Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women by Geraldine Brooks (1994)

nine-parts-of-desire-the-hidden-world-of-islamic-women“My interest in Islam had everything to do with being a women and zero to do with being a Jew,” thought Geraldine when asked by a Muslim Gaza woman why every time someone comes to research about Islam, they turn out to be Jewish. My interest in Islam has everything to do with growing up in the country with the biggest Muslim population in the world. Recently my brother in law married a Muslim and converted, and the same case with another friend. So this book which always seemed to be on the brink of horizon, was finally read.

Having lived in Indonesia and Malaysia for more than 18 years, Islamic rules and society are not new to me. However, there are always questions in my mind about how things came to be this way and that, about why Islam is often identified with oppression of women, about all the violence done in the name of Islam, about polygamy, and so on and so forth. Nine Parts of Desire did not answer all of them, but it definitely satisfied some and sparked things I would never have thought before. What I loved is that it specifically talks about women issues and Brooks has done her research first hand extensively, spending a decade talking and befriending many Muslim women in Middle East countries, poor and rich, ex-foreigners, converts, royal family. I applaud her for being so brave. Being a woman and a Jew at that really put her at disadvantaged position in that area. In many ways she’s everything I hope I could be.

There are 12 chapters in total, each discussing a different issue: veil, marriage, polygamy, jihad, about women in education, politics, army, business, art or entertainment. It covers many countries in Middle East: Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Jordan, Egypt, and more. One of my favorites is the chapter on women soldiers in UAE, the obstacles they need to break to become fully trained and qualified soldiers, fighting along with the men, even supervising them. In any country, women soldiers seem to be rare breeds, but this is even done in extreme Muslim country, who is used to having women at home and in complete obedience. The idea is so out of the way it seems absurd! Cool is the word to describe them!

In Indonesia polygamy is something that is quite real. Men from range of classes are known to take more than one wife, beknownst to one’s wife or otherwise. Influential clerics do the same, using Islam as reasoning base, and caused an uproar. Polygamy seems to be against the society’s conscience in this age, but for some people there’s always Islamic rules to fall back to. Here’s what the book says:

“In the Koran, polygamy is presented as an option for men, not as a requirement. In seventh-century Arabian society, there had been no restriction on how many wives a man could take. The Koran, in stipulating four as a maximum, was setting limits, not giving license. A close reading of the text suggest that monogamy is preferred.

The issue of polygamy is analogous to that of slavery, which was gradually banned in Islamic countries. As with polygamy, the wording of the Koran permits, but discourages, slavery. Muhammad’s sunnah included the freeing of many of his war-captive slaves. Because freeing slaves is extolled as the act of a good Muslim, most Muslims now accept that conditions have changed enough since the seventh century to allow them to legislate against a practice that the prophet probably would have chosen to ban outright, if his own times had allowed, Polygamy is already on the decline throughout the Islamic world, and many Muslim scholars see no religious obstacle to a legal ban on the practice.” ~ p186

On the issue of inheritance, the Koran states that daughter should receive only half of the son’s inheritance. Interesting point is that the Koran was actually advanced in its time when it was first out.

“The Koran sets out the formula for inheritance as an instruction which all believers must follow. In seventh-century Arabia the Koran’s formula was a giant leap forward for women, who up until then had usually been considered as chattels to be inherited, rather than as heirs and property owners in the own right. Most European women had to wait another twelve centuries to catch up to the rights the Koran granted Muslim women. In England it wasn’t until 1870 that the Married Women’s Property Acts finally abolished the rule that put all a woman’s wealth under her husband’s control on marriage.” ~ p186

It reminded me of the time last year when I read Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. For the life of me I couldn’t make sense of why the Bennett sisters and their mother get nothing if their father dies–the estate would instead go to a distant male cousin. Now that seems backwards in comparison with the Koran, doesn’t it?

