Women in Islamic Cultures Book Suggestions
February 27, 2012 3:06 PM   Subscribe

Recommendations for nonfiction books on women in Islamic cultures. Bonus points for books that touch on queer, feminist, or disability studies themes.

My queer feminist book club would like to read a nonfiction text that examines the lives of Muslim women. The book can be academic, biographical, essays, or journalism. We are trying to avoid books which sensationalize or oversimplify the subject.

One author we are considering is Nawal El Sadaawi . If you're familiar with her work, could you suggest which book to read?

Thanks, Metafilter!
posted by Lieber Frau to Society & Culture (25 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
 
May be too obvious, but I really enjoyed Reading Lolita In Tehran and Persepolis
posted by Mchelly at 3:09 PM on February 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
posted by leslies at 3:10 PM on February 27, 2012


Have you considered Nine Parts of Desire by Geraldine Brooks?
posted by Sal and Richard at 3:11 PM on February 27, 2012


Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
posted by brina at 3:16 PM on February 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


Oh, forgot to mention these by Leila Ahmed:

A Border Passage: From Cairo to America - A Woman's Journey

A Quiet Revolution: The Veil's Resurgence from the Middle East to America

Women and Gender in Islam
posted by Sal and Richard at 3:16 PM on February 27, 2012


It doesn't have a queer focus, but Arzoo Osanloo's book "The Politics of Women's Rights in Iran" is a great look at the complex factors that go into legislation that governs women's lives, and the ways in which women understand their rights. Another great (though theoretically dense) ethnography that discusses Muslim women's lives is Saba Mahmood's "Politics of Piety."
"No Shame for the Sun" by Shahla Haeri is also great. This is a much lighter read, and focuses on the (real) lives of four upper class Pakistani women and the variations in their experiences.
posted by MFZ at 3:18 PM on February 27, 2012


Behind Closed Doors: Women's Oral Narratives in Tunis, by Monia Hejaiej

The Blindfold Horse: Memories of a Persian Childhood, by Shusha Guppy

Reconstructed Lives: Women and Iran's Islamic Revolution and My Prison, My Home: One Woman's Story of Captivity in Iran, by Haleh Esfandiari

Law of Desire: Temporary Marriage in Shi'i Iran and No Shame for the Sun: Lives of Professional Pakistani Women by Shahla Haeri
posted by languagehat at 4:53 PM on February 27, 2012


I've never read it, but I've heard good things about Honeymoon in Purdah, in which Alison Wearing discusses the 5 months she spent travelling in Iran. It's not just focused on women though.
posted by barney_sap at 5:13 PM on February 27, 2012


You don't mention whether or not it needs to be recent or older...so I'm going to give you my favorite non-fiction book from the 1950's.

Guests of the Sheik by Elizabeth Warnock Fernea is an ethnography of a small Iraqi village in the 1950s. Fernea and her husband (Mr. Bob, in the book) are both anthropologists in the 1950s. They move to a tiny settlement in Iraq, where Mr. Bob works with the Sheik and other men of the village, and he tells Elizabeth (basically) to "Put on a veil and mingle with the women. Report back to me."

Well! She does so (otherwise she'd have to stay in their house for two years) and joins the women of the village. At first she's a curiosity - the first western woman they'd ever met. But after a while she blends in and becomes friends with the wives of the Sheik and the other women of the village.

This is an outstanding book. It's incredibly well-written, it doesn't feel dated in the slightest, and there isn't a trace of pity or judgment in her writing. She makes mistakes and feels stupid, celebrates the victories of making friends, and goes on adventures that no western woman had ever gone on before (the chapters on her pilgrimage to Karbala are incredible).

I read this book between the first and second Gulf wars. It offered me a level of intimacy with the country, culture, and women that I simply can't imagine getting through mass media. It gave a face to the "enemy" and really changed how I thought of the middle east and the US's role in the world.

And she became much more famous than her husband, which is always fun.

I'll shut up now, but I love this book so much that I'll seize any opportunity to tell people about it.
posted by Elly Vortex at 6:07 PM on February 27, 2012


Fatima Mernissi - anything she has written, but especially
"The harem within", her autobiography, childhood in an extended family where the women were secluded, intensely readable.
"The veil and the male elite", intensely academic, arguing that the head-covering tradition is more a patriachal construct than Koran-based

Also: "Visibly muslim" - a survey of how Muslim women from the UK are these days choosing to dress to express their identity and beliefs.
posted by runincircles at 6:33 PM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Veiled sentiments by Lila Abu-Lughod. A feminist classic Bedouin ethnography, with love poems.
posted by feral_goldfish at 6:48 PM on February 27, 2012


