Arab Feminist Pens Powerful Prose
Egyptian writer Nawal El Saadawi dares to address the injustices of a patriarchal society
THE Egyptian writer Nawal El Saadawi is a remarkable and courageous woman. Successfully balancing vocations in literature, social criticism, and medicine, she has broken a path that most of her countrywomen can only hope one day to follow. And for taking as her primary subject the injustices of patriarchal Arab society and the neo-imperialist West, she has been jailed under President Sadat's ``Law of Shame,'' dropped by her Egyptian publisher, fired from her position in the ministry of health, and labeled as a radical feminist whose blind ideology too often gets in the way of her art.Skip to next paragraph
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Nothing is further from the truth, and recent translations of a novel and two collections of short stories (published in Britain), joining some seven other titles already in English, confirm the broad range and sophistication of her literary voice.
But her purely technical gifts would surely be wasted if not built upon the personal experience of sexual and economic oppression. The fact that an earlier book, ``The Hidden Face of Eve,'' begins with an unblinking account of her own circumcision, forced upon her at the age of eight, testifies to her bravery in serving as an example for others.
Yet El Saadawi's philosophy is not based on the same modern secular ideas that might comfort Western liberals. In fact, she believes that Islam must be reformed and strengthened vis-a-vis the West in order for Muslim women to be treated justly both as women and as Muslims. Unlike Egypt's first generation of feminists, El Saadawi is secure in her own culture and religion, unafraid to challenge male authority, and unwilling to accept the international status quo.
Of the three titles under review here, one would be advised to start first with She Has No Place in Paradise for the simple reason that these stories are highly accessible for a foreign reader. Although nothing written by El Saadawi is altogether straightforward, they are for the most part simple narratives of sexual and psychological conflict played out in a variety of settings.
In the first story and the one perhaps most representative of the author's relentless social dissections, a weak-kneed groom fails the public test of virility on his wedding night. Not surprisingly in a male-dominant society, blame for this passes to his virgin bride because of what everyone, including her father, presumes to be her moral failings.
In the title story, a long-suffering widow waits in the grave for her delivery to heaven, having been promised an eternity of lying in bed with her husband. When she arrives, she finds him instead in the arms of two houris, the fair-skinned virgins of paradise that the Koran promises as a reward to every male, and turns her back on her own afterlife. The scene rings sad but true, even without an understanding of Islamic eschatology.
What makes each of these stories so powerful is a deep concern for the life of the poor, with an honesty and respect bringing to mind the master Egyptian writer Yousif Idris. Like him, El Saadawi examines everyday frustrations and deprivations for their root causes. Perhaps it is no coincidence that both writers are also doctors, whose training in clinics for the poor led them to trade in their stethoscopes and patient charts for pen and paper, making other diagnoses by which more might be cured.
The novel The Fall of the Imam is altogether different from these stories. Densely written and politically allegorical, it is very much an Egyptian version of Salman Rushdie's 1983 novel ``Shame.'' Only here, Anwar Sadat rather than the Pakistani Zia al-Huq is under the microscope, with results decidedly more dystopian than picaresque.
The guideposts are hard to miss, even though too many Middle Eastern regimes share the same features of personality cult worship, strategic marriages of children into the families of rivals, mock religiosity in order to quiet fundamentalist dissent, and the co-optation of intellectuals. Details such as the seating arrangements at a deadly Victory Day parade, an officially decreed ``opposition'' party, and an irradiated-milk-powder scandal make this roman `a clef fall into place.