In the face of politic, in 1994 women led three Muslim countries: Tansu Ciller for Turkey, Bagum Khaleda Zia for Bangladesh, and Benazir Bhutto for Pakistan. If you think about it, USA has never had a female president. Australia just appointed a female Prime Minister last year (2010). Why is that? It’s a wonder that I have no answer to. These Muslim women get death threats (and Bhutto was assassinated in 2007) for being female in authority position. You’d wonder how they got to the top in the first place.

There are a lot more aspects discussed in the book. Though at times Brooks cried disagreement, her objectivity is more prevalent throughout the book. What I concluded at the end was that Islam seems to be religion of contradictions and therefore it’s quite easy for some groups of people to twist the text to their own interpretation. Added to the mix is the conservative Arab culture where Islam is easily absorbed and takes root.

Nine Parts of Desire was published in 1994, so some things have obviously changed since then (just knew that Queen Noor of Jordan has become a widow in 1999). But to my understanding the progression of Muslim women’s lives and roles goes at snail’s pace, so I believe the book is still as relevant today. Check out the afterword written post 9/11 at Geraldine Brooks’ website. Love the last paragraph. Brooks writes so beautifully that I’m sure I’m going to check her other books including the fictions.

It could be very depressing to read about the unfairness and the inequality towards female gender in that part of the world, but above all Brooks looked into the women who succeed in their own small or big ways, who prevail against all odds. In many ways, it’s celebration of the strength of women, of the choices they make in their lives, whether we agree to or not.Brooks, Geraldine

“I have my own young sons now, and it is unlikely that I will go adventuring again into lives so far removed from my own.  Somehow, moving house between London and Sydney, Virginia and Massachusetts, I lost the chador in which so many of my memories were wrapped.  Yet they are with me, always; memories of women who trusted me across the chasm of faith and culture. When I think of them, I think of laughter and kindness, warmth and hospitality.  I think of the things that united us rather than those things on which we disagreed.  They wanted to live, to see their children live.  That, at least, we had in common.  That, at least, is a place to start.” ~ Nine Parts of Desire, New Afterword

5 stars
1994, 255 pp

Nine Parts of Desire at Geraldine Brooks website

More Memorable Quotes

“Almighty God created sexual desire in ten parts; then he gave nine parts to women and one to men.” ~ Ali ibn Abu Taleb, husband of Muhammad’s daughter Fatima and founder of the Shiite sect of Islam

“”Rose,” I said, incredulous, “are you telling me you’ve ruled him out because he had dirty fingernails? For goodness’ sake! You can always clean his fingernails.” She raised her head and gazed at me sadly with her huge dark eyes. “Geraldine, you don’t understand. You married for love. What’s a dirty fingernail on someone you love? But if you are going to marry somebody you don’t love, everything, everything, has to be perfect.”” ~ p65

“Few women’s colleges have their own libraries, and libraries shared with men’s schools are either entirely off limits to women or open to them only one day per week. Most of the time women can’t browse for books but have to specify the titles they want and have them brought out to them.

But women and men sit the same degree examinations. Professors quietly acknowledge that women’s scores routinely outstrip the men’s. “It’s no surprise,” said one woman professor. “look at their lives. The boys have their cars, they can spend the evenings cruising the streets with their friends, sitting in cafes, buying black-market alcohol and drinking all night. What do the girls have? Four walls and their books. For them, education is everything.”” ~ p150

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23 thoughts on “Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women by Geraldine Brooks (1994)”

  1. Mee, this is such a beautiful and honest review. Thanks for sharing this. It is a thought provoking review.

    I have studied the entire Christian Bible of King James translation and read some parts of the Quran, I would conclude Islam as in any religious text is not the only one who can appear contradictory and a lot of it is up to one’s interpretations. In some ways the text are written for the custom and practice of people of that time, so in the early chapters of Bible for example you will find that God wrath are terrible to those who disobey him and then the new testaments took a new turn to say God is the loving God. You will also read about various religious practice thousand years ago that wouldn’t be practised now.

    The sad thing is that any religion that falls into the hands of the fanatics get interpreted according to what their hearts’ contain. If the intent is evil and control, the outcome is evil. If the intent is to do good, the outcome will be good too.

