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Books by journalists tend to contain errors of fact, roughshod generalizations, and questionable judgments. They usually provide masses of routine and well-known information. How refreshing, then, this study of Muslim women by The Wall Street Journal's former Middle East correspondent. It boasts not just a well-researched base but much new information and a strikingly new thesis. Brooks manages that rare mix, the immediacy of a reporter's experience and the solidity of a research paper.

Each chapter in Nine Parts deals with an aspect of the female Muslim life, both the usual subjects (virginity, weddings, education) and the less so (commerce, politics, warfare). Perhaps the most colorful chapter deals with the Islamic Women's Games in Iran, where men could attend the opening ceremony but not the actual competitions -- so that women could get on the track and strip down to their Lycra shorts.

The most valuable aspect of Brooks's reportage is to show the diversity of fundamentalist Islamic approaches to women. Most striking is the contrast between Saudi Arabia, where women have effectively no public role, and Iran, where they serve in parliament and are steadily pushing back the limits. This leads the author to an unexpected but persuasive conclusion: "I found the brightest hope for positive change camouflaged among the black chadors of devout Iranian women."