It is very wearing, stressful and frightening to live with this constant repression and insecurity. Many of these women feel infantilized – treated like babies. Brooks exposes the hidden lives of Islamic women and the cultural, political, and religious forces that shape their lives. Her mix of historical perspective, laser-like observation, and intimacy with real women willing to share their lives make this a book you need to read. If nothing else, it also shows why the separation of church and state is so important to a healthy democracy.
If you’d like to read more about Judaism, Islam and Christianity from a woman’s point of view, try reading The Faith Club: A Muslim, A Christian and A Jew — Three Women Search for Understanding, by Ranya Idliby, in our church library section 7A under I for Idliby. It is about three American women who compare and contrast their faiths and grow from suspicion and discomfort to true friendship. Both of these are excellent books that give you insight into the middle east and how women are treated there, what these women think, believe, hope for, and struggle with.