Rachel Bomberger is Internet marketing manager at Eerdmans. She loves reading, writing, and poring over back issues of National Geographic.
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When I first stepped into the pages of Theodore Friend’s Woman, Man, and God in Modern Islam last July — on a quest to broaden my cultural and religious horizons during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan — I really had no idea what sort of experience it would turn out to be.
I had thought that, despite its substantial page count, the book might make a great beach read — a fast-paced jaunt “behind the veil” of the female experience in the Muslim world.
I had thought that, with its gorgeous full-color photo sections and fascinating premise (“journeys through five Muslim cultures!”), it might read like a cross between National Geographic and Condé Nast Traveler.
I had thought — okay, perhaps more than half hoped — that it might be a book to dash through quickly, skimming a few good stories and a handful of helpful insights off the top before going blithely on my merry way.
As it turns out, I was wrong on nearly all counts.
Woman, Man, and God in Modern Islam isn’t a book to dash thoughtlessly through. It is itself a journey — an odyssey best experienced in recurring stages: read, reread, digest, internalize, ponder, rinse, repeat.
There’s just so much there. It’s a travel diary, yes. Theodore Friend did indeed visit five Muslim nations (some of them more than once) to sight-see and make friends and learn about the lives of women in Indonesia, Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey.
It is also, however, a history book. Friend is a Bancroft Prize-winning historian, after all, and he’s both knowledgeable about the social histories of the countries he writes about and eager to share that knowledge with readers.
More than that, though: the book is a manifesto of sorts. Friend is not merely an objective journalistic observer on these travels. He is deeply committed to a vision of equal rights, freedoms, and opportunities for women worldwide — and deeply troubled by the fact that in so many of the places he visits, women are treated as second- or third-class citizens, legally regarded as little more than the private property of their husbands, fathers, and brothers. The world would be a better place, Friend argues, if the women in these Muslim nations were given a proper chance to help make it so.
It’s an assertion that’s hard to argue with — especially when the person making it has circled the globe gathering evidence to support it.
What I found even more compelling than Friend’s personal jihad, however, were the women he (and, by extension, I) got to know along the way. Throughout the book, I found myself relating easily — more so than I expected I would — to the dozens of women Friend met on his travels, despite the fact that I am separated from them by so many things: by geography and by skin tone, by language and by fashion, by culture and by religion.
Yet as a socially conservative, committed religious woman with energy, intelligence, and ambition, I have no trouble at all relating to Nimah, who works professionally all day before coming home every evening to “do time-consuming cooking — Malaysian or Italian or Japanese — and lay a spread before her family.” I can relate to Fatma, who sought to complete a master’s degree in her native Turkey but who was frustrated not to be able to do so without giving up the outward expression of faith that is her head covering. I can even relate to Laura, who uprooted herself and moved half a world away in search of a holier life.
Their struggle — to live fully according to their faith and convictions while also fulfilling their personal potential and making a positive impact on the world around them — is my struggle, too. This is especially true now, in the season of Lent, when my striving to understand both the limits of my own frailty and the untold depths of God’s goodness takes on new urgency.
Funny, isn’t it? I began this book during the Muslim season of fasting, and I finally finished it smack in the middle of my own fasting time.
The question remains, though: if I had known before I started what an intense and perspective-altering journey Woman, Man, and God in Modern Islam would ultimately turn out to be, would I still have taken that first step?
Yes. Yes, I believe I would have.
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