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Book Review: Paradise Beneath Her Feet by Isobel Coleman

May 10, 2010

At first I hesitated to write this review. I am a non-Muslim, Western woman writing a review of a book written by a (presumably) non-Muslim, Western woman about Muslim women in the Middle East. As I read the book, however, I became much more comfortable with the idea. Ms. Coleman’s book is a result of nearly ten years of research and personal interviews with women from Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq. The book reads more like a report of women’s activities in these countries with only the occasional judgment from the author, (“Linking feminism with the ‘heresy’ of the West is good politics, and helps turn patriarchy into patriotism,”) instead of one woman’s opinion on an incredibly complex and historical struggle of which she is not technically a part. (Most of the judgments, save the previous quote, are of other Westerners who offer ignorant assessments of Muslim/Islamic feminism.)

Considering the subject matter, the book is an incredibly enjoyable read, which I hope will encourage more people to consider perusing this seemingly dense account. It passed the red-eye test; I read it on a red-eye flight to California after 3 hours of sleep and couldn’t put it down.

Each country merits its own chapter, which I believe will help delineate even more the great differences in women’s rights struggles from place to place. Treading lightly on the tricky ground of reporting Middle Eastern policy to Westerners, Coleman quotes often from direct, one-on-one interviews she held with each subject. This removes opportunities for judgment from the author and instead allows the reader a rare, unbiased glimpse into parts of the Middle East. Within each country’s chapter, Coleman also interviews those from both rural and urban settings, highlighting the great difference in mindset between women, men, and religious leaders in different locations. The research is truly meticulous, and any reader interested in this subject matter would do well to read this book not only for the scope of knowledge, but also for the depth.

One fantastic example of grassroots change Coleman highlights is the National Solidarity Program (NSP) in Afghanistan. An Afghani alum of the World Bank, Ashraf Ghani, spearheaded this initiative to give agency for change to local governments. Localities must elect members of a community development council, which will then receive money from NSP to improve conditions for its residents. The catch? Women must be involved in decision making and benefit from some of the money.

This was not a completely objective report, however. Coleman stated in the beginning that the greatest struggle that she, and anyone else knowledgeable on the subject matter, saw within this movement of women’s rights in the Middle East was the role religion should or should not play. We have discussed the same theme many times here at GAB, and, on a broader scale, whether or not the intention behind change matters if the end results means equality for women. Coleman definitively concludes that religion must play a role in the battle for women’s rights in order for the change to be organic and sustainable, especially in rural areas where the majority of the female population in most of these countries lives. A few pages into the book’s introduction, she states (some may argue wrongfully so) that

“[s]ecular feminism-both in the Middle East and in the West- has always been the province of urban elites and intellectuals, and that has long been its greatest weakness.”

This is where I would like to welcome comments from our Muslim Feminist readers and/or readers from any of the above mentioned countries. Do you think that Islam is essential to the progress of women’s rights in the Middle East? Can the word “feminism” be used to describe equality and dignity for women or is the term too secular and/or Western?

Cross-posted at Feminist Review

  1. Yamin permalink
    May 10, 2010 2:31 pm

    Do you think that Islam is essential to the progress of women’s rights in the Middle East?

    Yes. Islam is what–to use a western saying–lifted the veil off women (pun intended) anti-female cultural practices in these nations starting 1400 years ago. Actually, the freedoms given to women in Islam in the mid-600s were miles ahead of what western women have only enjoyed for the last several decades but this is another topic for another day. Unfortunately, cultural pressures still trump the equality of women in Islam. Unfortunately, western commentators seem to have a mental block in the nuanced differences between the religion of Islam and the predominant secular cultures in these nations. This lack of understanding is partially due to the knowledge gap we see in westerners. The far more important reason why western commentators usually fail at dissecting these issues in our countries is because western feminists tend to look at the world through the Western Lens (a more general term than White Lens but they can be used interchangeably as far as I care). of large paradigm differences.

    Can the word “feminism” be used to describe equality and dignity for women or is the term too secular and/or Western?

    No. I’d argue that modern western feminism isn’t about equality in its practical practice but that’s also another topic for another day. To continue, dignity is defined on a per-culture basis. Your dignity isn’t my dignity. Any attempt to generalize dignity by western commentators for the entire world is–yet again–the Western Lens at work again. Western feminism is an attempt to address large failings in the treatment of women in the west. Taking those same exact “cures” to our nations is no different than the incorrect logic that if Tylenol cures a cold then it can probably cure every other disease. Would you give Tylenol to cure cancer? No. Therefore Western feminism is the wrong “cure” for our troubles. Unfortunately, this logic escapes most Western feminists and their comments can quickly become very offensive and therefore ineffective.

    • Colleen Hodgetts permalink*
      May 10, 2010 7:26 pm

      Thank you for your thoughts. You might be interested in reading this book because the author is a Western woman who agrees with you- “Dignity is defined on a per-culture basis” One point I would argue with is that a “Western” lens and a “white” lens are interchangeable terms. Yes, they can at times overlap, but there are (luckily) a myriad of voices here in the West.

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