Wednesday, February 9, 2005

Lifting the veil

Geraldine Brooks explores women under Islam

Lifting the veil

Soliloquy, 1999. Video/sound installation courtesy Barbara Gladstone, New York. From the video installation currently showing at the SVCA's exhibition "Confluence." (c) Shirin Neshat

Being a Western journalist in the Middle East is a risky business, a literary job surpassed in danger only by writing a book about Islam. The survivor of both of these perilous feats, author and journalist Geraldine Brooks, gratefully emerged from her decade immersed in the Muslim world with no fatwa or visible scars.

Many Westerners perceive Islamic countries through a murky haze of fear and a multitude of misconceptions. It is as if a sizeable portion of the world has been draped under the symbolic black veil that is the most recognizable feature of that world.

Brooks' experiences in the Middle East prompted her to write a book about Islam, in which she attempts to pull back that veil by focusing on one of the most divisive issues between the Middle East and the West, women.

"Nine Parts of Desire—The Hidden World of Islamic Women" explores the sensual lives of women under Islam. The Sun Valley Center for the Arts in Ketchum has invited Brooks to speak about her book as part of the Center's current program "Confluence," which explores the merging of Middle Eastern cultural traditions with current Western thought.

In an interview with the Express last week, Brooks provided an insight into her experiences, from her unique perspective as an Australian, living in America, who converted to Judaism for an atheist.

"I spent six years living in the Middle East, I went there for The Wall Street Journal, and I was spectacularly ill equipped for it," Brooks admits with an infectious laugh. "My first year was a very, very steep learning curve indeed. All the reporting I'd done prior to that had been in a Western context, in the United States and Australia.

"There, if you want to find out what ordinary people are thinking, you go into a bar and strike up a conversation. Well in the Middle East that didn't work so very well ... It took a while for me to get the hang of what I was going to be able to contribute there."

Brooks found her route into this closed world quite unexpectedly. The Wall Street Journal provided her with a news assistant, a fashionably dressed, recognizably Western young Egyptian woman named Sahar. She watched in amazement as overnight, Sahar changed. She explains in "Desire:"

"Then, one morning at the beginning of Ramadan ... I opened the door and faced a stranger. The elaborate curls were gone, wrapped away in a severe blue scarf. The makeup was scrubbed off and her shapely dress had been replaced by a dowdy sack. Sahar had adopted the uniform of a Muslim fundamentalist."

As she tried to understand her colleague's complete transformation, Brooks discovered her niche. "I realized that the story that was open to me was the story of women in the Middle East. From then on I always tried to report from the women's point of view."

Following that story took her behind the veil, where she discovered an Islamic leader's widow who dyed her hair red. Behind the closed doors that were now open to her she found that silk negligees and scarlet satin nightgowns lay under the "dowdy sacks." "This is how we are at home," a satin-clad Muslim explains to Brooks in "Desire." "Islam encourages us to be beautiful for our husbands."

After her stint in the Middle East, Brooks found herself in London. Spending time with Western women again she began to realize that they were largely ignorant to their Eastern Islamic counterparts. So she wrote "Desire" in order to defy traditional stereotypes about the Muslim world and to explore how Islam's holiest texts have been misused to justify the repression of women.

"When you talk about Muslims that's a billion people, and Muslim women that's half a billion, so there's no way to generalize. That's usually the first thing I say in any talk. You have to accept that the largest Muslim nation on earth is not even in the Middle East, it's Indonesia. And if you're talking about American Muslims, these days that would be twice as likely to be an African American than someone of Arab origin."

Sahar's veiling and Brooks' subsequent exploration of the world of Muslim women completely changed her view of the Islamic practice. "I used to find the idea of the veil repulsive. But now I understand that there are many reasons, some of them quite feminist, why a woman might choose to wear it. And while I would still demonstrate for any woman's right not be veiled, I would also argue strenuously for her right to be veiled, if that's her free choice.

"I don't think the French approach is fruitful at all. And I think that Chirac (the French president) and Khomeini (Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of the Iranian Islamic revolution in 1979), even though they might not like to think so, have a great deal in common.

"They are both trying to solve overarching social problems through the bodies of women. It's easier to order women out of the veil than it is to really address the inequalities of the immigration situation in France and try to assimilate the people into your society. It was the same thing in Iran when Khomeini ordered the women into the veil; he certainly didn't order the banking system to ban interest overnight, although interest payments are quite un-Islamic. It's much easier to mess with women than it is to mess with your economy. It made his society look Islamic overnight."

