A Review of Geraldine Brooks' "Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women"

“CyberMuslima” (Pseudonym)

Nine Parts of Desire

I intended this to be a short essay piece, a review of sorts pointing out the most grievous sections of this book. However, as I read on, looking for quotes to use, I found that I could neither highlight any one part of the book nor could I make it short. This book is so wrong, and there is almost no one to counter it, not publicly anyway. I considered it my intellectual and Islamic duty to point out the many half-truths and distortions that appear in this book.

The first clue as to the nature of this book comes in the “Acknowledgements” section. Among the journalists and editors the author extends her gratitude towards is Milton Viorst. You may not be aware that Mr. Viorst himself recently published a book about Islam called In the Shadow of the Prophet. I read this book when it first came out about two months ago, and was so aggravated by the hatred and anti-Islamic propaganda which was contained therein that I returned it to the library unfinished. Seeing Mr. Viorst’s name among the names of Ms. Brooks’ friends immediately put up a red flag.

As your Muslim sister I will not mislead you, which is what Geraldine Brooks attempts to do in this book. Ms. Brooks’ initial motivation for writing this book is a mystery. In Chapter 5, “Converts”, on page 93 she finally reveals a major clue to her motivations: her conversion in 1984 to Judaism. She goes on to explain her motivations for becoming a Jew:

“My conversion had more to do with history than faith. If I were to marry a Jew, it seemed important to throw in my lot with his often threatened people. I didn’t know then that I would spend the best part of the next decade in the Middle East, where being on my husband’s side made me an automatic enemy to many of those we lived among.”

Further on in the book, she mentions that:

“…Being Jewish remained an abstraction: something that had defined the kind of wedding I’d had…a certain awkwardness at Christmastime, and a label…”

So here we have an author who admits that she chose a religion based on politics rather than faith, and who automatically assumes the mantle of Jewish victimhood, never stopping to ponder the fact that many Jews throughout the Middle East and America automatically view Muslims as the enemy. Her inability to report objectively stains the entire book, as her journalistic integrity is marred by the fact that she neither discloses her motivations nor her religion early on, and that she automatically sees Islam and Muslims as the enemies. Throughout the book, from the beginning to the end, she takes special care to play up quotes from the Muslims talking about the destruction of Israel, or Zionism, or some other such stuff, as if to alert us that these people are nut cases just because they don’t believe in the special status of Israel.

Another problem prevalent in the book is the fact that the author spends a great deal of her time reporting on Iran and Shi’ism. Shi’a’s make up only about 5% of the Muslim world, and yet, as with most journalists, she acts as though they are the end all be all of Islamic matters. The time that Ms. Brooks does spend on the Sunnis, she often mentions them in a dismissive tone, as if the sharia of the majority of 1 billion Muslims is unimportant. A Christian raised Jewish Australian-American journalist with an Iranian bias? Well, you just never can tell.

Thirdly, as with all Western journalists who report on “Islam and Muslims,” Ms. Brooks narrows her focus to the Middle East, namely Iran, Egypt, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, with a little on Lebanon and other Gulf States. She barely acknowledges that Muslim countries like Chechnya, Indonesia, and Malaysia exist. She hardly even mentions Turkiye! I wonder why one would write a book about the “hidden lives” of Muslim women, and then not even bother to see the living conditions of most of the world’s Muslims! After all, 10% of the world’s Muslims are Russian or Chinese! There are 30 million Muslims in India alone. And what of Bosnia, Chechnya, and Albania, Europe’s Islamic trio? (of course, writing on those countries, she would be forced to admit that it is not just the Jewish people who face ugly things such as genocide, nor would she be able to Arab-bash.) Why not even talk to Muslim women in Canada, the U.S. (where she now lives), the U.K., France, and Australia? Once again, a journalist from the U.S. has seen fit to declare who is part of the “Muslim world” and who is not. These journalists never even bother to separate the Middle Eastern sphere from the Muslim world. True, most of the people in the Middle Eastern countries she visits are Muslims. However, the majority of Muslims do not live in the Middle East.

