Book Review: Isobel Coleman’s Paradise Beneath Her Feet

Isobel Coleman’s recently-released Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle East presents a case-study of sorts, highlighting the work of Muslim women who are engaged in combating patriarchal culture as a means to change societal norms and achieve empowerment.

The book cover. Image via Random House.

A large part of Coleman’s argument emphasizes the role of Islamic Feminism, where a feminist lens is applied to orthodox Islamic interpretations, using a religious framework to fight patriarchal customs that subjugate Muslim women.  The end result is societal change that advocates an increased role for women in the public and private sphere: “alleviating poverty, promoting economic development, improving global health, building civil society, strengthening weak and failing states, assisting democratization, tempering extremism.” (Introduction, xvii)

When I received the book, I was concerned it would come across as too academic: Isobel Coleman is Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, where she directs the council’s Women and Foreign Policy Program.  This turned out not to be the case; the book is easy to read and provides an introduction to ideas surrounding Islamic Feminism, basic tenets of the faith, and the political and historical contexts surrounding the different country cases.  Countries she looks at include Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq.  I found her absence of Levantine countries worrisome for a book that looks at “the Middle East”—but perhaps this is due to my own rather narrow definition of “Middle East,” which would not include countries like Pakistan or Afghanistan.

Coleman presents a rock star list of Islamic Feminist thinkers throughout the book: Heba Kotb, Fatima Mernissi, and Amina Wadud are a few that jumped out at me.  In addition, she highlights the work of several other notable Muslim women who are working in organizations that promote women’s empowerment and also women who have no organizational affiliation, but combat cultural norms by making decisions about living their lives in accordance to their own personal values, even when they conflict with societal expectations of how women should behave.

By presenting all of these women who work towards women’s empowerment within the book, Coleman presents an inspirational story of how Muslim women are combating cultural beliefs.  This is important, as oppressive cultural beliefs from predominantly Muslim countries have come to be associated with Islam itself.  I enjoyed that the book focuses on Muslim women’s efforts in a positive, empowering light.

I’ll admit, there were times I felt frustrated while reading this.  I like how Coleman portrays Muslim women from various walks of life navigating ways to gain more equitable social conditions.  I also liked how she presents how scholars are not only reinterpreting orthodox teachings through a feminist lens, but also how interpretations are applied (both explicitly and implicitly) in real-world situations—something I think is important to present to readers.

But in the snapshots she presents of Muslimahs from across the Islamic world (and not only the Middle East, as the title states), Coleman’s argument that feminist interpretation of faith and its application in the real world alone will pave the way for social change seems too simplistic.  Can combating cultural norms through a feminist lens be the lone factor that will promote the advancement of Muslim women across the world?  I fear I am rather jaded as I write this: women face an uphill battle for achieving social equality everywhere, not only in the Muslim world. Harnessing Islam’s emphasis on social justice for women is an influential way to instigate change for a more equitable society.  My frustration with the book has more to do with the frustrations associated with slow social change in the real world than with the book itself.

I also found it curious that despite her emphasis on Islam and feminism within the book, there is no mention of either on the cover of the book—Coleman instead uses “Paradise Beneath Her Feet” to invoke Islam’s reverence for women (something those unfamiliar with Islam would be unaware of).  Are women “transforming” the Middle East or is it something more complex?  Women “transforming” Islam?  That’s not quite right, is it?  But by presenting her case as broadly as she has, perhaps this is exactly what Coleman wants to say.


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