Guys, these are awesome suggestions. Please keep them coming! I knew I could count on you.
posted by Lieber Frau at 7:40 PM on February 27, 2012


I am only a third of the way through it, but I'm really enjoying In the Land of Invisible Women: A Female Doctor's Journey in the Saudi Kingdom by Quanta Ahmed.
posted by weathergal at 8:11 PM on February 27, 2012


Fernea has also written several other books.
posted by brujita at 9:28 PM on February 27, 2012


The Women of Deh Koh by Erika Friedl is an ethnography of women in an Iranian village in the 1980s. It's very eye-opening and interesting even to a non-anthropologist, probably because the author lets them tell their own stories.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 9:51 PM on February 27, 2012


Jean Sasson has written a few autobiographical books on the life of a Saudi princess. It's sort of feminist, in that the princess attempts to sort of break free of the patriarchy, but doesn't quite manage it for herself. Quite good though.

Fittingly, the name of the first book is Princess.
posted by Xany at 10:07 PM on February 27, 2012


Seconding "Veiled Sentiments" by Abu-Lughod and anything by Leila Ahmed. You could also try Margot Badran ("Feminists, Islam, and the Nation" or "Feminism in Islam"--she concentrates on Egypt, I believe), or "Politics of Piety" by Saba Mahmood (also about Egypt). "Birthing the Nation" by Rhoda Kanaaneh is about Palestinian women living in Israel and is super interesting.
And I'm not a big fan of "Reading Lolita in Tehran" or Ayaan Hirsi Ali, at least for something like this where it would be nice to read things that don't fall so much into the widespread idea of "West=always good, Islam/Middle East=always bad".
posted by Papagayo at 2:03 AM on February 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


I have just the book for you! Daughter of Persia: A Woman's Journey from her Father's Harem is the story of the woman who founded social work in Iran around the time of the revolution. She came to the topic while studying in the US, and wanted to adapt it to the problems in her home country. Really, really well written and a great story.

You can read about her story also on Wikipedia, but I guarantee the book is a great read.
posted by whatzit at 2:52 AM on February 28, 2012


I second Guests of the Sheik and Veiled Sentiments (and I can't believe I forgot about them).
posted by languagehat at 8:58 AM on February 28, 2012


Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World, by Kumari Jayawardena, is not only about women in Islamic cultures, but does have a lot on the subject.

Nawal el Saadawi's Woman at Point Zero is quite fantastic, but I just remembered you're looking specifically for non-fiction.

Seconding Fatima Mernissi, and No Shame for the Sun.

Additionally, there's Taboo:The Hidden Culture of a Red Light district, by Fouzia Saeed. This is an ethnographic study of sex workers in Pakistan. I haven't read her newer book on sexual harassment in the workplace, Working with Sharks, but have heard good things about it.

If you look at the PDF catalogue for the Oxford University Press in Pakistan, and turn to the section on Women's Studies (starting page 180), you'll find interesting reading material. I hesitate to recommend a specific title, because a lot of them are new to me, but I've yet to read one of their Women's Studies publications that I did not find rewarding.

(Just as an aside, I hope you're aware that while there are some things that women in Muslim cultures have in common, the number of things they have in common with women around the world greatly outnumbers these. The lives of Emirati women, for example, appear just as foreign to me, in fact more so, than the lives of non-Muslim, non-desi women I have known. It really bothers me when people try to put us in this one basket that includes "women living in the Islamic world," as if that is some monolith. And I know that for some people, it is merely a convenient shorthand and does not reflect at all the their actual understanding of the matter, so I don't mean to imply that you must necessarily have this kind of simplistic view.)
posted by bardophile at 10:27 AM on February 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


Also, if you can get your hands on anything published by ASR, they are a Pakistani feminist publishing house, amongst other things, and have put out some great books.
posted by bardophile at 10:31 AM on February 28, 2012


Bardophile, thank you for your suggestion as well as your note. It is exactly that type of ignorant, essentializing BS that we are trying to examine and destroy.
posted by Lieber Frau at 10:56 AM on February 28, 2012


Feminist Collections (a quarterly of women's studies resources) has a review in a recent issue of three books that might fit:

American Muslim women: negotiating race, class and gender within the ummah, by Jamillah Karim
Velvit jihad: Muslim women's quiet resistance to Islamic fundamentalism; by Faegheh Shirazi
Feminism in Islam: secular and religious convergences; by Margot Badran
posted by ism at 5:37 PM on March 1, 2012


*Velvet jihad*, that is.
posted by ism at 5:40 PM on March 1, 2012


I just ran across a reference to this book, which sounds right down your alley:

Najmabadi, Afsaneh. Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005.
posted by languagehat at 12:52 PM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


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