Ms. Brooks starts her insults early on in the book. On the third page, she writes how the muezzin’s call to prayer “shatters” the morning stillness. Perhaps if you are used to waking up to Howard Stern or some other inane morning show on the radio, the muezzin’s call is an unwelcome change. But I suspect that for millions of faithful Muslims who are lucky enough to hear the real thing, it is a welcome start to the day. She then dives into a somewhat questionable background of Islam, via a short biography of the Prophet(P). Among the things that she claims is that Khadija(R) never wore hijab (Ms. Brooks refers to hijab as “veil”). She offers no proof for this fact, when it is actually more than likely that the Mother of the Believers did wear a head-covering of some sort. After all, Mary(R) (ra) wore one 600 years earlier.

Ms. Brooks tries to assert that hijab was not a style thought of until after Khadija(R) died. She further insults the Prophet(P) and his first wife by writing:

“[Khadijah] never lived to hear the word of God proclaim: Men are in charge of women, because God has made the one of them to excel the other, and because they spend of their property [to support them.] Such a revelation would have come strangely from Muhammad’s lips had Khadijah still been alive and paying the bills.”

The author then attempts to give us some insight as to her reasoning for writing this book in the prologue. She tells the story of when she first arrived as a reporter in Cairo. Her assistant, an Egyptian woman named Sahar, was at first, “an Egyptian yuppie”: high heels, makeup, elaborate hair do’s, stylish clothes. After a year of working alongside the young woman, Brooks felt she “knew her well.” Then, one day, at the beginning of Ramadan, Sahar showed up for work and Brooks found herself face to face with “a stranger”:

“The elaborate curls were gone, wrapped away in a severe blue scarf. The makeup was scrubbed off, and her shapely dress had been replaced by a dowdy sack. Sahar had adopted the uniform of a Muslim fundamentalist. It was like watching a nature film run in reverse: she had crumpled her bright wings and folded herself into a dull cocoon.”

Brooks’ inability to see past Sahar’s looks illustrates that, as a non-Muslim woman, she is more concerned not only with her looks, but with others’ looks as well. She doesn’t say if Sahar’s personality had changed, if she had gone from being outgoing and smart to being withdrawn and dull. She mentions only her appearance. She goes on further to portray Sahar as a robot of the Muslim Brotherhood, merely mouthing slogans instead of engaging in debate with Brooks. She also mentions how she, the foreigner living in Egypt, made adjustments to her “secular life” in order to “accommodate” Sahar and her “new identity.” And yet, in the vein of her often contradictory writing, Brooks grudgingly and briefly admits that Sahar seems “comfortable with her new self.”

Typical to Western journalists, the author’s first focus is on the hijab, which she calls “The Holy Veil.” She asserts that Muslim or Arab women did not wear hijab until the marriage of Muhammad(P) and Zeinab(R). She portrays the Prophet(P) as conveniently timing the revelations of the Qur’?n. Throughout the book, her sentences are laced with sarcasm, the intent: to make fun of Islam. On Khomeini:

“…I was familiar with.. his penchants for condemning novelists to death, dispatching young boys to the war front as human minesweeps, and permitting little girls to be married off at the age of nine.”

On a hotel swimming pool:

“The glass-walled elevator, designed to give a view of the swimming pool, had been newspapered over…so that religious women wouldn’t be offended by the sight of glistening male torsos.”

On a roomful of women in chador:

“…I began to feel I’d been locked up by mistake in some kind of convent from hell.”

Brooks does briefly talk about the period in the 30’s and 40’s when many Muslim women in the Colonial-occupied Arab lands took off their hijabs, and when the Shah of Iran had them forcibly removed from the women there. She only briefly mentions how the chador-observing women at that time were publicly humiliated, denied entrance to shops, and kicked off of buses. Is that not an example of oppression of Muslim women? Does that not violate their choice to wear what they want? Or does the choice only matter when you choose to wear designer clothes? Would their opinions matter more if they were wearing tank-tops and jeans, or even knee-length suits? She describes Fatima Mernissi as one who “does not flaunt her piety” by wearing a hijab, thereby insulting the great majority of Muslim women who do wear hijab. How is it that when one is obeying what she feels is a commandment set down by Allah(T), that is flaunting her piety? I find it amazing that throughout her journey, Brooks could not seem to find more than one person who states that they wear the hijab or chador because they believe it is a commandment from Allah(T).

