Isobel Coleman is no male-bashing feminist. Indeed she admits: “Gender issues had never been on my radar screen.” Neither is Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women Are Transforming the Middle East
a predictable study in the West vs Islamist culture clash.
The tone is set early on, in a mosque-based school in Hazarajat, home to the Hazara minority in central Afghanistan. Here the local mullah who welcomes Coleman tells her: “Education is like sun and water. Without it you can’t grow anything. But if the girls are educated, they can change our whole society.”
The outcome of the struggle between the mullah seeking funds to educate
village girls and the Taliban who burn schools where classes for girls
are held will have an impact way beyond the borders of Afghanistan, in
countries and places those villagers can barely imagine.
On the other hand, Coleman recalls giving a talk in New York where the
discussion turned to using the mosque as a school. A woman in the
audience interrupted and declared: “We should be working to dislodge
religion, not further entrench it.”
“Clearly she has never been to the central highlands of Afghanistan, I
thought to myself, and might not appreciate the political and cultural
realities of the region... If the advancement of women’s rights in the
Middle East depends on the removal of Islam, Muslim women will be
waiting a long time indeed.”
The book avoids being too academic, although it was born when Coleman, a
senior fellow for US foreign policy at the Council on Foreign
Relations, was asked by the CFR to develop a program on women and
“It did not take long for me to understand that the women’s struggle for
justice in much of the world is about the most basic of human rights.
It is also central to many of the most pressing foreign policy concerns:
alleviating poverty, promoting economic development, improving global
health, building civil society, strengthening weak and failing states,
assisting democratization and tempering extremism.”
Coleman traveled widely and researched her topic well, and fortunately
for the reader, produced a highly readable account of the lives of some
ordinary and remarkable women, at home, in their own environments.
Hence we meet a series of powerful women (and some men) who are acting
to transform lives. But they are almost always working within the
framework of ijtihad, interpreting Islamic law to promote gender
equality rather than act as a tool of repression.
Incidentally, Coleman notes that in places like Tunisia, where the hijab
remains ubiquitous despite an official ban, many women wear the head
scarf as a means of asserting their rights to protest strident
secularism rather than to express piety. Feminism is seen, even by some
women, as a foreign cultural import.
The book is arranged in two sections, the first providing historical
background on the status of women and the rise of “Islamic feminism,”
and the second looking at some specific ways in which women’s rights are
playing out in five Muslim countries.
Among the women we meet through Coleman are the unknown – like Nasreen
Parveen, a formerly destitute Pakistani slumdwelling widow who, with the
help of a small loan, now runs her own business, and Chaggibai Bhil, an
uneducated Indian villager who became a groundbreaking local
politician. And readers can become better acquainted with the far more
public American- born Amina Wadud, who came up with the term “gender
jihad,” that gives one chapter its title. She stirred controversy across
the Islamic world by insisting women could lead Friday prayers (sound
In Saudi Arabia, the reader is introduced to Dr. Haifa Jamal al-Lail,
the dean of an allwomen’s university, and businesswoman Madawi
al-Hassoon who runs a chain of hair salons – this in a country where
women are forbidden to travel without a male guardian and where
infamously the Mutawa morality police in 2002 prevented schoolgirls from
leaving their burning building because they weren’t wearing head
scarves and robes. Fifteen girls died in the incident.
The chapter on Iran is fascinating: In it we see women who won the
battle to compete in sports, for example. And how press wars and gender
issues combine. (As an aside, there is also a joke said to have
circulated in Teheran about how Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, determined to prove
his hard-line credentials, carefully separates the male lice from the
females when he combs his hair. This story, I suspect, could easily
undergo some kind of un-Orthodox conversion.) As the debate on niqabs
and public veils continues to rage throughout France and the rest of
Europe, the timeliness and relevance of this book to readers outside the
Muslim world is obvious. My major reservation is the subhead. The
lively reports about life in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Indonesia and
Malaysia make an important contribution to our understanding of the
issues, but including them in a book on “How women are transforming the
Middle East” is pushing the geographic boundaries of the region to the
Even stranger, Israel’s immediate neighbors, more traditionally considered the Middle East, are not covered.
Ultimately, Coleman does see a “silver lining.”
In Pakistan, for instance, the notorious Hudood ordinances, under which,
among other things, a rape victim can find herself imprisoned for sex
out of wedlock, are gradually being pushed back. She also holds that
“when the current repressive regime finally loses its hold, Iran will
undoubtedly emerge as the most progressive environment for women in the
region.” And she is encouraged by the gradual change in attitudes in
Saudi Arabia. But clearly a long, long road lies ahead – especially for
women not yet allowed behind the steering wheel of a car.