Zainab Salbi

This book review originally appeared in The Browser. The review was written by Zainab Salbi, the founder and CEO of Women for Women International.

This is a brilliant book. There are not many books out there that deal with Muslim women in a respectful way. This book looks at them with objectivity, respect, dignity and integrity. I am very impressed and touched by Isobel Coleman’s writing. It is a page-turner. I am coming at this from a Muslim woman’s perspective and from a woman from the Middle East. It is so touching and deeply endearing that for once we have someone talking about Muslim women with such integrity.

She is very good at showing what women are doing in the Middle East and breaking their silence. She moves beyond the common stereotypes of women in the Middle East. There is this idea that they are all the same and they all wear the burqa. Instead she looks at all the different complexities and nuances of these women from Iran, Afghanistan, Malaysia, and Saudi Arabia. It is eye opening for those who don’t know much about this subject and a refreshing take for those that do.


This book review originally appeared in the Pakistani newspaper Dawn under the title “The Whole Truth?” The review was written by Zubeida Mustafa and was published on November 28, 2010

Paradise Beneath Her Feet captures succinctly the contradictions in some Muslim societies where religion is a powerful force that exercises an overarching influence on the socio-cultural, economic and political life of people.

As women exposed to modernism struggle for their rights to education, economic empowerment and political representation in the power structures of a country, they very often find their progress obstructed by elements propagating an obscurantist version of Islam. In many parts of the Muslim world they have had to devise strategies to overcome these barriers. Isobel Coleman, the author of the book under review, terms this approach ‘Islamic feminism’.

According to her, after ceding the space of religious authority to conservative forces for centuries, women in the Islamic world are now trying to gain control of their own lives by demonstrating that equality and change is possible within the ambit of the faith.

Female scholars are now studying the Quranic texts to advance a liberal and progressive interpretation of the religious doctrines which is not in conflict with women’s rights as perceived in the modern context.

By adopting this approach ‘Islamic feminists’ do not have to enter into a confrontation with the ulema. They also find it easier to enlist supporters from the masses for their cause by using a liberal religious discourse. Female activists are now using the power of religion to empower women.

Research in Islamic laws on the status of women forms the underpinning of this strategy. Be it Afghanistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia or Iraq, women are engaged in finding the Islamic solution to the challenges posed by gender inequality in their societies. And they are succeeding, if the author is to be believed. (more…)

Al Masry al Yawm

This book review originally appeared in the Egyptian newspaper Al Masry Al Yawm under the title “The Middle East’s Women, Books on the Islamic Feminist Movement.” The review was written by Soha al-Saman and was published on April 22, 2010

The original Arabic review can be found here
Below is an English translation:

The author of the book is Isobel Coleman, the director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations. In her capacity of managing the dossier of women in the Middle East, she notes that the decades-long challenges women have faced in different countries, regarding their political rights and equality with men, are growing inside the Middle East especially with the rising tide of political Islam that has impeded any effective engagement of women within society.

In the book, Coleman lays out the attempts by women in Islamic countries to obtain their rights through what she terms “the Islamic feminism movement.” From Saudi Arabia to Iraq to Afghanistan to Iran, a movement led by groups of women within these countries. The movement seeks the opening of economic, political, and educational doors for women. It also seeks the reform of women’s conditions in the region, since Muslim women not only face restrictions placed upon within society, but also face stereotypes the world draws of the “Muslim woman.”

In this framework, the author has presented a number of examples of the women behind the Islamic feminism movement like Sakeena Yacoobi who manages forty centers inside of Afghanistan, and works to deliver educational and health services to thousands of Afghan women and informing them of their rights under Islamic law. Similarly, Madawi al-Hassoun is presented as a model of Saudi business women, who has challenged society’s strict traditions and opened new horizons for Saudi women’s access to the economic sphere.

More broadly, the book puts forth a general idea that a women’s revolution could drive the hope of change in the societies of the Middle East.


This book review originally appeared on the website the Italian new channel TG3 under the title “Femminismo e Islam convivenza impossibile?” The review is a translation of a previous review written by Manik Mehta for Gulf News. It was published on September 19, 2010.

