Paradise Beneath Her Feet, by Isobel Coleman

Isobel Coleman’s book, Paradise Beneath Her Feet, provides a very informative and insightful look into the struggles women have faced as well as the advancements they have made within the Middle East. Coleman organized her book into two parts: the first part providing a historical background on the contested status of women in the Middle East and the rise of Islamic feminism; and the second looking at specific ways that women’s empowerment is playing out in five key countries: Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq. As a result, one chapter is devoted to each country in which Coleman, through the method of qualitative and ethnographical research, presents anecdotes and examples of women (and sometimes men) who have been influential in the feminist movement. More importantly, these stories are for the most part from a firsthand account, where Coleman actually visited these countries and interacted with most of the people she is discussing, therefore adding more validity to her presentation.

With that said, Coleman defends her claim in two parts: first she argues that any type of advancement in gender equality will be dependent on a society that encourages such equality – as well as freedoms and rights. The second argument is that when women themselves push for any type of change it will be more effective, successful, and receive the least amount of resistance from the patriarchical elites if it is presented through and defended with Islamic evidence and sources. The majority of examples provided by Coleman depict an individual who falls under these two arguments and thus creating an image that without these two approaches, significant advancements in gender equality cannot and will not be realized.

Moreover, on a more specific note, male support is just as vital if women are to make any positive difference. On page 53 Coleman states that “some of the most influential Islamic feminist thinkers are men…they can afford to take more intellectual risks than the women”. This type of statement shows that not only do women need to defend and explain their arguments through Islam but the male counterparts must be supportive and helpful as well. There are many examples that Coleman provides where she mentions how a woman’s father, brother, husband, teacher, colleague, and peer played a vital role in her becoming successful, influential, and/or effective in the fight for women’s rights. And for those who did not fall under this category, their (the women) ability to make a difference was a result of their social, financial and/or economic standing to where they had more privileges and/or opportunities.

In other words, the feminist movement in the Middle East is dependent on male support, societal progress, Islamic justification, and financial backing. It is almost impossible for a woman from a strict patriarchical family in some remote area in a country to want to better her life. It is more likely that she will come from a more open minded and well established family. For example: Zainah Anwar (journalist and founder of SIS in Malaysia) was able to study abroad; Dr. Zahra Rahnavard (women’s activist in Iran) is the wife of presidential hopeful Mir-Husain Mousavi; Faezeh Hashemi (head of the women’s sport organization in Iran) is the daughter of former President Rafsanjani; Benazir Bhutto (former PM of Pakistan) was the daughter of former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto; Riffat Hassan (Pakistan) had a supportive mother and a father willing to pay for her schooling abroad; Sakena Yacoobi (worked under Musharraf in Afghanistan) had a father who would take her to the mosque during a time when this was unheard of; and Safia Siddiqi (MP in Afghanistan) was able to grow up learning from her father and brothers. This list goes on and on throughout Coleman’s book of so many women who have been able to make an impact in the feminist movement because of a male figure in their life. For every one example of a woman able to make progress in the feminist movement there are ten examples (maybe more) of women who have been unable to do so.

The point being that the unfortunate reality of gender equality in the Middle East is that it will only go as far as the men who allow it. The argument can be made that those women who have been able to make a difference return to the remote areas in their home countries and help more women to better their lives, thus triggering a chain reaction where slowly but surely change will occur. As great as this is, the one common theme throughout Coleman’s book is that the change must occur through Islam and with the support of men. With Islam being in the hands of men, progress has proven to be very slow. The most disheartening example provided by Coleman is with post-Saddam Iraq and how women’s rights might be worse off than they were during Saddam’s reign. An outcome not envisioned by the numerous individuals seeking democracy in Iraq, but a harsh reality that shows that if the men are not cooperative, the women will have a difficult time making progress. In closing, Coleman’s book is inspiring and daunting at the same time given the plethora of stories of influential women who have all made a difference, but the difficult circumstances within which they had to operate.

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