    1. JoV, totally agree. I too studied the Bible once upon a time (various translations). I don’t think anybody should follow any religious text too literally. After all it has been handed down from human to human, and we never know what has been lost or added along the way, some have been out of date and would not work in the current time. It’s a tricky thing religion, because everything is based on faith, and little on logic. There’s no end to it when people start discussing what they think is the truth, which is why I would shy away when that happens.

      1. Yes! Religious beliefs are based on faith. I prefer to place my faith on a good relationship with God, than the religious text. Happy Chinese New Year, Mee. Have a good one. :)

        1. I’m with you on faith and God :)
          Happy early Chinese new year too Jo! I cut my hair today, all ready for the year of the Rabbit lol.

  2. I thought this was a really interesting book, but it’s been years since I’ve read it. I do think quite a bit has changed (and much hasn’t as well) in the 10 plus years since this book was published, but it’s still a valuable book for people to read

  3. I have just started reading Year of Wonder (my first Geraldine Brooks) and I am loving it. I own a copy of Nine Parts of Desire so it is great to see how much you loved it. It sounds like she did a wonderful job with such a difficult subject. I look forward to reading it at some point.

    1. Jackie, glad to know you’re loving Years of Wonder! Thinking to read that one or People of the Book. I look forward to your thoughts. Hope you get to read Nine Parts of Desire at some point. It’s a worthy read.

  4. What a great review. I had no idea Geraldine Brooks had written this book. I’ve been wanting to read something by her for a while now, but the book about pen friends I really wanted wasn’t available at my library. This sounds actually way better.

    1. Jenny, I heard about her other non-fiction about her penpals. It’s called Foreign Correspondence I think, which sounds quite interesting too, but I would probably try her fiction next.

  5. Excellent review! I read this last year and count it among the books from which I learned a lot and continue to think about long after I finished reading it. I have Brooks’s fiction on my shelves and wonder how it will compare with this book.

    Thanks for linking to my review!

    1. Colleen, I will definitely remember many things from this book for a long time. The information I got is invaluable. I’m interested in People of the Book or Year of Wonders to read next. I have high hopes for them now, hope they won’t disappoint :)

  6. I’ve never heard of this author before, but your review really does make me want to put her books on my tbr list. I think it’s about time to read a book about a monotheistic faith, so I can better understand Christianity and the Islam.

    1. Chinoiseries, religion is a topic that I can’t turn a blind eye to. It’s something that I grew up with, my own and others’.

      Geraldine Brooks is a pretty well-known Australian author. She won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for “March”. Hope you give her a shot!

  7. Fascinating review, Mee! I would like to read this book as well (I’ve read historical fiction by this author.) I will be reading/reviewing a book about Muslim women reformers in the not too distant future.

  8. I read Nine Parts of Desire several years ago and was glad to be reminded of it again. The quote you shared about dirty fingernails just gave me goosebumps.

    I have Brooks’ “March” and “People of the Book” in my TBR waiting for me to get to them. But now I see in the comments that she has one about penpals….I must look into that one! I had a few foreign penpals when I was in high school which probably contributed to my long-time interest in other cultures.

    1. Valerie, that quote gave me goosebumps too.

      I wish I had foreign penpals when I was in high school. I remember I was looking into getting one from some kind of penpal programme, but somehow the plan just fell through. I always have interests in different cultures, because I have been living with mixed cultures all my life.

  9. I saw this in a bookshop once, and had wanted to read it since. But it’s not available at the libraries here (nor at the bookshops so far…)

    I’ve always been intrigued by religion, especially Islam. Maybe like you, it’s because I’ve lived in a Muslim-majority country for most of my life.

    1. Michelle, I imagine it’s possible for the book to be banned in Malaysia, because it talks about negative (though some positive) nature of Islam.

  10. I found this book extremely informative and readable. Not only does one get an understanding of the genisis of Islamic culture and women but men as well. Westerners need books like this to understand who and what they are dealing with.

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