Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle East, written by Isobel Coleman, is a riveting book that discusses how Muslim women across the world are using the increasingly popular notion of “Islamic Feminism” to empower their respective communities. Not only does Coleman explore the current situation of Muslim women in places like Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudia Arabia etc, she also goes back in time to explain the history of each country to help readers understand why the “social agency” of women has fluctuated over the past couple of decades in the developing world. As a reader who identifies with many of the strong women in this book, even I was unaware of some of the historical events and “social stereotypes” that exist in each country that Coleman discusses. I was also very humbled to learn about the multitude of courageous women out there, who are promoting female empowerment by reclaiming their Islamic narrative, while also trying to eradicate the influence of hundreds of years of un-Islamic cultural practices.
If you want to read a book that will challenge every stereotype you have about women in the MENA region and South Asia, then you should definitely get your hands on Paradise Beneath Her Feet. This book masterfully weaves multiple stories from different countries into a cohesive narrative that shares the trials that women, and their male supporters, face and how they are triumphing despite the odds. It shares the amazing stories of many Muslim “s-heroes” who are rarely given the spotlight, because they don’t fit into the narrative that people have created for the Muslim world. That being so, not every story that Coleman tells has a happy ending. There are several that end tragically, but they need to be told because these women’s efforts to fight for gender equality through an Islamic framework set a precedent. Their courage reminds us that actions can only “be in vain” if they aren’t shared and used to inspire others.
About the Author
Isobel Coleman is currently the U.S. Representative to the United Nations for UN Management and Reform. Prior to that, Coleman worked as a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations for 14 years and was a management consultant with McKinsey & Company during the nineties. Her areas of expertise include the political economy of the Middle East, democratization, civil society, economic development, educational reform and gender issues and she has also authored and coauthored various other books, including Pathways to Freedom: Political and Economic Lessons from Democratic Transitions (Council on Foreign Relations, 2013), The Routledge Handbook of Religion and Security (Routledge Press, 2012), Restoring the Balance: A Middle East Strategy for the Next President (Brookings Institution Press, 2008), and Strategic Foreign Assistance: Civil Society in International Security (Hoover Institution Press, 2006). Coleman holds a BA in public policy and East Asian studies from Princeton University and has a master degree and a PhD in international relations from Oxford University.
Most Memorable Quote
“Frequently I am asked by interested and concerned people around the world, “What can we do to help?” My first response is that help begins with understanding. Too often, I hear people despair about that the unequal treatment of women across the broader Middle East will never change because “that’s their culture.” But sweeping statements like this fail to appreciate that culture is not inmutable.”
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