Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women

By Geraldine Brooks (Published 1994)

ReViewed by Luan Morley

Initially I thought this was a work of fiction, and was expecting to be pulled into the relatively unknown world of Islam by inhabiting a character created by Brooks.

Essentially, the reader is still pulled into Islamic world through the telling of stories, but the fictional character is replaced with Brooks herself and the stories are all true. The ‘stories’ that Brooks tells are all from her experiences during the three years she spent working as a foreign correspondent to the Wall Street Journal in the Middle-East, researching the experiences of Islamic women.

Nine Parts of Desire is separated into 12 chapters focusing on different aspects of the highly religious culture of the Middle-East and how it relates to a woman’s place in society.

Despite what the title suggest this book is not limited to women’s sexuality. A range of topics are broached; from marriage, to the wearing of the ‘veil’;  education, women in power, national and cultural pride and the possibility of feminism whilst still remaining observant of the Koran [sic], the holy text of Islam.

Geraldine Brooks is a master storyteller and because of this Nine Parts of Desire is not dry or dull to read. Instead its pages are filled with vivid imagery of hot desert dunes, war torn cities and an exotic, ‘Eastern’ tang. Most of the book revolves around the people she meets and lives with during her research, adding further elements of human honesty and a grounding in reality.

She shares her frustrations at being an independent, female journalist who frequently butts heads with the strict religious authority who discourage the free movement of women (both inside and outside their country’s borders). Scenes of relative normalcy, such as working at her office in Cairo, chatting to the locals and meeting up with friends are weaved in-between the bizarre (being transported by helicopter across the desert by a Middle-Eastern king) and the dangerous.

Each chapter’s theme explores the cultural pressures and religious laws that govern Muslim women, and relate them back to the Koran [sic] chapter it’s rooted in. If nothing else, it’s an eye-opening and educating read of a holy text so often at the centre of political and cultural focus, yet largely unread and misunderstood by the West (and Brooks argues, the Middle-East).

While this felt like a well-researched and interested read, it strayed in to information ‘overload’ territory a number of times.  I felt I had to double back over many paragraphs, because so much information and religious context was packed into a relatively short piece (just over 200 pages). For those ignorant of the Koran [sic] it felt like trying to follow a pattern when all the paths are jumbled together.

That’s not the say that if you miss a few bits here and there you’ll have wasted your time reading this book. The purpose of this text is to shed some light on to the lives of women who many assume are living under an oppressive thumb.

By the end of the book it seems that Brooks has uncovered arguments for and against this assumption. Either way it’s certainly interesting to have some knowledge of the second largest religion in the world. What Brooks does make clear is that regardless of the Koran’s [sic] teachings, much of the oppression of women stem from misogynistic rulers and their interpretation of the text. This has a ring of truth, and is similar to a comparison between the teachings of Christianity in our own culture.

Nine Parts of Desire is a thought provoking, insightful and topical read considering the debates that are often raised on the future of Islam in the West. As the human civilisation grows older, it should surely grow wiser and baleful ignorance will hopefully become a footnote in a dusty old history book.

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