La parità dei sessi affonda le radici nella tradizione islamica

Sono pochi, molto pochi, gli studiosi occidentali che si sono occupati del ruolo delle donne in Medio Oriente. Siamo abituati a leggere banalità su atti di oppressione ai danni delle donne mediorientali. Di conseguenza, leggere di come le donne stiano cercando di aggirare le limitazioni loro imposte dalla religione, riuscendo di fatto a cambiare il volto del Medio Oriente, non è altro che una piacevole boccata d’aria fresca. Il libro di Isobel Coleman “Paradise Beneath Her Feet – Il Paradiso ai suoi piedi, ovvero come le donne stanno trasformando il Medio Oriente”, è un affascinante viaggio attraverso luoghi esotici, che mette in evidenza la condizione femminile e la capacità delle donne di guadagnare terreno, centimetro dopo centimetro, verso una maggiore assertività all’interno del mondo musulmano.

L’autrice è una studiosa di problemi femminili e membro del’ United States Foreign Policy nel Consiglio per le Relazioni Internazionali con sede a New York. Ha viaggiato a lungo nel mondo musulmano, passando da società nelle quali prevale un atteggiamento tutto sommato egalitario, come l’Indonesia, anche se ha preferito concentrarsi sui cinque paesi dove i diritti delle donne sono più fragili: Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Arabia Saudita e Iraq, per dare corpo alla sua idea secondo la quale la repressione delle donne implica la repressione del paese stesso nel quale vivono.

Le donne, insomma, nella quotidiana lotta per la parità, sanno usare metodi che aggirano abilmente il potere degli uomini, di coloro, cioè, che fissano le regole del comportamento sociale femminile.

Con poca letteratura disponibile sul tema, la studiosa americana squarcia il velo sul Medio Oriente, dove le donne ricorrono a stratagemmi romanzeschi per affermare i loro diritti e, di fatto, trasformare la regione in cui vivono. (more…)

Gulf News

This book review originally appeared on Gulf News under the title “Gender equality rooted in Islamic tradition.” The review was written by Manik Mehta and was published on September 17, 2010

Very few Western scholars have written about the role of women in the Middle East. One usually gets to read run-of-the-mill news reports about acts of oppression committed against them. It is, therefore, a refreshing change to see a scholarly work on how some women are circumventing the limitations imposed on them and bringing about change in the Middle East.

Isobel Coleman’s book, Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle East takes the reader on a fascinating journey through exotic locales in the Middle East, highlighting the conditions in which women live in a number of countries and how they are inching their way to greater assertiveness in the Muslim world.

Coleman is a scholar on women’s issues and a senior fellow for United States foreign policy at New York’s Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).

As director of the CFR’s Women and Foreign Policy programme, Coleman has travelled extensively in the Muslim world, visiting relatively egalitarian societies such as Indonesia but focusing on five countries where women’s rights are most tenuous — Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq — to support her view that keeping women down keeps a nation down. She argues that women, in their struggle for gender equality, are employing techniques that outsmart men, who set the paradigms of behaviour for women. With scant literature available on women in the Muslim world, Coleman’s book provides interesting insights, illustrating with examples from the Middle East how women are resorting to novel ways to assert their rights and, in effect, transforming that region.

Coleman says one of the most contentious issues within Islam today is the role of women in society.

Conservatives and reactionaries interpret Islamic texts narrowly to justify restrictions on women’s mobility, legal rights and access to the public sphere, including health care, education and the workplace. Indeed, extremists among them use violence to impose their views. Moderate Muslims, on the other hand, find plenty of room within the Quran to support equal rights for women, she argues. (more…)

PBS Frontline

This book review originally appeared on PBS Frontline under the title “Women, Islam and…Foreign Policy?” The review was written by Azmat Khan and was published on August 19, 2010

Early July pulsed with reports of Iranian mother Sakineh Ashtiani’s impending execution, which, at the time, was to be carried out by stoning. Her alleged crime was zina, adultery or fornication, a moral transgression for which more women are punished than men. Because stoning is defended on religious grounds (in Articles 86 and 105 of the Iranian penal code), its champions afford themselves the authority to acquiesce rarely, if ever, to external demands for clemency. So while diplomatic pressure, international offers of asylum, and a Western media push constitute the most visible efforts to “free Sakineh,” a new book suggests that “Islamic feminists,” or individuals working within Islamic discourse to promote women’s empowerment, constitute a more potent activism over the long term.

