Elevate Difference

Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women Are Transforming the Middle East

At first I hesitated to write this review. I am a non-Muslim, Western woman writing a review of a book written by a (presumably) non-Muslim, Western woman about Muslim women in the Middle East. As I read the book, however, I became much more comfortable with the idea. Isobel Coleman’s book, Paradise Beneath Her Feet, is the result of nearly ten years of research and personal interviews with women from Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq. The book reads more like a report of women’s activities in these countries with only the occasional judgment from the author (“Linking feminism with the ‘heresy’ of the West is good politics, and helps turn patriarchy into patriotism.”) instead of one woman’s opinion on an incredibly complex and historical struggle of which she is not technically a part. (Most of the judgments, save for the previous quote, are of other Westerners who offer ignorant assessments of Muslim/Islamic feminism.)

Each country merits its own chapter, which I believe will help delineate the great differences in women’s rights struggles from place to place. Treading lightly on the tricky ground of reporting Middle Eastern policy to Westerners, Coleman quotes often from direct, one-on-one interviews she held with each subject. This removes opportunities for judgment from the author and instead allows the reader a rare, unbiased glimpse into parts of the Middle East. Within each country’s chapter, Coleman also interviews those from both rural and urban settings, highlighting the great difference in mindset between women, men, and religious leaders in different locations. The research is truly meticulous, and any reader interested in this subject matter would do well to read this book not only for the scope of knowledge, but also for the depth.

One fantastic example of grassroots change Coleman highlights is the National Solidarity Program (NSP) in Afghanistan. An Afghani alum of the World Bank, Ashraf Ghani, spearheaded this initiative to give agency for change to local governments. Localities must elect members of a community development council, which will then receive money from NSP to improve conditions for its residents. The catch? Women must be involved in decision making and benefit from some of the money.

This was not a completely objective report, however. Coleman states in the beginning that the greatest struggle she, and anyone else knowledgeable on the subject matter, saw within this movement of women’s rights in the Middle East was the role religion should or should not play, whether or not the intention behind change matters if the end results means equality for women. Coleman definitively concludes that religion must play a role in the battle for women’s rights in order for the change to be organic and sustainable, especially in rural areas where the majority of the female population in most of these countries lives. A few pages into the book’s introduction, she states (some may argue wrongfully so) that "[s]ecular feminism-both in the Middle East and in the West-has always been the province of urban elites and intellectuals, and that has long been its greatest weakness."

Considering the subject matter, Paradise Beneath Her Feet is an incredibly enjoyable read, which I hope will encourage more people to consider perusing this seemingly dense account. I read it on a red-eye flight to California after three hours of sleep and couldn’t put it down.

Cross-posted with Gender Across Borders

Written by: Colleen Hodgetts, May 10th 2010

thanks for a thoughtful review. i'm very interested in reading this one, because i think the role of religion often gets maligned or misinterpreted. i'll be interested to see how Coleman illustrates that change needs to come—and is coming—from within, organically. nice to see concrete, positive change lifted up.