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.
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.