In Paradise Beneath Her Feet, Council on Foreign Relations expert Isobel Coleman makes the case that the emerging Islamic feminist movement is the most effective way to empower women in the “greater Middle East,” a region that includes Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, and that she believes will likely determine the stability of our world. It is in these countries that she spent the last decade researching and profiling the work of women, and even some men, who are “contesting the self-appropriated right of conservative religious leaders to interpret Islam.” Islamic feminism, she argues, holds special credibility and grassroots appeal, and can ultimately benefit the stability and prosperity of the countries of the greater Middle East, as well as their relationships with the West.

The post-9/11 discourse on Islam, gender, and the so-called Muslim world has been peppered with writings that range from oversimplified preoccupations with the veil to convoluted academic analysis of Islamic laws and human rights. The task of navigating through this unrelentingly politicized literary landscape for insights that are both nuanced and readily comprehensible is daunting. (more…)

Now Lebanon

This book review originally appeared in Now Lebanon under the title “Birds of Paradise.” The review was written by Farrah Zughni and was published on July 16, 2010.

“Paradise lies under the feet of the mothers,” the Prophet Mohammed once advised a disciple according to a popular hadith. Indeed, heralded by the husband of a powerful businesswoman, nascent Islam lifted women to a status yet unknown by their non-Muslim sisters. The religion banned the killing of female infants, a practice rampant in swaths of Asia to this day, granted both spouses the right to divorce, a privilege still not recognized in Catholicism, and allowed women, regardless of marital status, to inherit a full 1,300 years before their Texan counterparts could claim the same.

Today, however, the faith of wise Khadija and daring Zainab is more commonly associated with gender segregation, oppression and violence than these early innovations. For such a charged and complex issue, it is no wonder that so many – be they specialists or laymen, Muslims or otherwise – have tended to describe in black-and-white terms what is actually immersed in shades of grey, somewhere between Paradise Now and Paradise Lost.

Which is precisely why “Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women Are Transforming the Middle East” is so compelling. Written by Isobel Coleman, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, the volume offers a thoughtful approach to a regional, if not global, dilemma with inextricably local roots and manifestations.

“My goal was to provide readers in the West and in the region with a more nuanced understanding of these complicated issues,” Coleman told NOW Lebanon. “I think the best way to do that is to illustrate real people and real stories and to make it accessible that way.”

Each chapter peers into the lives of Muslim women, from Mogadishu to Kabul and Rabat to Kuala Lumpur, to honestly grapple with the challenges they face. Whether it is a microfinance recipient who has leveraged small loans into a profitable business, an elected official who reduced her community’s budget by ceasing tea drinking at meetings, or a sex therapist broadcasting on Egyptian TV, “Paradise” provides a rare platform for a demographic that is more often spoken for, both in the East and in the West, than listened to. (more…)

Washington Post

This book review originally appeared in the Washington Post under the title “Review of Isobel Coleman’s ‘Paradise Beneath Her Feet,’ on women in the Mideast.” The review was written by Tara Bahrampour and was published on June 27, 2010

After Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution, women were barred from working as judges or attending soccer matches, forced to wear hijab, and declared unequal to men in the realms of inheritance, testimony and divorce — all under the pretext of hewing to Islamic tenets.

But something interesting happened on the way back from the revolution, as Isobel Coleman describes in her new book, “Paradise Beneath Her Feet.” As Iran’s mullahs tightened control, women from conservative religious families who had never had a voice began to ride the very Islamic wave that seemed to be rising against them. Those who had been active in the revolution now elbowed their way into political and civil society, and universities were soon packed with women. If unintentionally, “the Islamic takeover made formal girls’ schooling acceptable to even the most conservative families,” Coleman writes. “Now that society was Islamized — with girls wearing hijab and schools and many public places segregated — how could a father say no?”

As fathers began to say yes, Iran’s male-dominated leadership was busy isolating iteself from the international community. But Iranian women were connecting with the outside world: Their One Million Signatures campaign against discriminatory laws drew global recognition; the human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi won the Nobel Peace Prize; and one year ago last week, when Iranians took to the streets to protest suspicious election results, the symbol of the Iranian resistance became Neda Agha-Soltan, the young woman whose death was broadcast on YouTube.

