As a woman reporter covering the Middle East for The Wall Street Journal, Geraldine Brooks found herself confined to the corridors of high-level offices, shunned by Muslim men, and prohibited from the more adventurous stories her husband, a freelance writer, had no trouble getting. When her secular, Western-educated Egyptian translator suddenly adopted the Islamic veil, Brooks' gender became an asset. She set out to understand why a modern woman would embrace a restrictive, seemingly sexist religious lifestyle. The result is an insightful, witty, and rare glimpse into the lives of Muslim women.
Brooks questions whether it is possible "to reclaim the positive messages in the Koran and Islamic history, and devise some kind of Muslim feminism." Her conclusions are not heartening. Islam has been receptive to almost every misogynist custom it encountered in the great march out of Arabia. Chapters on the Prophet Muhammed's management of his many wives and on modern Islamic women juxtapose the idealized Islam of the Koran and actual Islamic practice. Polygamy, the veil, and the seclusion of women come not from the Koran but local customs that the prophet's early followers eagerly embraced as part of the Islamic tradition.
The title refers to Shiite founder Ali's proclamation that "Almighty God created sexual desire in ten parts; then he gave nine parts to women and one to men." Given women's incredible sexuality, restrictions are needed to preserve the welfare and stability of society. Telling anecdotes delve into the ways Islamic women cope with such restrictions. Brooks describes a successful Saudi Arabian businesswoman, the first female soldier from the United Arab Emirates, and "the women of Lebanon's Hezbollah," who like to wear pink frilly negligees and spandex pants beneath their chadors.
Brooks digs up a few, mostly elderly feminists who support more opportunities for women and reject the radical call to mold society according to Islamic law, the sharia, but liberal women are an endangered species. Brooks concludes that "the brightest hope for positive change might be found camouflaged among the black chadors of devout Iranian women," whose "unquestioning adherence to religious rules gives them high ground from which to present their case for women's rights" -- a variation on the only-Nixon-could-go-to-China theme. But, she rightly observes, "they have used that position sparingly." -- Patricia Lee Dorff