Journey into the heart of a radical Arab woman. Novella from Egypt
Two Women in One, by Nawal el-Saadawi. Translated by Osman Nusairi and Jana Gough. Seattle: The Seal Press. 124 pp. $14.95. The fifth and most recent volume in the Seal Press series ``Women in Translation'' (which includes already-published volumes of work by Danish and Norwegian female authors) comes from Nawal el-Saadawi, an Egyptian feminist, political activist, and author whose previous works include ``The Hidden Face of Eve,'' a nonfiction book on Arab women.
Her novella ``Two Women in One'' tells the story of Bahiah Shaheen, an 18-year-old Egyptian medical student and artist who rebels against the rigid social, sexual, and political standards imposed on her by the male-dominated world she lives in.
To all outward appearances, Bahiah is a well-behaved young woman, on her way to a career as a doctor and to a marriage planned for her by her family. Inwardly, however, she is beset by contradictions and confusions as she comes to terms with womanhood. Her tentative, then absolute, rejection of the status quo leads her to an affair with a young medical student -- a heretical act for an Arab woman -- and into a campaign of political dissent that lands her in jail.
``Two Women in One'' is, in some ways, a frustrating experience for the reader. The story is so subjectively told -- hinging on Bahiah's often abstract musings about life and death and her sharply critical view of virtually everyone and everything around her -- that a novice to the Arab world may be hard-pressed to find the context in which to view Bahiah's story with understanding or even compassion.
On the other hand, this book does offer interesting insights to both feminists and readers already acquainted with the restricted world of Arab women. This is an intensely told story, flecked with small revelations of what it means to be a woman struggling to break the bonds of a society's tradition and history. It's certainly not representative of all Arab women -- particularly those who have turned to the conservative mores of Islamic fundamentalism -- but it is an illuminating sojourn in the experience of a radical few.
Some Western readers who lived through and became disenchanted with the sexual revolution of the 1960s might argue that the path of physicality Bahiah pursues in her search for self-definition, for the second woman within her, leads ultimately to another form of bondage -- a different definition of womanhood, to be sure, but one still based on sexual terms.
Despite the legitimacy of such a critique, however, ``Two Women in One'' needs to be taken for what it is -- a valuable opportunity to understand more clearly the currents of thought regarding women in a culture vastly different from the West.