It’s not what the mullahs had in mind, but the trajectory of Iran’s women gives Coleman hope that even in Muslim societies that present cultural and political obstacles, women are finding opportunities to rise up — and to bring their countries up with them. The key, she writes, is to do so within Islamic paradigms.

The director of the Council on Foreign Relations’ Women and Foreign Policy program, Coleman traveled throughout the Muslim world, visiting relatively egalitarian societies such as Indonesia but focusing especially on five countries where women’s rights are most tenuous — Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq — to support her view that while keeping women down keeps a nation down, the battle for gender equality is a continuing process and women are becoming smarter about engaging it.

She introduces us to female politicians, journalists, entrepreneurs and educators, urban and rural, who are making impressive inroads, and she cites studies showing that societies that educate and invest in women become “richer, more stable, better governed and less prone to fanaticism,” while those that limit women’s opportunities “are poorer, more fragile, have higher levels of corruption and are more prone to extremism.” Despite the advances of women in places such as Iran, she argues that such countries are not nearly as advanced as they could be if women’s opportunities were equal to men’s. (more…)

Los Angeles Times

This book review originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times under the title “New books shed light on plight of women in Middle East.” The review was written by Susan Salter Reynolds in a special to the Los Angeles Times and was published on April 25, 2010

This month, several outstanding new books on the lives of women illuminate the daily challenge, joy and unfathomable outrage women and girls experience in [the Middle East]…Why now? Stories form a critical mass; women and girls gather courage as the stories of others are published. And our ear, our understanding, is educated and expanded…

There is far more at stake for the women’s movement in Islamic countries than attaining certain rights. At this point in history, Coleman writes, “Islamic feminism is an important emotional and intellectual stepping stone — and tactic — to reconcile religion with the demands of the modern world.” Coleman describes the work of activists fighting within the confines of Islamic law to create opportunities across cultures — in business, education and even government. Rather than trying to separate women from Islam, many of these organizations seek to limit the extremism that impedes progress. Some of the leading proponents of Islamic feminism are men who argue that “Islam was radically egalitarian for its time and remains so in many of its texts.” Practices toward women, they continue, “like those of the Taliban, in fact represent a subversion of Islamic teaching.” Coleman focuses on the grassroots appeal of the movement. She takes us into remote villages and urban bureaucracies to find the brave men and women working to create change in the Middle East.

The Wilson Quarterly

This book review originally appeared in The Wilson Quartery under the title “Agents for Change.” The review was written by Christina Asquith and was published on June 1, 2010

As the United States continues its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, promises to broaden women’s rights in these two predominantly Muslim countries have not materialized. Millions of women in the greater Middle East still lack access to schooling and a political voice, are forced into child marriages, and are victims of honor killings and genital mutilation. In Paradise Beneath Her Feet, Isobel Coleman argues that in this traditional, deeply religious region, change is coming from within, but not in the ways many Westerners may expect or desire. Muslim women are running for office; starting careers in banking, law, and medicine; and taking to university lecterns by embracing Islam, the very belief that many in the West see as subordinating them.

Coleman calls these women “Islamic feminists,” using a term popularized by female Muslim scholars and activists. Some of the women Coleman profiles are well-traveled, speak English, and are only moderately religious, but recognize the power of making an Islamic argument in order to subvert their society’s patriarchal norm. They are reinterpreting the Qur’an and invoking examples from the Prophet Muhammad’s own life to argue that women belong in business, the military, and other public spheres. Others Coleman writes about are more devout — they wear chadors, speak softly, and denounce Western women as anti-family, sinful, and spiritually vacuous. They seem less like feminists and more like fundamentalists who happen to be women.

Though it’s clear she admires the Islamic feminists she profiles, Coleman, a senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations who focuses on the Middle East and gender issues, presents balanced reportage inflected with nuanced analysis of the subtle ways in which Muslim women are advancing. The book begins with a short history of women’s rights in the Middle East, in which Coleman points out that Western intervention to promote women has typically had the opposite effect, by associating feminism with colonialism in the minds of Muslims. She convincingly argues, however, that expanding the opportunities for women has the ancillary benefits of improving literacy rates, reducing child malnutrition, and stabilizing governments. (more…)