45 pages 1 hour read

Geraldine Brooks

Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1994

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Summary and Study Guide


In Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women (1994), author and Wall Street Journal correspondent Geraldine Brooks explores the conditions and experiences of Islamic women, focusing on the intersection of gender roles and Islamic practices and beliefs. While it does not shy away from the controversies and sensitive topics surrounding the rights and roles of women in Islam, the book is an examination of how cultural, religious, and historical elements combine to shape the lives of Muslim women. Brooks’s narrative considers themes such as The Role of Women in Islamic Societies, The Diversity of Experiences Among Muslim Women, and The Impact of Politics and Society on Women’s Rights.

This guide uses the 2010 Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group Kindle edition.

Content Warning: The source text includes discussions of cultural and religious practices related to women’s rights and explores sensitive topics, including gender roles, violence against women (including “honor killings” and female genital mutilation), and religious interpretations.


In Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women, Geraldine Brooks presents an exploration of the lives of Muslim women in various Islamic countries. The book, informed by her experiences as a foreign correspondent, traverses across countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, among others, providing a panoramic view of the diverse interpretations and applications of Islamic teachings on women’s roles.

Brooks examines how some of the Quran’s verses are interpreted to shape women’s lives, delving into issues such as veiling, segregation, and the legal rights of women in Islamic societies. She discusses the historical context of these practices, tracing them back to the life of the Prophet Muhammad and his wives, and moves forward to contemporary instances where these traditions intersect with modernity. The book does not follow a single narrative arc but is a compilation of vignettes and profiles, each shedding light on different aspects of the Islamic female experience.

The setting shifts from country to country, giving a sense of some of the geographical spread and cultural variation within the Islamic world. The narrative technique is a blend of reportage and storytelling, with Brooks often inserting her observations and interactions with the women she meets. Brooks is both a participant and an observer in the stories she tells. The tone ranges from empathetic to critical, reflecting her own cultural assumptions and biases as well as the complexities of the subjects she tackles.

Overarching themes of the book include the struggle for women’s rights within the framework of Islamic law, the impact of historical and cultural traditions on contemporary life, and the tensions between religious prescriptions and the aspirations of Muslim women. These themes are explored through the lenses of individual women’s stories, legal analyses, and the contrasts between different Islamic societies.

The book concludes with recognition of both the restrictions placed on women and the areas where they exert agency and influence. Brooks does not offer a singular resolution but rather presents the varied realities of Muslim women, some of whom find empowerment within the parameters of their faith and others who seek reform and greater equality. The status of women in Islam is portrayed as a subject entwined with the complexities of religious doctrine, cultural norms, political influences, and historical context, resulting in a significantly varied experience for women, contingent on the specific cultural and political settings in which they live.

Brooks’s interpretations are presented through a lens informed by Western humanist and feminist viewpoints, exploring the dynamic roles of women in Islam within the context of both Islamic and Western feminist discourses, and acknowledging the potential biases that come with any cultural critique. The book’s approach implies that understanding the experiences of women in Islam requires considering multiple perspectives, including those shaped by Western feminist thought. Ultimately, the text contributes to ongoing discussions about gender within the framework of Islam and provokes further inquiry into the ways tradition, faith, and the changing roles of women intersect.