"Desire" delves also into the origins of Islam, when, it appears, Islamic women had much more freedom to participate equally in society than they seem to have today. The Prophet Mohammed actually worked for his first wife; she supported him entirely and became the first convert to Islam. I ask Brooks if she agrees with this interpretation of her work.

"Again, it depends what country you're talking about. There's a real backward march in Saudi Arabia, for example. In the Arabian Desert, where Islam was revealed to Mohammed, at that time it was a liberating message for women and it improved their status enormously. But unfortunately many of the positive messages with regards to women and their rights have been wiped out by the needs of patriarchy and by desert customs.

"What's happening now that is encouraging, however, is that as Islamic women in the Middle East and elsewhere get more literate and more confident, a lot of these customs (such as genital mutilation and stoning) are being questioned. The women who can read and study the Koran are able to say 'Look, this is not what it says,' and that's where the greatest successes have been in reversing these customs.

"Paradoxically, it's in Iran that a lot of these changes have been happening. One of the things that Khomeini did was to stress women's literacy and create a sort of separate but equal religious educational apparatus. So there are women there who are extremely respected Islamic scholars and when they're able to point out something that is contrary to the Koran then the change happens."

The subtitle of the exhibition at the Sun Valley Center for the Arts is to explore and examine the merging of Middle Eastern cultural traditions with current Western thought. I put this to Brooks and ask her if she sees any evidence of this.

"One thing that does encourage me are American Muslin women. These women, who are gaining in confidence—being nurtured as they are in an open, democratic and loud, debating society—could profoundly affect the future of Islam ... What's happening is that these women, being very well educated and outspoken, are writing for a wonderful magazine called Sisters that comes out of Seattle. The magazine is translated into Arabic and sent back into the Islamic world.

"There are also wonderful books being written by North American Muslim women, trying to explain the positive messages of the faith, that could be a really vibrant source of reform."

In an article titled "We must attack Iraq and free its people," written for British newspaper The Guardian, Brooks relates an experience she had in Kurdistan that led her to support the recent war on Iraq (a support she has subsequently revoked).

"A few days after the Kurdish uprising that followed the (first) Gulf War, I was in the basement of the office of Amen, Saddam's feared security police ... Rebellious Kurds had liberated the complex ... it was a warren of lightless dungeons, with excrement on the floor and meat hooks in the ceiling. In one room, a Kurdish guide spoke passionately and drew me towards something nailed to the wall. I couldn't quite make out what it was, so I leaned closer as he struck another match. It was a piece of cartilage—part of a human ear."

Mentioning the ear incident elicits an audible shudder from Brooks, and I ask if there are other such defining moments of her time in the Middle East that remain with her.

"My experience in Kurdistan was probably the most profound reporting experience I had, both for the better and for the worst. The first few days there, just after the first Gulf War had finished, watching people seizing their freedom was just a remarkable gift. To see people who hadn't been allowed to speak, finally speaking freely, then to see that crushed, and to have friends that I'd made in that intense time killed, was heartbreaking.

"I lost a colleague and the young Kurdish guy who was helping us. He laid down his life to protect us when Saddam was allowed to fly his helicopter gunships to crush the uprising. Just being on the road and fleeing with those people, it makes you understand the immense depths of suffering that happens through feckless foreign policy decisions that are sometimes made in Washington."

Now, far from deposed leader Saddam's threatening gunships, tucked away in rural Virginia with son and husband, Brooks agrees that her current role in life is certainly the safer option. Since returning from the Middle East she has relinquished the front line of journalism in favor of fiction.

"I love fiction writing and can't imagine doing anything else, as long as I can get away with it!" Her first novel "Year of Wonders," a fictionalized account of a 17th century English plague village, was published in 2001, and her second will be published next month.

"It's called 'March' and it takes the absent father in Louisa May Alcott's 'Little Women' and makes up a year for him. According to 'Little Women,' he was with the Union troops as a Civil War chaplain, but we don't hear anything about him in her book until he comes home, right at the end. So, I wanted to explore how that year of war changed an idealistic, abolitionist transcendentalist from Massachusetts."

Brooks' two novels have taken fact and blended in fiction to "allow her imagination to work." But I can't help but wonder, as we say our good-byes, how much imagination she really needed to describe the effects of war on an idealistic hero.

Info Box:

An Evening with Geraldine Brooks takes place on Thursday, Feb. 17 at 7 p.m. at The Presbyterian Church of the Big Wood in Ketchum. The cost is $7 members and $10 non-members.

"March" is now available at Iconoclast Books, in advance of its official release. "Nine Parts of Desire" will be available in the lobby for purchase and signing after the presentation.

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