A Muslim Response to: Nine Parts of Desire by Geraldine Brooks
As Ms. Brooks narrates her memoirs, an attitude surfaces. Her descriptions of things Islamic are filled with inflammatory adjectives and terms carefully chosen to elicit a negative response in the reader. Details of the Saudis not allowing a women traveling alone to have a hotel room sound harsh, yet the author neglects to explain how she got as far as that hotel lobby -- traveling with a male family member is a requirement of Saudi law and necessary to prove even to get a visa to enter the country. She describes the call to prayer as it "shatters" the peace of early morning. She makes the arrow pointing to qibla (the direction Muslims face when praying) seem invasive, as if it offends her eyes.
The author appears to set out on a self-designated mission to advocate the rights of the supposedly oppressed. Taken from an uncited source, the title of the book indicates that Imam Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad, says that nine out of ten portions of desire have something to do with women. For the author, that's why some are allegedly oppressed and secluded. The Islamic code of attire doesn't keep women from education or entering the work force. If Ms. Brooks is indeed on women's side, she should rejoice in the fact that Muslim women enjoy such freedom. Sahar (the Harvard candidate) said it makes her feel free and respected as an intellect, not a body. Asya (the Oxford candidate) says that when she opted to wear hijab all her fears disappeared. These women move freely on their campuses, unafraid of the likes of `date rape' and `stalkers', are treated as equals based on their intellect not as `sex objects' -- things many American female students wish for. As Ms. Brooks shifts abruptly (at times incoherently) in time and place, she struggles to prove that Islam is holding women's progress back. Yet she cannot restrain from including examples of Islam's women achievers, starting with the Prophet's wives and ending with the Turkish and Kurdish women. Even in Iran, amid absolute seclusion of the sexes, women have entered every aspect of the work-force and education. Chadors do not inhibit them from driving motorcycles to work. Saudi laws ban women from driving not because Islam says to, but because it is the law of the land. Men, Ms. Brooks says, suppress their wives. But she also says that Khadija (Khomeni's wife) played a key role in his political decisions. So do all the wives of political leaders and not only Queen Noor, the American-raised queen of Jordan. Muslim men do respect and include their wives' opinions , following the example of Prophet Muhammad himself.
When Ms. Brooks talks about polygamy in Islam, she takes the reader on a roller coaster ride between the positive and negative. In the time preceding Islam, Arabs considered women as property...a man could have as many wives as he could afford. So when the Quran permits men to have four wives it is actually limiting them to four, and adds the stipulation that they must be fair to all the women involved. In another verse the Holy Quran says no man can be completely fair, gradually bringing men to realize monogamy is their best choice. But, human nature being what it is, some men may not be satisfied with one woman year after year. By choosing to take on an additional wife, the man must take the permission of the first wife and must support all his wives and children. No abandonment...no single motherhood...the man is held accountable and financially responsible throughout. The noble symbol of motherhood, the Palestinian Rahma, is a good example. As her husband falls out of love with her and in love with Fatin, he offers her the opportunity of divorce. She chooses to stay with him. She pleasantly dances in his wedding and lives in peace with Fatin as they both raise the growing family together.
Female genital mutilation (FGM) to reduce sexual desire is another issue Ms. Brooks frequently mentions. The practice of FGM is a sub-Saharan African custom that predates Islam and by no means has anything to do with Islam. It is a cultural practice in some primitive communities, which is gradually diminishing, thanks to the efforts of Muslims in educating the people and applying Islamic law rather than clinging to cultural practices with no foundation in Islam.
