Under Wraps In The Middle East

Geraldine Brooks spent six years in the Middle East reporting for The Wall Street Journal, the first of those years boring herself silly. As a female journalist she couldn't get much closer to Mus-lira society than a government press office. Then it occurred to her that she had access to a part of that society that was out of bounds to her male colleagues. She delved into the private world behind veils and walls -- women's world. Nine Parts of Desire (255 pages. Anchor. $22.95) is the fascinating chronicle of what she found. The title refers to the way God divided up sexual desire -- women got nine times as much as men, according to Islam. Good enough reason to keep women under wraps.

Wrapped in a chador herself, Brooks was with a cluster of women keening for the de ad Ayatollah Khomeini and then had tea with his widow. She came to know a poor Palestinian family so well she sometimes slept overnight, lying between the two wives. She cloistered herself with women who were studying, raising children, praying and par-tying. Her intimacy with these women made it impossible either to romanticize or to demonize the tradition that ruled them.

Helping to bake bread with Kurdish women, she writes, "I realized what an agreeable thing it was to be completely surrounded by women, to have a task that was ours alone . . . I felt contentment in shared work well done." Later in the day, aching and sweating as the work went on and on, she watched grimly as a small boy kept helping himself to fresh-baked morsels. "His sister, not much older, was already part of our bread-making assembly line," she writes. "Why should he learn so young that her role was to toil for his pleasure?"

Brooks emphasizes that there is plenty in Islamic history to justify more independent roles for women. But with fundamentalism on the rise. progressive interpretations of scripture are dangerous to advocate. Brooks sees the most realistic hope for Muslim women nowadays in the example set by Iran, where women possess at least limited rights. "To Muslim women elsewhere . . . the Iranian woman riding to work on her motorbike, even with her billowing chador gripped firmly in her teeth, looks like a figure to envy," she writes.

Far more inspiring -- at least it made this reader's day-is her report from the United Arab Emirares. When Kuwait was invaded by Iraq in 1990, the Emirates decided to bolster its own tiny defense force of 50,000 men. But how? The radical solution, suggested by one of the president's wives, was to recruit women. More than 1,200 volunteered; 74 were chosen, Many had been secluded and were entirely sedentary; all were profoundly modest-so much so that at first they couldn't even bring themselves to raise their eyes and look straight at the drill instructor. Five months later, 15 had dropped out. The rest were running four miles every morning, doing 100 push-ups, rappelling from helicopters and handling a range of weapons including assault rifles, grenades and machine guns. One of the volunteers, Hadra Dawish, told Brooks that lying flat at rifle practice did pose problems. "I was always wondering, 'Does my uniform cover me enough? Is there a man walking around behind me?'" But Dawish got over her embarrassment. In fact, she went on to Sandhurst, the British military academy.