Penetrating the pride and prejudice of Islam
I've spent more than 20 years reporting on the Middle East, and little has depressed me more than the way in which the rise of militant Islam has enforced an increasingly claustrophobic world on women. Playing Cards in Cairo is a bittersweet insight into that reality.
Strangely enough, the author is male - Hugh Miles, a young British author who fell in love with Roda, a beautiful Egyptian doctor. Unable to court her openly - thanks to nosy doormen and a censorious society - he wooed her by playing cards with her circle of girlfriends. Gradually, he became an intimate of the unwritten constraints they lived under, and a part of what is almost a sisterly guerrilla movement that requires military-style deception just to get to a party.
That sounds petty, and in a way it is. The book, non-fiction though it is, is a sort of Jane Austen in the desert: none of the women have political goals, they are all looking to have fun, shop, work, and get married - preferably to a man who doesn't beat them or force them to wear the hijab.
But it's more: for what becomes clear is that, for all the pseudo-pious words of Islamic scholars (and even of female true believers) who insist that women have equal if different roles in Islam, the reality is that men make the rules, while women are threatened, beaten and risk death for breaking them.
It's true across the Middle East. I remember talking to a young university student in Gaza. Swathed head to toe in black, she explained to me how equal women were in Islam and how the religion that required her to cover herself so completely in fact liberated her. So, I asked, what did she want to do with her life? Well, she replied, it had been difficult to get to university because her father beat her to try and dissuade her from going, but she had persevered and now... now she would become a teacher of Islam.
The disconcerting thing about this - and innumerable other conversations - was how accepting she was of abuse that would be unacceptable elsewhere in the world.
And that's the importance of this book. The women in the card circle are not revolutionaries: they are privileged Cairenes who want to see Islam as a practical guide to happiness and success.
1) Penetrating the pride and prejudice of Islam