Essay by Randa Abdel-Fattah
‘The daily life of Muslim women.’ ‘An understanding of the women behind the veils.’ ‘A compelling insight into women in the Muslim world.’ This is what the blurb of Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women promises the reader.
Australian author Geraldine Brooks, who wrote the book based on her coverage of the Middle East while working as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, went to ‘live among the women of Islam’. Nine Parts has been lauded for offering a ‘captivating and diverse portrait of a little known world’, a refreshing ‘study of Muslim women’, and a ‘rare glimpse’ into their lives.
To understand the sheer presumptuousness implicit in such promotional claims, imagine a book in which a journalist from the Middle East sets out to understand, live among and provide insight into the daily life of Australian women, and the little-known world of Australia. The idea is immediately jarring, ridiculous in its arrogant simplicity, and begs the question: on what grounds do people invoke the right to study, access and gaze upon others? Furthermore, which Australian women would they target? Who are the women of Australia? Can we speak of women in such homogenous terms? What possible justice can a single portrait do for a region, let alone an entire continent? Do all Australian women experience ‘daily life’ in the same way? And, most importantly, what constitutes knowledge of others? Thinking about Nine Parts from this angle, rather than fawning over Brooks for a light bulb moment that led her to simply talk with Muslim women, produces a rather different reading of the book. For the audacious claims and presumptions implicit in Nine Parts locate it squarely in the genre that various scholars have called ‘Orientalist feminism’, however much she would defend herself from this claim.
In his groundbreaking book Orientalism (Vintage, 1978), Edward W Said showed how Orientalism is a way of imagining Eastern cultures as static, backward and uncivilised, and Western cultures as rational, developed and superior. When feminists like Brooks represent the Muslim world by borrowing from and colluding with Orientalism, they engage – however unwittingly – in Orientalist feminism. According to Iranian writer Parvin Paidar, Orientalist feminism has three characteristics: firstly, it assumes a binary opposition between the ‘progressive’ West and the ‘uncivilised’ Orient or non-West; secondly, it regards non-Western women only as passive victims needing rescue by their Western sisters, and not as agents who resist and empower themselves; thirdly, it assumes that all non-Western societies are the same and all Muslim women there live under the same conditions. This is why Brooks, as an example, can make a sweeping generalisation about living among ‘the women of Islam’ without any embarrassment.
I will analyse Nine Parts as a classic example of Orientalist feminism. But first, I want to comment on the basic premise of the book, which is Brooks’ liberal feminist desire to ‘know’ the Muslim woman – to ‘get to the truth about hijab’. As a Muslim woman, the idea that I can be known, analysed and observed would be laughable for its absurdity (as laughable and ridiculous as claiming to know the ‘Western’ woman), if it wasn’t so dangerous in its consequences. Claims to know what Muslims think and believe have justified colonial expansion, military interventions into Muslim countries and paternalistic discussions around the Muslim ‘other’ in Western societies.
Brooks employs several literary devices to inscribe her journalism with this authoritative ‘truth’; for example, she uses a first-person style of narration that, as sociologist Jasmin Zine says, ‘appeals to the authority of experience to establish her qualifications’. From the outset, Brooks claims unique access to the world of Middle Eastern women: ‘For almost a year I fretted at the Middle East’s closed doors. Then, thanks to Sahar, I looked up and noticed the window that was open only to me.’ Thus does Brooks suggest that, through her acquaintance with a young Muslim woman, she has joined an inner sanctum. The supposed difficulty of penetrating such a world tacitly suggests that anything this brave, risk-taking journalist reports must be authoritative, and crediting Brooks with that feat somehow affords her the right to offer testimony without challenge. The result is that the line between Brooks’ opinion and actual fact is completely blurred.
At one point, Brooks declares of a woman she meets: ‘. . . she was the only Muslim woman I’d ever met in the Middle East who didn’t live with either husband or family’. The implicit statement here is stunningly unqualified, given the millions upon millions of women in the Middle East whom Brooks hasn’t met. At another point in the book, Brooks declares that ‘until this century, most Muslims married soon after puberty’. This is a breathtaking generalisation, yet Brooks is able to make such an unsubstantiated claim because she has already asserted her authority as an ‘expert’.
