This week when my Kindle ran out of juice and I wanted something to read before bed, I impulsively picked up a book I have read several times before (although it inexplicably remained uncatalogued on Goodreads): The Terrorists of Irustan, by Louise Marley. I have mentioned it at least twice before on this blog, but after reading it for, I think, the fourth time, I wanted to give it a space of its own, because I think it’s that important.
This book is hard to classify. It is science fiction, set as it is on a planet distant from Earth, colonized for the purposes of mining a precious material (rhodium) that is sold back to the industries on the parent planet; it is also powerfully dystopian; and it is definitely a feminist manifesto.
Lest any of those put you off from reading it, it is also a grippingly told story with powerful scene-setting and characters you won’t easily forget. If none of those themes sounds appealing to you, read it for the story!
The book takes place in the future on a planet that was settled by humans long ago, but the society on Irustan is ruled by the Second Book of the Prophet, and mirrors (and expands upon) the claustrophobic (especially for women) religions of middle eastern countries today. Everything is governed according to this restrictive religion, and as long as the rhodium keeps coming, Earth’s Port Authority on the planet refuses to intervene.
On Irustan, the men dominate every aspect of the culture, while the women remain virtually invisible: They do not appear outside the home without being wrapped head to foot in veils, and may not communicate directly with any man save their husband and the servants of their household, nor be seen by them. They may not own property, drive, or use a wave-phone. Their husbands have complete control over their destinies and those of their children. The highlight of their lives is “Doma Day,” once a week when the husbands all go to the temple and the wives and children are allowed to gather at the homes of their close friends to socialize, trade gossip, and share a meal.
The main character is Zahra IbSada, one of the women on the planet with a tiny portion of independence. In this world of male dominance, there is a strong taboo against even the acknowledgment by men of illness or infirmity, so any kind of medical treatment has to fall to a small group of women (fewer than 100 for the entire population of the planet) who are trained as “medicants.” They are a somewhat poor excuse for doctors, because their training is severely restricted, but they are aided by amazing medical technology from Earth, where machines have been developed that can diagnose illness and provide remedies directly into the bloodstream. The medicants are instructed in the use of these machines and most go no farther in their development as doctors.
Zahra is one such medicant, with better training than most due to the woman with whom she apprenticed, and also because of her own insatiable appetite for medical knowledge. The medicants treat the colonists injured in the rhodium mines, dosing them regularly with a drug therapy that prevents them from contracting a deadly prion disease from inhaling the dust, and also minister to any others who are sick or injured. This gives them an extraordinary knowledge of the private lives of those on their clinic list, and ultimately provokes Zahra to make a controversial personal decision in the course of her duties that will have unexpectedly wide ramifications.
Zahra is aided in this course of action by a Port Authority employee, a longshoreman who is in charge of delivering the medical supplies shipped from Earth to the various women’s clinics. Jing-Li comes from the ghettos of Hong Kong and used a job working for Port Authority as a way to leave Earth without having to go to college or obtain a career that would qualify a person for interplanetary travel, an option that was unavailable to someone from Jing-Li’s social class. The collaboration between the two is slight but powerful, and their fates end up being intertwined as Zahra seeks a way to change the oppressive social structures of her world.
Somewhere in The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood comments about how extremist Eastern religions are not that different from extremist Western religions; The Terrorists of Irustan is Louise Marley’s example of a faux Middle Eastern counterpart to Atwood’s book, and I believe should be read with the same attention given to that classic. (And yes, it would make an amazing series as well!)