28 Feb 2009

A desire to better understand

Australian born journalist, Geraldine Brooks learned a lot about what life is like for Muslim women during her time covering the Middle East for The Wall Street Journal. Nine Parts of Desire, subtitled The Hidden World of Islamic Women, is her attempt to understand the women behind the veils, and the often contradictory religious and cultural forces that shape their identities as women.

In an interview in 2008, Brooks says of her book:
I meant it for a Western audience - people like myself who are curious but who didn't have the opportunities I had to get to know so many fascinating women leading such different lives.
The book is certainly fascinating - and I was certainly curious. Brooks divides her narrative into chapters that cover some of the most interesting - and controversial aspects of the lives of women who follow the Muslim faith. She looks at the varied religious and cultural meanings of the veil and hijab, explores female genital mutilation and honour killings, the Muslim attitude to the education of its women, and whether or not they should work. Focusing on individual women living in the many varied Muslim countries of the Middle East. Brooks tells us a lot about what it is like to be a good Muslim, a good wife and a good mother.

Brooks saves much of her criticism in the book for Saudi Arabia, and the spread of the somewhat radical and restrictive Saudi form of Islam throughout the region. My husband spent several years working in Saudi Arabia before we were married and I was interested to read Brooks' opinion on this fascinating country. It was very much like his.

Particularly since 9/11, I think many of us have struggled to love and understand our Muslim neighbours in the way that we are asked to do as Christians. This book has gone a long way towards helping me understand, at least.

Jemimah wearing the headscarf that allowed her to walk the streets in comfort.

Our family spent a few weeks in Yemen in 2007. Known in Roman times as Arabia Felix, Yemen is a land of extremes with its magnificent mountains and lush fruit-growing valleys contrasting widely with the Rubaal-Khali or “Empty Quarter” of the Arabian Peninsula, a vast sea of sand. The towns and cities, two of which are World Heritage sites in their entirety are little changed in centuries, with hidden souqs and spice markets, mosques and ancient city walls.

Sana’a, the Capital, and long an important citadel along the trade route between Aden and Mecca, dates back to the first century and, according to legend, to early Biblical times. The old centre, where we spent several days, is still surrounded by the remains of the vast city walls. They enclose the 1000-year-old Bab al-Yamen Market, divided into 40 different crafts and trades, with a fascinating spice market standing out from the rest by the rich aromas of frankincense and myrrh and famed Arabian spices. The food here – and elsewhere in Yemen was fantastic. although our Yemeni drivers were rather amused that we preferred to join them for a meal of fool (a kind of fava bean casserole), chilli and flat bread most mornings for breakfast instead of the insipid Western breakfasts on offer!

We have many enduring memories - the wonderful food; the friendliness of the Yemeni people; the beauty of the architecture; amazing archaeological sites like the Biblical Queen of Sheba’s temple; spectacular mountains; the vast sand dunes of the Empty Quarter and the beautiful beaches. Like Geraldine Brooks, I have disquieting thoughts too though – Yemen is the 14th poorest country in the world; it is under shari’a (Muslim law) and there is no freedom of religion; and the majority of men – and many women are addicted to the chewing of qat, a mild narcotic, which is seriously destabilising the economy. Like Brooks I am concerned about women's rights - I think most Western women are.

The women in Yemen cover themselves completely in a two piece black garment called a Sharshaf. Most even wear long black gloves to hide their hands. The women I spoke to believed that this was both right under Islam, but also a Yemeni cultural tradition, albeit a relatively new one possibly introduced from Turkey in the 1960's.

Unlike Geraldine Brooks, I'm not informed enough - nor brave enough to enter into the rights and wrongs of women wearing hijab...not in blogland anyway.

The purpose of this post is to urge you all to searching our own hearts to see what in your beliefs, attitudes and actions toward Muslims is accurate or biased, compassionate and loving or fearful and angry. I encourage you to learn more so that you can better understand women in foreign lands. Reading Nine Parts of Desire is one way to do this. It is only when Muslims see Christians living the loving life that Jesus wants us to live that they to will have any desire to follow him and be saved. Is that what they see when they look at you?

Women wearing the sharshaf - a black pleated skirt, black cape, and black veil that covers them from head to toe. Underneath the sharshaf women will usually wear a calf-length or ankle-length dress, stockings or trousers underneath, and a scarf covering her head.

Woman wearing the red, flowered sitara Sana'ani

Me wearing hijab!

A Yemeni girl wearing school uniform

Young girls in Al Mukalla in the Hadramaout province

Goat herder wearing a tafashah, a wide-brimmed straw hat


  1. Facinating post. I am putting that book on my amazon wish list. How neat that you were able to see Yemen like that first hand.

    I probably have a different view of muslims from many westerners, because I dated one for a couple of years during a very confused time of my life. All of the women that I knew (his mother, sister, and friends) were not very traditional, though, so I never saw them wearing any kind of head covering, much less anything like the women in your photos (they were Palestinian). That was a time in my life that I was glad to put behind me (and I won't be writing about it on my family blog!), but I still have a tender spot for those women.

    Jemimah looks like a 50's movie star in that photo. Adorable!

  2. Great post--I'll look for the book. I've read tons on the Middle East and this should add to that knowledge.

  3. I've read this one ~ amongst others. Our muslim friends worry me for the same reasons so many Christians worry me; no~one knows their own scriptures as well as they should.

  4. Thanks for sharing your sweet memories. the Yemeni girl respect their religion. Hijab is not to protect men but to honor women.http://bestreviewzon.com/best-hijab/

  5. Awesome post, travelling such unknown places is such an amazing experience. It feels fantastic to get information about living, food and culture of different societies. http://www.e-buddhism.com/2016/09/autistic-boy-with-higher-iq-than.html

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