Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women

Brooks, Geraldine

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Ethnography

Annotated by:
Saleh, Mona
  • Date of entry: May-15-2017
  • Last revised: May-15-2017


Written by successful Australian journalist Geraldine Brooks, Nine Parts of Desire recounts her experiences living among and working with Muslim women throughout her time as a correspondent in the Middle East. Brooks delves into topics as varied as non-marital sex, female genital mutilation, the different types of veiling (and the reasoning behind veiling at all), women’s participation in the Iranian military, the Qur’an, and the life and teachings of the Muslim Prophet, Muhammad. Brooks presents various perspectives and interpretations of certain Muslim practices, such as the wearing of the veil (hijab). She looks at the specific Qur’anic passage that prescribes the veil: “And when you [men] ask his [the Prophet’s] wives for anything, ask it of them from behind a curtain (hijab).” (p. 84)  Brooks intelligently analyzes, “What is so puzzling is why the revelation of seclusion [veiling], so clearly packaged here with instructions that apply only to the prophet, should ever have come to be seen as a rule that should apply to all Muslim women.” (p. 84)  It is often difficult to find alternative interpretations of Islamic requirements, but Brooks presents them here without filter and speculates why an apparently individually prescribed veil would become so widespread that it now practically symbolizes Islam. 

Brooks recalls several encounters that she had with fellow Westerners living in the Middle East for various reasons, from work to having married a Middle Easterner and re-located there. Some of the most sympathy-inducing moments are in these situations where Westerners are forced to live under the rules of strict, conservative, Muslim societies.  In one anecdote, Brooks relays the case of her friend, Margaret, an American woman who married an Iranian man. When Brooks asks Margaret why she does not go home to America to visit her family, Margaret replies, “My husband doesn’t want me to,” and Brooks then clarifies, “It was up to him to sign the papers that would allow her to leave the country.”
(p. 106)  This situation shows that being an American woman or an educated woman does not prevent one from being held to the same standards as local women in certain Muslim societies.

The final chapter is entitled, “Conclusion: Beware the Dogma” and serves to share Brooks’s personal opinions on the lives and faith that she had so objectively presented in journalist fashion until this point. Her opinion is summarized: 

“Today, the much more urgent and relevant task is to examine the way the faith [Islam] has proved such fertile ground for almost every antiwomen custom it encountered...When it found veils and seclusion in Persia, it absorbed them; when it found [female] genital mutilations in Egypt, it absorbed them; when it found societies in which women had never had a voice in public affairs, its own traditions of lively women’s participation withered.”
(p. 232)


By elevating the voices of women who live in Muslim societies, Brooks brings a very nuanced expression of experience to the reader. For instance, when discussing the issue of female genital mutilation in Eritrea, Brooks spends time with an American-educated obstetrician-gynecologist who treats girls and women who suffer the sequelae of this practice. People often believe that female genital mutilation (FGM) is an Islamic requirement, prescribed in the Qur’an. This is simply untrue, but just saying so does not convince believers in FGM otherwise. Brooks insightfully relays that societies falsely tell girls that it is written in the Qur’an that FGM is a requirement and that the Ob/Gyn “could tell them it wasn’t but, as an outsider and a woman, her word meant little against the word of the village sheik [cleric].” (p. 35)
The power of misogyny extends far past the power of logic in many cultures, and here we see it play out again where the of word an educated, respected doctor trained specifically in the care of women does not hold any value against the word of the local religious cleric, in large part because the doctor is a woman and the cleric is a man. This particular anecdote is powerful because it shows that educating women and putting them in more powerful roles (such as physicians) does not mean that certain misogynistic practices, such as FGM, will cease. The cessation of such practices involves a rolling back of culture as expressed by all members of the population, men included. 

The Middle Eastern or Muslim experience is often cast as one behemoth identity, but Brooks serves to showcase that even within one (albeit large) geographic region, the experience of girlhood and womanhood has the potential to be vastly different. I developed a deep appreciation of Brooks’s manner of presenting the viewpoints of women who are part of these societies without criticism or Western hegemony coming through. The final chapter served as Brooks’s platform to convey how she personally feels about Islam, and I found it to be appropriately placed after the voices of those women who live in this world day in and day out. 


Anchor Books

Place Published

New York

Page Count