Women & Islam in the Middle East: “See With Disbelieving Eyes the Black Luster of Unleashed Hair”

I’m currently in the thick of the novel Censoring an Iranian Love Story by Shahriar Mandanipour.  It’s a challenging read. Everything about it feels foreign – the setting, the phrasing, the cultural references. But the author is talented and I’ve a feeling  it will be worth the work.

So, while you wait for me to finish, I have two offerings that provide a gateway into the complicated world of Islam and the Middle East.  Neither book is new, and both are fairly well-known.  The first, Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women came out in 1995 and was widely reviewed.  Geraldine Brooks was a foreign correspondent for The Wall Street Journal who went on to win the Pulitzer for Fiction.  Nine Parts of Desire was researched in the six year period during which she covered the Middle East.  Being a woman gave her access to a world from which her male colleagues were barred – a chance to  learn about the private lives of Islamic women.  She took advantage of that opportunity to eloquently, and respectfully, tell their stories.

Nine Parts of Desire isn’t just interesting – it’s educational in an entertaining way. Now I know how lame that sounds, but really! In two pages Brooks provides the concise explanation on the origins of the schism between Sunnis & Shiites that the 10 o’clock news never bothers with. She was granted several unprecedented audiences with Queen Noor of Saudi Arabia and gives an intimate glimpse into the royal marriage and politics of that nation. She discusses arranged marriages, polygamy, the veil – symbols of Islam that are familiar to Westerners without our truly understanding their significance – and all this information comes to us from the female perspective.  Geraldine Brooks carefully examines the history and development of  customs and beliefs that shape the lives of women under Islam.  She does so without bias or preconceptions or the burden of a post-9/11 world.

Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books is a book that appeals to readers across a broad spectrum. After being fired from the University of Tehran the author, Azar Nafisi, selected a special group of her females students to join a book club which met on Thursdays in her home. There they discussed books by authors who had been banned in Iran , ranging from Henry James to Vladimir Nabokov. The novels read by the group form the backdrop against which the drama of Nafisi’s students’ lives play out. Surprisingly – what comes across as the great tragedy of this book is not so much the oppression of these women (which is often the case), but the rift that is formed between them, their country and their culture.  A striking symbol of this, for me, was the contrast between how these women appeared publicly and  what existed beneath their dark headscarves, robes and chadors.  Nafisi describes their arrival for the first group.

…Azin & Mitra had arrived together. Azin was taking off her black kimonolike robe – Japanese-style robes were all the rage at the time – revealing a white peasant blouse that made no pretense of covering her shoulders, big golden earrings and pink lipstick….

…I had never seen Sanaz without her uniform, and stood there almost transfixed as she took off her robe and scarf. She was wearing an orange T-shirt tucked into tight jeans and brown boots, yet the most radical transformation was the mass of shimmering dark brown hair that now framed her face. She shook her magnificent hair from side to side, a gesture that I later noticed was a habit with her; she would toss her head and run her fingers through her hair every once in a while, as if making sure that her most prized possession was still there…

Reading Lolita in Tehran sometimes steps outside of the book group to give a wider view of the city in which the story takes place.  For example, when Nafisi encourages her class (of both male and female students)  at the University to put the novel The Great Gatsby on trial. The trial, with Nafisi standing as the accused book, is fascinating in itself.  Yet she also uses this chapter as an opportunity to discuss the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the events that led up to it and the changes it wrought. The University of Tehran was a hotbed for the different revolutionary factions – the Constitutional Liberals, the Communists, the Islamic Reformists and Fundamentalists. This chapter, Gatsby, displays Azar Nafisi’s ability to weave a beautiful story out of both historical fact and memory.  And while I enjoyed both Nine Parts of Desire and Reading Lolita in Tehran, I believe it will be Nafisi’s book that will remain a classic long after most other memoirs outlive their shelf life.

Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women
Publisher:  Anchor Books, New York (1995)
ISBN:  0 385 47577 2

Reading Lolita in Tehran:  A Memoir in Books
Publisher:  Random House, New York (2003)
ISBN:  0 375 50490 7

Notes:  The quote  used in the post title is from Censoring an Iranian Love Story by Shahriar Mandanipour.  And for those interested in reading more about Islamic women and their lives, Sophisticated Dorkiness has reviews of Honeymoon in Tehran and Lipstick Jihad – both of which caught my interest.  So many books so little time!  My review of Censoring an Iranian Love Story should be up early next week.


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4 thoughts on “Women & Islam in the Middle East: “See With Disbelieving Eyes the Black Luster of Unleashed Hair”

  1. Reading Lolita in Tehran is one of my favorite books. I think it’s part of why I got so interested in Iran and life for women in that country. Nine Parts of desire also sounds quite good. Thanks for linking to my recent reviews!


    1. Kim –

      Reading Lolita in Tehran is one of those books I consider a gateway book. Another one for me was Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible – after reading that I couldn’t get enough of anything written about Africa.

      A book I still have on my to be read pile that you might find interesting is Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. The authors won the Pulitzer for their reporting on the suffering of women – mostly poor women – worldwide. It looks like an amazing book, and has developed into an important cause. I highly recommend taking a look at it if you haven’t already.

      Thanks for visiting and leaving a comment!


    1. Jayme – First, thank you for stopping by!

      Reading Lolita in Tehran seems to be a book that made an impact on many women. For me, it was the first book I’d read dealing with the Middle East. Once I picked it up I couldn’t put it down! I’m glad to see that others felt the same.


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