Brooks, who admits early on that she had to rely on translations of the Qur’?n in order to write about Qur’?nic injunctions, insists that the rewards of Paradise are reserved for men only:

“One of the Koran’s many descriptions of paradise reads like a brochure for a heavenly whorehouse. In a fertile garden with fountains and shade, male believers will be entertained by gorgeous supernatural beings with ‘complexions like rubies and pearls’, whose eyes will be incapable of noticing another man…”

Brooks’ ignorance of tasfeer and Arabic prevent her from knowing that the virgins are of both sexes, and that the male inhabitants of Paradise will be as beautiful and untouched as the women. The author doesn’t seem to fully understand that just because Muslim men and women do not put their sexuality on display for all to see, just because they don’t go on television or radio talkshows and talk about what they like to do in bed, that doesn’t mean that they don’t enjoy what Allah(T) has made halal within the boundaries of marriage. She doesn’t seem to understands that Muslims keep their sex life private, thereby making it more special. Unlike non Muslims, we don’t see the need to exploit our sexuality endlessly, or to talk about it over lunch with the girls. Why does she assume that privacy is repression? She then tries to further explain what she sees as the sexual depravity of Muslim men by writing a lengthy piece about mut’a marriage, a practice that is considered haraam by 95% of the world’s Muslims. She asserts that it is used by many young Iranians as a way to have sex without really being married, and yet the only example she can come up with to prove this theory is that of a European “bohemian” of Zen, yoga and other beliefs who had “no intention of conforming to Islamic sexual rules,” yet became an Iranian citizen. The woman tells Brooks that she uses mut’a marriage to take lovers. (One wonders why she bothered to leave Europe and come to Iran if that is all she is interested in).

Brooks’ considers Islam’s treatment of those who transgress the boundaries of halal sex as barbaric and horrifying, describing stonings, burnings, and whippings. Yet Muslim societies and communities are virtually free of the problems and penalties that come with “sexual liberation”: large numbers of abortions from unwanted pregnancies from a non committed relationship, sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS, unmarried teen mothers and fathers, and the psychological sexual game playing and identity crises that have created an entire self help industry in this country. She never considers that it is Allah(T) who has made these laws and not some grouchy mullah whose sole purpose in life is to oppress women by taking away their ability to sleep with any Abdul, Yusuf, or Musa who comes along. Yes, premarital sex, extramarital sex, and homosexuality are forbidden in Islam, just as in Judaism and Christianity. Why are Muslims considered backwards if they follow the laws set down by God? It is Jews and Christians who have fallen away from their religious laws, putting their opinions above God’s, by becoming so lax in their attitudes towards pre-marital, extramarital, and homosexual sex.

Furthermore, Brooks never mentioned that Allah(T) allowed for the fact that untrue allegations may be made against a person regarding sexual crimes, and that there must be four witnesses to the actual act, or a confession, before any punishment can take place. Instead, she takes an almost unbridled glee in describing the so-called “honor” killings that occur in Palestine (and other places in the Middle East). She asserts that if it was not for the Israeli occupation of Palestine, these killings would be secret and unbridled. She ends her chapter on sex by saying that:

“Many Muslims are content to claim that honor killings and clitoridectomy are not Islam; that they are customs that come from the national cultures and have nothing to do with the faith. With this assertion, many mainstream Muslims wash their hands of the twin brutalities that shape the lives of perhaps a quarter of the women of Islam.”

Brooks can, of course, offer no proof that these topics are not a concern for Muslims, especially Muslim women who are in a position to organize, such as American Muslims. She claims that those Muslims who point out that practices such as clitoridectomy are incorrectly associated with Islam are lazy and unwilling to do anything to stop it, and should be targeting other “misguided” Muslims, instead of protesting the way that Islam is portrayed by non Muslims. Brooks never mentions that only one form of FGM can be even supported as Sunnah (not fard), and that the two more extreme practices that she describes in her book are definitely haraam. She never mentions that none of the Mothers of the Believers, whose example Muslim women and girls are encouraged to strive towards, were circumcised. She never mentions that in the very Islamic communities where the most severe forms of FGM takes place, illiteracy is rampant and most are ignorant of the true laws of the Qur’?n.

