New York: Ace Books, 1999; $13.00 tpb; 323 pages
When a girl in Irustan turns eight, she puts on a veil with three layers: the drape, which hangs to her waist and frames her face, covering neck and shoulders; the verge, which covers the mouth and nose; and the rill, a light fabric which covers her entire face, barely allowing her to see. At home, woman are not required to wear the rill, but everywhere else they must. The only man who can see a woman unveiled is her husband.
This is the world of Louise Marley’s The Terrorists of Irustan, first published in 1999. It is a cousin to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale; like Atwood, Marley has created a world where women live cloistered and inferior lives inside draconian theocracies. Like Offred, Marley’s protagonist Zahra is in the household of a man of power; her husband, Qadir IbSada, is the Chief Director of the ExtraSolar Corporation, which rules Irustan.
There, however, the similarities of setting end. Irustan is a planet colonized three hundred years before the novel begins by people who brought their religion with them from Earth. The planet is hot and dry, sun-baked desert and dust. The chief industry is mining rhodium. The rhodium and its byproducts are traded off-world, and Marley’s novel includes scenes at the spaceport, where people have come directly from Earth and do not follow Irustani laws or customs. Parts of the novel are told from the point of view of Jin-Li “Johnnie” Chung, a longshoreman at the spaceport who grew up poor in a crowded Hong Kong. In this way Marley is able to portray the Irustani culture from both within and without.
The story begins with Zahra taking an apprentice, Ishi, who is eight, into the household for training as a Medicant. Irustan’s history is a history of occupational disease; the miners, even masked, breathe in the rhodium dust and need regular treatments. In addition to the ordinary hazards of mining, the dust contains a protein which if inhaled causes prion disease (an Earthly example is “mad cow” disease). In Irustan, disease and deformity are considered near-abominations, and so the filthy work of medicine—of healing or treating bodies—is the domain of women.
Consequently, it is women, who know medicine, who have the lives of men in their hands. Similarly, men who are disabled are seen as disgusting but are kept from the dangerous and difficult mining. Lives are tangled together culturally in ways that are not so tidy as the culture would have it.
Without going into a spoiler-rich summary of the plot, I can say only that the “terrorists” of the title are women protecting and avenging their daughters, their friends, and other female victims of male violence and abuse. This is not an action novel; its plot moves forward through story, reflection, conversation, memory. It takes place over eight years, ending when Ishi is sixteen. Events occur, but they are framed by Zahra’s instruction of Ishi, her recollections of girlhood and her training, her life with her husband, and the like. As Ishi grows, she begins to strain against the injustices and limitation of her culture, and Zahra’s unspoken resentment of her culture becomes a more active rebellion. The story is very much an internal story of what happens to a woman when she decides to resist.
The characters are well drawn, especially Zahra. As a Medicant, Zahra sees a wider swath of Irustani men than other women of her class; they come to her clinic for treatment, or they bring their wives, or she makes house calls. Her experiences with the suffering inflicted on women by men—spousal abuse, injuries to girls wed too young to brutal men, rape—lead her to decide she must strike back. She is strong and brave and kind and smart, and she has had enough. Her anger wakes, and it sparks a revolution.
A few chapters from Ishi’s point of view allow us to see her growing up, and minor characters such as Zahra’s friends have distinct personalities. The important male figures in the book are complicated. Zahra’s husband is a likable character despite being the Chief Director. He appears to love her, and he treats her with respect. He is the authority in the household, but he does not abuse her, restrict her more than is required, or ignore her. She is not in love with him, but she cares for him. In one scene, she pushes well past his comfort level by telling him how victims of prion disease lose muscle and bowel control; she backs off, feeling “a twinge of remorse,” and presses his hand. Her assistant, Asa, who is disabled and therefore not considered to be a full or complete man, is thoughtful, open-minded, and kind. He is representative of human qualities which ordinary Irustani men cannot express. In this novel, men are the oppressors, but there is no corollary that men are necessarily evil or bad. (Nor are women necessarily good.) Marley is writing about the socio-political consequences of oppression upon everyone in the culture, not just the apparent victims.
