“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” (166).
Geraldine Brooks’ survey of Islamic women’s lives in a range of countries, including Turkey and Sudan, Palestine, Egypt, Eritrea, United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Iran, with references to India and the diaspora in England, was published in 1995. Reading it now, a decade later, brings much light to subjects about which I’ve known very little. Her writing is seamless, integrating personal anecdote with historical fact and religious analysis. She concludes hopefully, an achievement in and of itself after all she’s witnessed and explains. I was disappointed that the critique I found from a Muslim point-of-view only found faults, I can imagine that as a defensive reading. No doubt there are things in this text that demand redress, but what Brooks pushes against most forcefully is the fundamentalist refusal to permit doubt (289). The experiences, laws, and tendencies she documents must raise the specter of doubt for any rational being &emdash; which is not a necessary indictment of faith. Faith can only exist in the presence of doubt; otherwise it is not faith.
There is a mainstream and even an arguably “feminists” scholarship and tradition within Islam. I’m interested to know more about Fatima Mernissi, a Koranic scholar from Morocco who “has made a formidable case for Islam as a religion of equality and human dignity” (282).
It’s fascinating, in light of current international politics, that Brooks describes a very progressive tradition among Palestinian women (while mourning its suppression) and predicts Iran as providing the best conditions for progress for Islamic women. (AGH! I want To Go!) Her reading of Jordan’s King Hussein is probably the most favorable overall in terms of a model of governance: “The fundamentalists were still there, but so were the feminists. No group’s rights had been trampled for the sake of another’s. The struggle went on, but it went on in the open. And the weapons were words, not bombs or gunshots or mass arrests” (141). I wonder if it is still so?
Brooks recounts watching King Hussein laughing out loud at Ross Perot on Larry King, when Perot challenged Bush Sr’s foreign policy. Perot gives an “account of the mysterious workings of Arab diplomacy…that the Arabs, left alone, would go inside some tent, rearrange the sand and come out with some deal Americans would never understand” (137). This could be dissected from several angles, no doubt, but I appreciate its simple acknowledgement of serious cultural difference, as well as feeling the desire for the Arab world to do just that – rearrange the sand. It’s ok if I don’t understand it, as long as it leads to a world where talk instead of violence is the preferred mode of negotiation.
Although I can’t ignore the “sad half smile” Brooks conveys from a young Eritrean woman fighter, Chuchu Tesfamariam. “’Not everything that comes from war is bad,’ she whisper[s, after explaining], ‘It’s possible that these people [getting married to each other] come from parents who were taught that you starve before you share food from the plate of someone of a different faith.’” After serving together in battle, watching women perform as well as and even outperform men, “Muslims and Christians were marrying each other by the dozen” (116).
About a third of the way through the book, Brooks comes out as a converted Jew: “For me, being Jewish had remained an abstraction: something that had defined the kind of wedding I’d had, and afterward meant a once-a-year family feast at Passover, a fast at Yom Kippur, a certain awkwardness at Christmastime and a label, often an inconvenient one, that I had to write on visa forms when I visited Middle Eastern countries.” She contrasts this with women whose conversions “shaped every day’s routine” (97). This passage struck me for a few different reasons. The Christianity of my parents while my brother and I were growing up was even less marked than these few annual celebrations &emdash; we were completely secularized. In fact, being religious in any way was actively discouraged &emdash; an abstraction once removed. The other element, though, is the structure provided by routine. As I encounter a timespan of increasingly reduced structure, I become more aware of its appeal as well as my dependence on the tiny bits of it that remain.
Brooks is also occasionally funny, a welcome relief from the difficult information she imparts. I wondered (at first) how her friend and colleague Sahar felt about being described as wearing “makeup…so thick it would have required an archeological excavation to determine what she really looked like. Her hairdos needed scaffolding” (6). I also wonder how Brooks would characterize the Iraq war, after “visiting Iraq in what turned out to be the brief interregnum between Gulf War I (the foreign, subtitled version between Iraq and Iran) and Gulf War II (the American-made international blockbuster)” (55).
In addition to all this, I was immediately intrigued by the opening quotation by the founder of the Shiite sect of Islam, Ali ibn Abu Taleb (also the husband of Mohammed’s daughter, Fatima):
then he gave nine parts to women and one to men.”