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Paradise Beneath Her Feet

How women in the Middle East are working to improve the standing of their own sex.

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The Carter Family of country music fame, in their 1928 hit, reminds us all to “Keep on the Sunny Side of Life.” This is welcome advice for those who run into life’s pettier misfortunes: stepping in a puddle, depositing lunch on one’s trousers or, say, believing in Tiger Woods’s steadfast family values. Bouncy lyrics aside, sometimes keeping on the sunny side prevents one from grasping the depravity and anomie of certain situations. The status of women in the Middle East is one of these instances.

In her latest book, Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women Are Transforming the Middle East, Dr. Isobel Coleman, a senior fellow on the Council of Foreign Relations, would have us believe that women across the Middle East are successfully empowering one another to end what is often a brutal repression of their gender.

Coleman’s work deserves praise for its noble aims. During her extensive travels from Morocco to Afghanistan, Coleman details numerous encounters with various women who are working on the local, provincial, and national levels to improve the lot of their sex’s standing. Take Salama al-Khafaji from Iraq, a dentist who is the only person on the Iraq Governing Council elected by her peers and not appointed by US officials. Khafaji has used her position to push for female education and scholarship, much to the disdain of the Shiite orthodoxy. She has paid a heavy price for her trailblazing zeal. Insurgents murdered her son in broad daylight and her husband divorced her after she refused to temper her reformist views.

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