Nine Parts of Desire, The Hidden World of Islamic Women (1994)

Brooks 2Geraldine Brooks is an Australian journalist and writer. She was born in 1955. After graduating, she worked as a correspondent for The Wall Street Journal in several countries undergoing conditions of war or civil conflict, for instance Bosnia or Somalia. In the 1990s, she spent six years in the Middle East, where she became famous for her coverage of the Gulf war.

Nine Parts of Desire, The Hidden World of Islamic Women is a first-hand account , written in dashing, journalistic style. It is a testimony, based on her own direct experience in the Middle East. Although it is considered to be a non-fictional story, it might have been somewhat fictionalized mainly to meet editorial requirements. As the book was first published in 1994: we can easily imagine that 20 years later, the situation in the Middle East must have changed. That is why we may wonder if the issues raised by G. Brooks are still as relevant as they were then.

 

The title Nine Parts of Desire derives from a quoted saying by the prophet Ali, the founder
of Shiism, in which he states: "God created sexual desire in ten parts; then he gave nine parts to women and one to men". This supposedly partly explains why women's sexuality is placed under restriction through the rules enforced in many Islamic societies. G. Brooks' book thus purportedly addresses the feminine condition under Islam. The author evokes cultural and religious practices involving Muslim women, in countries as far apart as Egypt, Palestine, Saudi Arabia or Iran.

First, the author gives an account oft her personal experience by describing the obstacles she herself encountered as a woman living in the Middle East. For instance, in Saudi Arabia, she could not book a room in a hotel without her husband being present ; in Egypt, she could not carry out her work because a woman is not allowed to interview people in the street. Throughout her journey, she discovered many paradoxes concerning the feminine condition in the countries of the Middle East. That is why she finally decided to talk to Muslim women themselves.

BrooksSee insideThe book is divided into twelve chapters, each of which deals with one of twelve different topics. Throughout her book, the author often refers to the Koran. For example, G. Brooks recounts how the veil was first worn by the Prophet's wives, before being adopted by all women. She explains that there exist many interpretations concerning the veil, whose name in arabic means "curtain": And the veil can be worn in several different ways.

Then, there is a long chapter about sexuality: women's drives are traditionally supposed to be tempered through excision and infibulation. Some sexual practices are clearly forbidden. Adulteresses are still legally liable to be lapidated in Saudi Arabia and in Iran; a woman having a pre- or extra-marital "love affair" may be punished under the unwritten law of "honor killing". Women are "honor-bound" to be virgins before marriage and faithful thereafter. The author also discusses the issue of female converts: a western woman who chooses her husband's religion has to adapt her way of life to fit in with the stipulations of religious duty. Usually,  women converts tend to be stricter in their religious observance, in order to be better integrated by the Muslim community. For instance, the American Elizabeth Halaby, who became Queen Noor when she married the King of Jordan, was initially faced with social disapproval before converting to Islam.

Furthermore, G. Brooks evokes some issues of everyday life, linked to Muslim recommendations concerning relations between men and women. In Saudi Arabia, the sexual sgregation of workplaces and tasks between men and women is mandatory. In the Emirates, female soldiers are segregated from men during military training. In Iran, women can only participate in sport if they are wearing 'appropriate' clothes. A certain number of other subjects raised by the author are quite contradictory. For instance, G.Brooks mentions Khadija, the Prophet's first wife, as having been a powerful business-woman, while many women of the Prophet's time also took part in Jihad. Also worth mentionning are the current Islamic Women's Games,where, as no masculine presence is authorized, Muslim female athletes are allowed to compete without wearing the hijab.

Finally, G. Brooks ends her book with a conclusion entitled "Beware of the dogma", based on a ply on words. Here there may appear to be a degree of ambiguity, because at first sight, one might think that the author is merely passing moral judgment on Muslim dogma regarding women, an attitude which would need to be challenged.Nevertheless, the author concludes on a more even-handed twofold perspective: she attempts to equally highlight the negative and the positive aspects of her object of study, and the heterogeneity of contexts and situations. At the end of her field-work, she was able to simultaneously analyze situations as seen through Western eyes, but also in an Eastern perspective. Though this maight seem schizophrenic to some, her portrayal is intended to contribute to setting up a neutral framework within which to analyze women's role and condition under Islam.

To conclude, when Nine Parts of Desire, The Hidden World of Islamic Women was originally published, it quickly became an international bestseller, translated into 17 languages.This success might lead us to believe that the book was unanimously acclaimed, when it was in fact quite controversial.

When non-Muslims write about Islam, they tend either to arraign the religion, as in Not Without My Daughter (B. Mahmoody and W. Hoffer, 1987), or on the contrary, to exalt it inconditionally. G. Brooks does neither. She does not denounce Islam as "an oppressive religion for women", but neither does she gloss over any of its negative aspects either. She seems to have managed the exploit of maintaining 'axiological neutrality', i.e.an open mind.

Nonetheless, Nine Parts of Desire, The Hidden World of Islamic Women still encapsulates a Westerner's vision of Muslim women: G. Brooks rarely conceals her astonishment regarding certain practices. In Cairo, when her very sensual assistant decided overnight to wear the hijab, G. Brooks found it hard to take on board this sudden change. She then seems to disapprove of the "submission" of Muslim women to religious principles. In a way, the author does not totally succeed in abandonning her stereotypes. So finally her book turns out to be more of a calling into question of women's condition in the Middle East, than an unbiased, inclusive study of the latter. Moreover, the situation may have been somewhat modified since the book was first published. It is not to be discounted that in some contexts women may be accessing an increasing number of rights,particularly as a consequence of the spreading shock-waves of the "Arab springs".

A final question must concern the relevance of the book's contents. Indeed its journalistic format entails a risk of its being, or appearing to be, biased, i.e.less serious and less well-documented than the work of a social scientist or a researcher. Indeed it may contain quite a few approximationss, generalizations, and other questionable judgments.

Nonetheless any negative bias tends gradually to fade as one reads. G. Brooks' book actually comes over as a very strong analysis on its own terms and in its own right: a valid attempt to turn our stereotypes on their heads. She attempts to answer the questions every woman raises when envisaging the Middle East. She often tries to link her own take to the Koran, in order to elucidate particular behavior patterns. From a traditional point of view, there may be some minor errors in interpretation, but her analysis is globally relevant. Thanks to her favorable status as a woman, she was indeed introduced to the private and/or hidden sphere of feminity in the Arab world: this unique opportunity must be underlined because she thus gained access to some very rare testimonies. The book can accordingly be used for its informative character, especially in the framework of a first approach to Islam and the Middle East. Moreover, the book is well-written and readable. It is by no means to exagerate to say that G. Brooks has succeded in merging a well-documented research paper with the rivetting first-hand account of a front-line reporter.