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…)