(Really 4.25 stars, which goes to show that however fine the distinctions a website allows, I will want more.)
This is a fascinating, if poorly titled, work of nonfiction. Brooks spent several years as a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, where she spent time with hundreds of women – some of them newsworthy in their own right, others just average people.
The title gives a false impression of the book on two counts: first, while sex and marriage are discussed, these topics are not the primary focus; and second, the book doesn’t pretend to discuss the lives of Islamic women everywhere – Brooks traveled in the Middle East and a bit in North Africa, but this region is actually home to a minority of the world’s Muslim population. That said, the book draws clear distinctions among Middle Eastern societies, from Saudi Arabia to Iran to Egypt to Palestine, and provides an overview of a wide variety of subjects. Big universal topics like education, marriage and employment are covered, as well as practices associated with Islam, such as veiling, honor killings and female genital mutilation (a horrifying chapter – and as Brooks points out, while Islam may not promote this practice it isn’t doing much to end it either). There are also chapters on women in the military and guerrilla movements, in politics, in sports and the arts, and the success or failure of feminist groups. The book is now 20 years old, but still very relevant today; Brooks caught an earlier stage of trends that continue today, specifically the rise of fundamentalism.
All this is conveyed in a clear, precise journalistic style, mixing anecdotes from people Brooks met with personal stories she witnessed or experienced, along with her research; the chapter on the Prophet’s wives surprised me with the amount of information available about them. Brooks doesn’t try to hide her own worldview – she’s a progressive, secular feminist – but she relies on facts and observation rather than stereotypes, and clearly worked to understand the people that she met. And where the book makes judgments – well, there are moral issues where neutrality is not a virtue. Brooks is also careful to distinguish between what the Koran says, and what some societies choose to do.
If I have a complaint, it’s that the book is very short for the amount of material covered; as another reviewer stated, it piqued my interest rather than satisfying it. Also – there is more great novel material in the subjects covered in this book than the most prolific author could exhaust in a lifetime, but instead of writing those novels, Brooks went off and wrote about the Plague, and the American Civil War, and a past/present historian story. Dammit, why couldn’t she write the novels I want to read?