Having entered the ‘hidden world of Islamic women’, in the first few pages of the book Brooks unabashedly confesses to an Orientalist vision of the Middle East, only to have that vision disrupted by an ‘Egyptian yuppie’:
Sahar was both reassuringly familiar and depressingly unexotic. I had imagined the Middle East differently. White-robed Emirs. Almond-eyed Persians. Camels marking the horizon like squiggles of Arabic calligraphy. An Egyptian yuppie hadn’t been part of the picture.
Rather than reflect on her own preconceptions, and the stereotypes her imagined Orient relies on, Brooks overcomes the cognitive dissonance she experiences by writing a book that reinforces every conceivable reductive trope and stereotype about Muslims. In Brooks’ voyeuristic view of Muslim women and men, the Middle East can be reduced to several key themes that borrow from the colonial motifs of Muslim women: sexuality, veiling practices, female genital mutilation, polygamy and fundamentalism.
While Brooks claims to seek an understanding of Muslim women, her judgment and sense of superiority – an inability to see them as her equals – infects her writing. Muslim women are reduced to two-dimensional figures: the oppressed veiled victims of religious dogma, the exotic other. Brooks’ dehumanising descriptions of the veil are telling – ‘dowdy sack’, ‘shapeless clothes’, ‘two black-cloaked Saudis’ – and her view of women who veil is forthright: ‘The Islamic dress – hijab – that Sahar had opted to wear in Egypt’s tormenting heat signified her acceptance of a legal code that valued her testimony at half the worth of a man’s . . .’ In this statement, what Sahar actually accepts or does not accept is irrelevant; what the hijab signifies to her is beside the point. Brooks provides her own analysis of Sahar’s choices that, as the only view expressed, becomes the only ‘truth’ that counts. Another of Brooks’ friends has her decision to don the veil described thus: ‘It was like watching a nature film run in reverse: she had crumpled her bright wings and folded herself into a dull cocoon.’ The veil is, by implication, unnatural; the conclusion is that a woman’s vitality is measured by her clothing, and that Muslim veiling obviates a woman’s intelligence and potential.
In her chapter on Jordan, Brooks attributes the country’s progressiveness to King Hussein’s white American wife, Queen Noor: ‘It is clear that much of the credit for that transformation belonged to a woman.’ As if to emphasise the relationship between enlightenment and Western culture, Brooks says: ‘Upstairs Noor, wearing blue jeans, was on the phone to friends in the States, offering to fax them copies of the King’s speech, so that they could read his remarks in context. On the street in Jordan her efforts were winning praise in the salons and the mosques.’ The clause ‘wearing blue jeans’ is bewildering and clumsy, although its purpose is clear: it is as if Noor, in donning her Western clothing, is imbued with the ability to manage the crisis caused by Jordan’s response to the 1991 bombing of Iraq.
Even if Brooks does not intend it to be so, the voices and agency of the Muslim women she purports to have befriended are rendered irrelevant. What matters are her conclusions and judgments, which are almost always about sexuality and veiling. In one scene, Brooks meets Asya, a Palestinian with a degree in English literature, whose favourite books are Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Pride and Prejudice. Brooks’ response is to smile and reflect: ‘It was hard to think of two Western books more in tune with an Islamic world view than Hardy’s tale of a woman ruined by sexual dishonor or the Bennet sisters and their parlor-based quests for suitable spouses.’ A Muslim woman cannot even be an Austen or Hardy fan without invoking Brooks’ condescension, without her taste in literature being reduced to a crude joke at her expense. Implicit in Brooks’ comment is the suggestion that Asya would have gravitated towards such stories because she must, by virtue of being a Muslim, sympathise with the ruin of a woman by sexual dishonor. This is not the first time Brooks happily imputes intentions, motivations and thoughts onto others, as though the people she meets are empty vessels waiting for her to fill them with her thoughts and assumptions. One scene in particular left me with a cold sense of betrayal on behalf of the people in question. Brooks is staying at a hotel in Baghdad when her sleep is interrupted by a wedding. Upon observing the ceremony, she describes the bride, Souha, as looking ‘like an accident victim, stunned and trembling’. The immediate impression is that Souha is the reluctant bride, which fits neatly within stereotypes about Muslims and forced marriages. Brooks continues:
I stood on tiptoe and watched over the shoulders of the ululating women as the groom made his way to join the bride at the front of the room. The bride, Souha, smiled wanly as he raised her veil and kissed her on the forehead. This must have been a progressive family: at most Islamic weddings, even that modest little show of affection wouldn’t have happened in public . . . it was hard to imagine this nervous, rumpled, exhausted-looking couple getting through all that. They were both under intense pressure. For the young man, the continuation of the marriage depended on his display of virility; if he failed to get an erection, his bride could repudiate him. The pressure on her was to prove her virginity. If she didn’t bleed, she could be handed back in disgrace to a family that might become enraged enough to kill her . . . the issue of whether Souha was indeed ‘an adult virgin’ still mattered, even in modern, urban families.