And yet, there are times when Brooks inadvertently sends a message different from the one she intended. She describes, at great length, a polygamous household in Palestine, including how the husband had offered the first wife the option of divorce, because he intended never to have intimate relations with her once he was married to the second wife. The first wife, who didn’t want to lose her children, opted to stay. Brooks describes the small house that eventually held the three adults and fourteen children from both marriages. She speculates on how hard it must have been for the first wife to opt for a life of celibacy at the age of twenty-three, even though she did it for her children. She mentions that the husband has had eleven children (and counting) with the second wife, and yet, does not have the money to support them all, forcing some of the children to go to work to support the family. And yet, when Brooks finds a moment of privacy to ask the first wife how she feels about this:

“…her rosy face broke into an enigmatic smile. She wrapped my hands in her two…work-worn ones, and whispered simply, “Insha’Allah.” then she went to wash and began her prayers, as the life of the household swirled around her. In a few moments…she knelt, touching her head to the floor.”

This is a woman who has done what is ultimately required of her by Islam. She submitted to the will of Allah(T) even when she did not like what would be required of her. She made smaller sacrifices on Earth in order to gain bigger rewards in Jennah.

Then there is the chapter slandering the Prophet(P) and his wives(R). She acknowledges that, except for Aisha(R), the wives were older women, and mostly widows. She does take the time to point out that his household didn’t get rich off of the spoils of their military victories, living instead in austerity, modesty, and near poverty in a house adjacent to the masjid. However, she does portray the wives as mostly jealous women who had nothing better to do than backbite each other and complain about their lifestyle and the Prophet(P) as a charlatan whose main interest was having sex with his many wives. She includes quotes from Aisha(R), Fatima(R), and Ali(K), and yet does not tell us where we can find these quotes to attest to the turmoil of the Prophets(P) household. She intimates that some of the revelations of the Qur’?n were timed awfully conveniently to coincide with matters in the Prophet’s(P) life, thereby insinuating that the Revelations were not divine, but of a more earthly origin, namely with Muhammad’s(P) desires and needs. She ends the chapter by portraying Aisha(R), one of Islam’s greatest women who continues to be an inspiration for Muslim women everywhere, as a sad, lonely, and bitter woman, plagued by jealousy and obsessed with sectarianism.

In a whole chapter about those who choose to become Muslims, Geraldine Brooks interviews two Americans in Iran, both Shi’as. I find it hard to believe that in the entire Middle East, not to mention the U.K, U.S., and Australia, where she also lived, she could find only two women who chose to become Muslims. By doing so, of course, she downplays the attraction that Islam has for the thousands of Western women who convert every year. Although one of the women she writes about has an enviable lifestyle: a husband and family she loves, a nice home, and peace attained through Islam, I feel that one positive portrayal is not enough to counter all the other things that she writes about, most of them falsehoods or distortions. The only other convert she writes about is Jordan’s Queen Noor, the favorite Muslim of all Western journalists.

Ms. Brooks is obsessed with proving that Islam is repressive by comparing it to the secular traditions of the United States and other Western countries. Whatever rights women in the U.S. have, then all women must have. Whatever clothes or behavior we take on here, must be taken on by all other women. It never even crosses her mind that for one thing, these ideas are racist and cultural imperialism at its finest. Who is to say that what goes on in the US is right for everyone? Who is to say it is right at all? And who are American feminists to export their interpretation of the state of human relations to other countries without even examining the traditions of women within other cultures and religions? What arrogance to assume that we know better than everyone else!

She seems to think that belly-dancing in Egypt is the most liberating thing a woman can do, a celebration of what a woman’s body does: ” the natural movements of childbirth and sex.” Why extol belly-dancing as the most valuable cultural asset to come from a Muslim country? Because it keeps in step with the American ideal that if it feels good, do it. In fact, she subjects us to a lengthy story of her own experiences at belly dancing, as though that has anything to do at all with the status of Muslim women. She relies upon Nawaal Sawdawi, who is Egyptian, as a reliable source about Islam and women, never bothering to inform the reader that Ms. Sawdawi is not only not a Muslim, she is an atheist whose favorite past-time is to degrade Islam.

She finally ends the book in a chapter entitled “Beware of the Dogma”. She brings out Salman Rusdie and parades him around for the reader as an example of a man who suffers under Islam’s delusions. Mind you, Salman Rusdie and his novel have nothing to do with the status of women in Islam. It just seems that Brooks could not resist letting us know that she knows someone who was sentenced to death by Khomeini. She writes:

“…Progressive Muslims… ask us to blame a wide range of villains: colonial history…Bedouin tradition, pre-Islamic African culture. Yet when the Koran sanctions wife beating and the execution of apostates, it can’t be entirely exonerated for an epidemic of wife slayings and death sentences on authors. At some point every religion, especially one that purports to encompass a complete way of life… has to be called to account for the kind of life it offers people in the lands where it predominates.”