As a supposed advocate for women's rights, the author indulges in politics. As she singles out the Palestinians as objects of her and her husband's admiration, she makes sure to include negative comments about Hamas or a Palestinian man who allegedly tries to rape her. When visiting Palestinian `friends' she contrasts the impoverished Palestinians against the modern `settlements' and `high-rises' of their Israeli occupiers. She turns western (especially American) mentality against Islam and Muslims with images of Iran during the revolution, chanting that America is the devil and the embassy a nest of spies. She degrades King Hussein of Jordan, making him appear as a barbaric Bedouin by her gory description of the slaughter of a camel. Egyptian artists (belly dancers and singers) who opt to retire and wear hijab are depicted as being part of a conspiracy, supposedly bribed by influential Saudis. Islam, the author says (and Muslims agree) means "submission" yet it is submission to God and only to God, not submission of woman to man as Ms. Brooks leads the reader to believe. Such misinterpretations and half-truths are too numerous to menti on. It seems that, in the eyes of the author, Muslim women are `damned if they do and damned if they don't'. While Ms. Brooks hails the achievement of Egyptian Muslim women, she counters with images of them being crushed between their jobs and selfish, demanding husbands. At Gaza University the Palestinian women are depicted in cumbersome hijab, yet the author neglects to remind the reader that the nearby Israeli (Orthodox Jewish) women also cover in much the same way. The American Muslim converts in Iran are happy and content in their new environment, but the author makes heed to remind us of Margaret and Betty Mahmoudy. While touting the Emirate women proven capable in the army, the author expresses her sorrow for them for acquiring `the right to kill and be killed'. The Women's Olympics are shown as an achievement for Muslim women, but somehow less so because of the exclusion of men and the ban of makeup. Not a single woman seems to meet the author's approval. A tabloid and gossip-oriented approach also prevails throughout the book. As she discusses the daily life in Prophet Muhammad's home, Ms. Brooks talks of scandals and competition. Throughout there is a tone of sarcastic disrespect. She portrays the wives of Prophet Muhammad as opinionated and influential; ranging from Khadija who allegedly `paid his bills', to Aisha, shown as terribly cunning -- the author neglecting to remind the reader of the time frame -- this `cunning' wife was only a teenager at the time. Khadija was a strong businesswoman and Prophet Muhammad was her employee yet Khadija proposed marriage to him -- quite an unusual thing at that time and still an unusual turn of events in any society. Their strengths are negated by innuendo and the author's own renditions of Islam's early history.
Ms. Brooks is aware of human, particularly `western', cravings on the issue of sex. She does admit that Islam respects women as equal partners in sexual pleasure. Interestingly though, she depicts Islam in a misogynistic light, yet foreplay is actually a right ordained for all Muslim women. Ms. Brooks misinterprets the hadith as saying "play with your women, don't approach them like birds"...the actual translation is "don't approach them like beasts" -- Islam's injunction against spousal rape. The positive aspects of Islamic sexual injunctions (such as not having intercourse during menstruation, both partners washing their genital regions thoroughly after intercourse, etc.) are not highlighted, yet medical evidence continues to prove these to be sound and effective practices. Instead the author chooses to focus on the pain of stoning a small minority of adulterers.
In her conclusion Ms. Brooks claims she wasn't `raised as a bigot', yet she is bitter against women she sees wearing hijab in an Australian airport. She appeals to the feminist and human rights advocates to do what they can to `save' Muslim women, yet she cannot deny that those "shadows" wearing "shrouds" enjoy the privilege of career, education, and financial independence that is beyond that guaranteed to `western' women. Muslim women have always had their own names - not their fathers or their husbands. Muslim women have always had an equal say in political issues and the right (Islamically) to vote - something even American and European women struggled for generations to obtain. Muslim women in the workforce in Muslim communities are on equal grounds with men in both pay and career growth, yet women in the U.S. still make 57 cents to the dollar in realation to their male coworkers. Muslim women veterans have been glorified throughout Islamic history, whereas only very recently have American women veterans even been recognized. Though the author implies extensive abuse of Muslim women, she neglects to provide any statistical proof to back up her statements. Due to the heavy penalties for abuse they are few in comparison to the U.S. where 1 in 22 women is the victim of physical abuse, 1 in 3 women murdered are killed by their husband or boyfriend, 1 in 7 the victim of spousal rape, and where 1.3 women are raped per minute!
Ms. Brooks need not bother to strive for Muslim women's rights to bare their bodies if they chose to spiritually rejoice in covering them. Women's right to drive is not questioned anywhere outside Saudi Arabia, and even those Saudi women who would be able to own cars and drive are comfortably chauffeured in top of the line automobiles. (One wonders how many American women might give up their `right' to drive in lieu of being so pampered.) The short comings of specific Muslim individuals or politicians only stands as proof of human limitations. It would be absurd to hold a few random Muslims the author happened to meet as the standard, judging all Muslims on the basis of the actions of those few, or even to presume that those few are representative samples of that particular culture. It is equally preposterous for Ms. Brooks to visit a country for a short period of time yet write of the people as if she had a complete, unequivocal understanding of the culture, people, history, and language that makes them who they are. At best Ms. Brooks has glimpsed the life of some Muslims...a far cry from understanding or appreciating the depth of their Islamic faith and culture.
Finally, Ms. Brooks sums up the book by admitting that her own emotions are complex, and purportedly accepts every woman's right to choose her own lifestyle. Mentioning the Muslim woman on the Australian beach "...had made her choice. It was different from mine. But sitting there sharing the warm sand and the soft air, we accepted each other. When she raised her face to the sun, she was smiling." So much for contradiction. The reader is left wondering then...what was the point of the book?