What is amazing about this account is that Brooks does not appear to speak to the couple. Indeed, the groom is not even given a name. Her account is based purely on conjecture, and yet is offered as a series of incontrovertible facts. Brooks has presumably been to enough weddings in the billion-plus Muslim world to authoritatively declare that shows of affection between a bride and groom wouldn’t happen. Brooks also seems to have a unique gift for telepathy; the couple feels under ‘intense pressure’ about erections and virginity. Such opining might be tolerable if it were put forth from the mouths of the couple in question. But Brooks’ emphatic statements seem to be based solely on speculation. They work, however, because they rely on the cumulative weight of the body of stereotypes and preconceptions that exist about Muslim sexuality and male–female relationships. Brooks knows this, and that is why she can get away with concocting stories about a harrowing wedding night without having spoken to the bride and groom.
As for veiling, that Muslim women are well-groomed underneath the veil and style their hair (‘carrot-curl types or the plunge-neck negligee type’) astonishes Brooks the first time she encounters a group of women in their homes. She exhibits a classic Orientalist fascination with gazing upon Muslim women beneath or beyond the veil. The irony is that by focusing on the veil, Muslim women’s bodies are mobilised as the site for discussions around feminism. In perhaps the most astonishing display of veil fetishism in the book, Brooks reflects on her visit to Gaza, where it is as if a brutal military occupation does not exist. The reader is instead regaled with more stories about sexuality and veiling. Brooks says, ‘The struggle had changed, and so had Gaza. Driving from the huge military roadblock that divides the Gaza Strip from Israel, I hadn’t seen a single unveiled woman.’ It is astounding that Brooks, a feminist and journalist who purports to be concerned about the situation of Muslim women and human rights abuses, can only summon a comment about the veil in her assessment of her trip to Gaza. Brooks displays no interest in the impact of Israel’s occupation on the lives of Palestinian women – the violation of their basic human rights, the impediments that the occupation places on their choices, freedom of movement, and their access to education and health services, as examples. What matters to the classic Orientalist is what Muslim women wear, and that any oppression they suffer must be due to Islam.
Despite Brooks’ good intentions she, like so many Western feminists, falls into the trap of Orientalism in her essentialising of Muslims, her perpetuation of the view that Islam is inherently misogynistic, her downplaying of the agency of Muslim women and her disregard for the nuance and diversity in the Muslim world. But above all, it is perhaps the idea that the ‘world of Islamic women’ can be ‘revealed’ and ‘known’ through the mediation of a white Western feminist that speaks to the fundamental flaw in the book. If readers genuinely seek to understand Islam and ‘Muslim women’ as more than just subjects of study, then it seems obvious who they should be talking to and reading.
Bahramitash, R 2005 ‘The War on Terror, Feminist Orientalism and Orientalist Feminism: Case Studies of Two North American Bestsellers’, Critique: Critical Middle Eastern Studies, vol. 14, no. 2, pp. 221–235.
Zine, J 2002, ‘Muslim Women and the Politics of Representation’, American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences, vol. 19, no. 4, pp. 1–23.
Hoodfar, H 1993, ‘The Veil in Their Minds and on Our Heads: The Persistence of Colonial Images of Muslim Women’, Resources for Feminist Research, vol. 22, no. 3–4.
Kahf, M 1999, Western Representations of the Muslim Woman, Texas, University of Texas Press.
Said, E 1979, Orientalism, New York, Vintage Books.
© Copyright Randa Abdel-Fattah 2015