This is preposterous and heavily biased. First of all, all religions claim to be a complete way of life. It is secularists who separated Church and State, not the Bible, or the Torah. Secondly, thousands of women in this country are beaten or killed by their husbands and boyfriends every year, and the majority of them are Christian. Would she lay the blame for that at the feet of Christendom? Would she attribute the epidemic of child abuse in this country to the verse, “Spare the rod, spoil the child,” that appears in the Bible? And what of Judaism’s own hijab? Is she not aware that in parts of Israel and the United States, women who do not adhere to a strict dress code are beaten and publicly taunted? Why is it a horrible thing when Islam asks its women to veil, but not when Judaism asks them to shave their heads, wear wigs, and scarf on top of that? What about the prayer that Jewish men recite every morning, whereby they thank God for not making them a woman? Orthodox Jewish girls are raised much in the same way as Muslim girls, i.e. to remain virgins, and the women are expected to stay at home as wives and mothers as Muslim women are. Why does she not call Judaism to account for that?

She writes:

“Once I began working on this book, I looked everywhere for examples of women trying to reclaim Islam’s positive messages, trying to carry forward into the twentieth century the reformist zeal with which Muhammed had remade the lives of many women (other than his own wives and the Muslim army’s war captives)… It turned out to be a frustrating search.”

Who is Brooks (or anyone for that matter) to tell any Muslim that they must doubt the laws of the Qur??n in order to be civilized? Who is she to tell anyone else what the pursuit of happiness is?

Why frustrating? Because Brooks could find no one whose vision of Islam, and whose lifestyle matched what she thinks it ought to be. She easily discards the happiness of those with whom she does not agree. Brooks is incapable of understanding that Islamic culture is not secular culture. As the inheritors of the last divine revelation, Muslims take Islaer ancestors. When she writes of countries such as China, Cuba, and Indonesia who argued that the human rights conventions being imposed on them by the UN were culturally irrelevant, she says: “A human right is what the local despot says it is,” as though only the UN, with its American/European domination, is qualified to tell the whole world what is a human right and what isn’t, without reservation. She tells us of the thing that Westerners, the great “we” she expects to be reading this book, hold “sacred,”: “liberty, equality, the pursuit of happiness, and the right to doubt.” Who is Brooks, or anyone for were culturally-irrelevant, she says: “A human right is what the local despot says it is,” as though only the UN, with its American/European domination, is qualified to tell the whole world what is a human right and what is not, without reservation. She tells us of the thing that Westerners, the great “we” she expects to be reading this book, hold “sacred,”: “liberty, equality, the pursuit of happiness, and the right to doubt.”

Who is Brooks (or anyone for that matter) to tell any Muslim that they must doubt the laws of the Qur’?n in order to be civilized? Who is she to tell anyone else what the pursuit of happiness is? Perhaps for someone who leads a self-confessed secular lifestyle, it is belly-dancing in front of a drunken crowd, or having the freedom to have sex with whoever you choose. For a Muslim, the happiness comes in having the right to choose to do these things, but knowing that you have made the right choice by abstaining from them. She says that Muslims are plagued by “hateful reasoning” when it is she who is under the spell of her own hatred and misunderstanding towards Islam, Muslims and our traditions.

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One response to “A Review of Geraldine Brooks' "Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women"”

  1. I agree entirely with the reviewer. This is yet another way to show Islam and Muslims as backward and callous by using convenient quotations and facts. Every religion can lament about the other, we can tear each other’s flesh apart with our blasphemy but it will still not shake the people who believe strongly in their faith. Islam has been misconstrued and insulted because we (Muslims) are firm in our belief and do not change the Word of God at our convenience.
    In conclusion, I would like to say that if a Muslim wanted to write something against Christianity or Zionism or any other religion, he could easily use the tools Geraldine Brooks has used i.e. to conveniently use (or should i say, misuse) verses or facts or events, but again, Muslims prefer to spend their time on perfecting their religion instead of bringing another down.

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