When I was buying a stack of books at a used book store, the guy behind the counter noted that I had a stack of all women writers–Heyer, Plath, Le Quin and Christi–and picked up a book that was sitting next to the 1980s cash register. “Here,” he said, offering the book, “You might like this. It’s about Islamic women’s issues.” I took the slender paperback from him and turned it over in my hand; Nine Parts of Desire by Geraldine Brooks. In addition to other key points about the book, he added, “This is a scary book. It make me thankful that I’m not a woman.”
If nothing else, his last statement caught my interest. I added the book to my collection and started reading it on the bus ride home.
When I stood to get off the bus, the woman sitting across from me reached out to stop me. “Nine Parts of Desire,” she said, nodding to the book closed on my thumb, “I love that book. It’s so empowering.”
The startling difference of opinion from one strange to the next is justified in the text. And in nine parts, I’ll tell you why.
1. islamic tradition puts women in a bad ass roles
The most striking thing to me–with my less than passable knowledge of the Islamic tradition, let alone the variants of Islamic traditions–are the warrior women that the Koran celebrates. Women rode into battle along side Muhammad, gave him council, which he took over that of men, and even saved his life. At the start, before Muhammad became the religious man he was to become, he married an older, successful business women and remained married to only her until her death. From her, he inherited estate and wealth.
This tradition, noted in the Koran, has been referenced when the women of the United Arab Emirates wanted to join the military and defend their country, which they successfully did with a women’s academy. The female tradition in Christianity derives from mothers and female caregivers, not from intellect and battle-bravery.
I won’t get into this much, because it makes me sick to my stomach and almost forced me to put the book down. The fact this “tradition” exists today is horrifying. And the fact that women believe it is necessary for their propriety and their sexual health is… I’m not sure if disgusting fully covers it.
3. how women’s sexuality as viewed by society
Here is where the book gets its title, and where I was able to draw a contradicting comparison to my own religious tradition.
In the Islamic tradition, according to Brooks, Allah created 10 parts of desire. Men were given 1 part and women were given the other 9. Women are believed to be the more sexual gender and even have the religious right to divorce their husband if they aren’t “getting it” often enough. But because of their perceived hyper-sexuality, women are given the responsibility of propriety. Women are not allowed to lead prayer or be leaders in society as their voices are too sexual and sex does not have a place in politics and religion. They are obligated to cover themselves, not revealing the feminine (the sexual) parts of the bodies. As a sexual being, women are responsible for making sure that sex does not happen when it shouldn’t.
To compare, in Christian and western traditions, men are viewed as the more sexual gender, but women are still the obligated gender to stop the sex from happening.
4. taking the veil.
The concept of a veiled woman initially struck me as misogynistic as it comes. It derives from the feminine responsibility to disclose their sexuality. To me, it deprives women the chance to be seen as an individual. But, I will concede to a point that some of Brook’s interviews made–being veiled removed the glaring fact that women where in fact women. In countries where Islamic women are allowed to work, women at work saw an advantage to wearing the veil; men were more inclined to treat them as equals when the fact that they were working with a women wasn’t painfully obvious. Being veil created a strong sense of self, according to the interviewed women, because they are recognized for their mind and their skills rather than their appearance.
I still don’t like the concept of the veil, but I’ll reserve my judgement of those who choose to wear it because if it works for you and it’s part of your belief, I am not one to disrobe you.
5. the multiple wives club
In many Islamic traditions, men are able to take many brides, often without telling their existing wife/ wives. And in societies where polygamy is illegal, a man has only to public claim to divorce his existing wife so he can take a new one. This public claim does not even require that the wife he is divorcing be told.
6. traveling and permission slips
The book begins with Brooks recounting a time when she was not allowed to stay in a hotel room because she was traveling without her husband. She made reservations, but the hotel staff mistook her name and assumed she was male. She was taken to the authorities and after no one could come to a suitable solution, they allowed her to stay at the hotel alone with 3 policemen standing outside her door because they thought she was dangerous (and was obviously so since her husband was not there to make her behave).
If I had to have my father’s permission to leave the house each day, I think I would scream.
7. cultural identity
This concept is a bit hard for me to wrap my arms around, but I am trying. The hard embrace of Islam and Islam strict rules can be seen as a response to Western influence. With the meddling and forceful influence the western world has on the entire world, Islamic countries in the east do not want to loose their tradition in exchange for western philosophies. They cling to their traditions, even that ones that are arguably outdated and detrimental, in the hopes that their traditions will survive the imports of the west. To me this seems silly, like a middle schooler who does not want to be defined by stereotypes so badly that they start prescribing to stereotypes. But, I shouldn’t equate Islamic extremists to angsty, American pre-teens.
8. honor in killing?
Does this even need explaining? Brooks does not dive into their very much, but rather notes it and calls for it to be evaluated. She has even witnesses such a practice being forgiven in a British court because the jury found the murder of a wife to be a crime of passion, of temporary insanity, instead of the practice of honor killing, which Brooks believes it to have been. How sad a life it would be if your family was prepared to end your life for the sake of, what boils down to, gossip.
I closed this book, but not before underlining a passage that beautifully sums of the book:
These incidents come at us from so deep in left field that we, as Westerns, have no coherent way to think about them. We shrug. Weird foreigners. Who understands them? Who needs to?
Understanding. I know it sounds cheesy and cliche, but it’s the very the thing that we, as Westerns, are lacking. We lack the initiative to learn something new and to investigate matters that are not being spoon fed to us in Facebook feeds or in news reports that we tolerate the five minute before our Tuesday night show comes on. I am guilty of this as anyone, writing this post solely based on my experience with Brooks’ book and without exploring other resources.
But I plan to, and I reserve the right to correct any mistake in fact I have made based on ignorance or to change my opinion. That is the beauty of education–it allows growth and change and should not be viewed as flippant.
Understanding; it is lacking in some Islamic traditions. When sisters are killed, when children are cut and mutilated, and when women cannot travel or have a job without wearing a veil or having explicate permission from her male family members, there is a severe lack of understanding going on.
Religion should not be a weapon to pass judgement or to condemn; it should not stand in the way of earthly happiness and love. Religion should be a celebration. It should be that earthly happiness and love. Fathers, brothers, husbands, countries, and even women should not be allowed to hinder the prosperity of any other person.
are you glad you’re a woman? are you glad you’re not?
So who was right, the bookshop worker or my friendly bus traveler? Is it cheating to say both? Parts of this book frightened me to death. When I walk to work wearing my knee length dresses, I wonder what it would be like if I was suddenly attacked by those who thought I was indecent, a threat women in veiled societies take if they are not dressed to code. I cook for myself in my own apartment, miles away from my family, and I count myself lucky to be allowed to live this way.
Let me just say, I hate that I’m using allowed. I am not allowed my life. Rather, I am making a life for myself and working very hard to make it what I want it to be. I don’t feel myself “allowed” anything.
Not to say that we in the so-called “Western World” have it all figured on here, but reading Brooks’ Nine Parts of Desire definitely inspired gratitude in me, gratitude for my country, my parents’ support, my education and my opportunities.
This book was published in 1995, years before the tragedy of September 11th and the start of the War on Terror. I wonder how things have changed in the 20 years since its publication. I wonder how the strain of war has impacted the Islamic world and the world of Islamic women.