This month, several outstanding new books on the lives of women illuminate the daily challenge, joy and unfathomable outrage women and girls experience in these countries. Reading them all is a bit overwhelming — like looking into a crystal ball or at an aleph. If it is true that women are the heart and soul of a culture, their suffering indicates a sick one. There is a reason why books such as "The Diary of Anne Frank" or "Zlata's Diary" live on through generations and are used to show the imperative of transformation, the cruelty of certain regimes.
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. Some of these books are calls for action; one is a spirited, even joyful account (of a young American woman who goes to live in a harem), one is a cry of pure pain, one is a look at the lack of economic opportunities for women and one is the story of a brave little girl.
I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced
Nujood Ali with Delphine Minoui
Three Rivers Press: 188 pp., $12
Nujood Ali was born in Yemen, the country of the Queen of Sheba. Nujood's mother had 16 children: Four died between ages 2 months and 4 years. Uncertain of the year of her birth, around age 8, 9 or 10, in 2008, her father told her she was to be married to a man three times her age. The family needed the money. After months of being beaten and raped by her "husband," Nujood went to a courthouse and asked to see a judge. The judge was appalled; he was used to girls of 15 and older being married but not one this young. Because she is so young, she has no identifying papers, not even a birth certificate. She is too young to press charges. Once she has left her husband's house, her parents lock their doors and will not let her return home. With the help of a passionate female lawyer, Nujood attracts attention inside and outside the country, wins her divorce, inspires other girls to challenge their families and comes to New York to be named Woman of the Year by Glamour Magazine. The book is beautiful and clear — Nujood's love for her country survives even as her childhood is stolen from her.
Paradise Beneath Her Feet
How Women Are Transforming the Middle East
Random House: 302 pp., $26
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.
My Life in a Harem
Plume: 340 pp., $15