Marley’s prose is clean and competent, bereft of unnecessary descriptors and exposition. The world unfolds bit by bit, but there is enough explanation woven in that it is not confusing. Descriptions are evocative without being suffocatingly lush: “There was not so much as a click, but the live silence gave way to the dead silence of inert metal and plastic”; “the anah sat silently behind the reception desk, fully veiled, a layered and anonymous cone of blue”; “Zahra had lain awake most of the preceding night, watching the moons tumble across the sky and debating with herself.”
The novel does not present a homogeneous cast; characters are of different races, ages, physical ability, income, and social standing. Sexuality and gender identities are important components of the feminism of the book. At the same time, however, people are not reduced to the qualities which add diversity; Asa’s crooked leg puts him into a particular social situation, but it’s his loyalty to Zahra that is his defining characteristic.
Any discussion of The Terrorists of Irustan requires a discussion of religion. The religion in the novel has no clearly identified theology aside from monotheism: there are general references to the Maker and quotations from the homilies of the Second Prophet, which are proverbial rather than worshipful. (“There is only one right way for an Irustani. Teach it to your children and your wives. Suffer no exceptions.”) The religious leader is known as the Simah, the temple as the Doma. There are no angels or creation myths or parables about a god. Not even liturgical practices identify a particular theology. We are given the words of the Second Prophet but without identification of the First Prophet.
Names such as Quadir, Zahra, and Diya tempt one into thinking the Irustani religion has Arabic origins. But there are also Camilla and Marcus, Alekos and Teresa, Mina and Asa. Zahra has blue eyes, her friend Kalen has red hair, and Ishi has pearl-like skin. The Irustani resemble white northern Europeans far more than they resemble any of the Semitic peoples. The desert, the veils, and the olive trees suggest the Middle East but could be a background for Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. The Simah’s statement, “Women’s practices taint the very air of this sacred place!” could belong to a conservative of any of the Abrahamic religions. It was more or less said by the Apostle Paul. (“As in all congregations of God’s people, women should not address the meeting.... If there is something they want to know, they can ask their own husbands at home. It is a shocking thing that a woman should address the congregation.” 1 Corinthians 14:34-35.)
However, given the likelihood that many readers will take the word “Terrorists” in conjunction with the “-stan” suffix in the title to assume that the religion being targeted is Islam, it’s important to consider what place the novel has now in an era when Islamic extremism is the American bogeyman. The book was published before 9/11, but 9/11 changed how we read, how we see the world. While historically Christianity and Judaism have sequestered women and covered their heads or faces, in the twenty-first century the veil is associated with Islam. Irustani law resembles the American conception of sharia law. If you are anti-theocracy in a world where theocracies are primarily Islamic, are you anti-Islamic?
I (who am not Muslim) don’t think the novel in itself is anti-Islamic, but there’s a risk of it being read that way. The care Marley has taken to avoid identifying Irustani religion with any existing religion might not be seen by readers who don’t parse the details. My sense is that the people who will think it is anti-Islamic are the ones who know the least about Islam. The fear of medicine, for example, is a direct antithesis to the historical knowledge and achievements of Muslim doctors. Nuance is easily lost in bigotry, however. In the charged atmosphere of Islam in America today, the book might not sit easily with Muslim readers.
What is clear is that the novel is fiercely feminist. The “terrorism” of the title is not terrorism as we see it now—it does not occur explosively and publicly with the taking of innocent lives. It is, like the women of Irustan, quiet and for a long time unseen. The violence committed by the women is effective, is terrifying because it turns the Irustani fear of disease into a weapon. What ultimately strikes at the heart of Irustani culture is its own bogeyman.
In an American political era where women are being systematically stripped of their rights over their own bodies, where they lack voice and presence at the high levels of government, where religious bigotry is a ruling principle of policy, The Terrorists of Irustan matters. The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of how Gilead came to be, of how freedom is chiseled away bit by bit and woman turned against woman. The Terrorists of Irustan is the opposite bookend; it is a story about how oppression sows the seeds of its own downfall, how resistance and revolution are worth the risks, how women have power together. More than anything else, it is a story of courage.
Anne Leonard is the author of the fantasy novel Moth and Spark. She lives in Northern California.