Monday, July 18, 2011

Paradise beneath her feet: How women are transforming the middle east

By Isobel Coleman

Book review by Richard L. Weaver II, Ph.D.

From the back flyleaf: “Isobel Coleman is a senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, where she also directs the council’s Women and Foreign Policy program.”  From one of the reviews (this one by Jeanette) at “This book is the result of nearly a decade of travel, study, interviews, and writing about women in the Middle East.”

Talk about convincing!  Wow.  Coleman offers direct (sometimes anecdotal, much more often statistical) evidence to prove the value of giving money to women (not men), and educating women (along with men).  Here, she writes about educating women: “Due to the central role women play in the domestic sphere, increasing a mother’s schooling has a larger positive impact on the next generation than does adding to a father’s schooling by the same number of years” (p. 19).  The direct, positive correlation between a country’s openness to educating women and that country’s rise from poverty is clear and well established.

I thought Coleman’s comments about promoting women to government positions as a way to counter extremism was insightful and accurate.  (Isn’t it interesting that in America (between 1848 and 1920) “conservative Christians sustained a consistent rhetoric that giving women rights was against the teachings of the Bible, and would undermine the family” (p. 27), and as recently as 2010: “The Vatican today [July 15, 2010] made the ‘attempted ordination’ of women one of the gravest crimes under church law, putting it in the same category as clerical sex abuse of minors, heresy and schism.”  Can you believe it?  Islam doesn’t even allow men and women to pray together (p. 33).)

The key sentence of the book, and the point Coleman makes throughout her interviews and observations is this: “Islamists are trying to impose their restrictions on women . . . at a time when globalization and modernization are working in the other direction by inexorably expanding female opportunities” (p. 53).  Of course, her approach is much broader than this, and her research, interviews, and specifics about life for women in the Mideast cover a far wider range, too.

There are five countries which Coleman profiles regarding women’s rights: Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq.   Her writing is clear and easily digestible, her insights and observations are well-described and specific, and the anecdotes and stories are engaging and revealing.  Reading the profile she offers on each country is heart-stopping, breath-taking, and mind-bending — especially if you have never traveled in these countries or have little familiarity with various ways-of-life around the world.  It is hard to believe that countries could be this backward, regressive, and wrong-footed.  (In Afghanistan, a deeply conservative country, Coleman writes about it today: “The resurgent threat of the Taliban looms largest over the country’s women.”)

Incidentally, the stories Coleman tells throughout the book alone, will not just hold your attention, they will rivet you to your seat.

Look at what Coleman reports about Saudi Arabia: “Saudi Arabia is a country of contrasts, no more so than with respect to women.  Saudi women are internationally recognized doctors.  They are prominent businesswomen running global companies.  They are Ph.D. economists and scientists.  They are deans of colleges and heads of university departments.  They are journalists and newscasters.  Yet none of these women can drive in their home country or vote in a local election.  Saudi women enjoy fewer legal rights than women in any other country in the world today” (p. 205).  Did you know that?  These are the kinds of facts that you will learn from reading Coleman’s book.

Of course, Coleman goes much further than simply giving informational profiles of each country and how they treat their women.  Her emphasis is about how women are working to change their repressive environments.  What organizations are they forming?  How are they using their academic, professional, and economic successes to break down their country’s pervasive discriminatory policies and social attitudes?  In what ways are they experiencing political success and where are women’s reform efforts paying off?  This is the driving force of this book, and, too, it is what gives Coleman’s writing energy and vigor.

I don’t know whether you can tell it or not, but I loved this book.  One reviewer on writes: “Well-researched, well-written, and incredibly informative book by Coleman on Islamic feminism in the greater Middle East.”  I couldn’t agree more.

This book can be found at Paradise beneath her feet: How women are transforming the middle east

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