Nawal El Saadawi: The Hidden Face of Eve

The best of Nawal El Saadawi’s books are nonfiction: They reveal the devastating truth that her works of fiction are, in fact, nonfiction.

A vital textbook for the study of women in the Arab world, The Hidden Face of Eve has a more academic structure compared to A Daughter of Isis, Walking through Fire, and her numerous memoirs that are deeply personal. But all her writings perfectly demonstrate how the personal is political, and there is not a hint of the tedium that we might encounter in textbooks.

The delicate preface alone is worth mulling over and digesting; and the book, thorough in the history and status of women in Arab society from pre-Islam days until the present, often enlightening or enraging, should be read in its entirety. Whether one agrees or disagrees with any of her views, no one will close this book without having learned anything substantial. Reading this showed me what a shallow understanding I have of the matter despite years of delving in books from Islamic nations.

Nawal does not launch into an angry tirade against religion, however, but against those who use religion “as an instrument in the hands of economic and political forces,” those who use religion to deprive women of knowledge and suppress the search for truth by intimidation and obscurantism, and those who misinterpret religion and utilize it as an instrument of oppression and exploitation. She challenges that religion, if authentic in the principles it stands for, “aims at truth, equality, justice, love, and a healthy wholesome life for all people, whether men or women.”

She criticizes feminism that is merely an instrument of a specific class, or a feminism that is fanatical and superficial, stressing that fanaticism of any form should be opposed, whether it be religion, political, or social. Interestingly, she even remarks on the “modern” woman, “who thinks that progress is manifested by a tendency to show more and more of her thighs,” but remains mentally and emotionally suppressed under the surface.

She therefore makes a stand for the education of the female child, the strengthening of the mind, a free mind, and a heightened level of consciousness, pointing out that a girl who has lost her personality through the throttling of her mind will lose the capacity “to think independently and to use her own mind,” and “will do what others have told her and will become a toy in their hands and a victim of their decisions.” Thus, “the emancipation of Arab women can only result from the struggle of the Arab women themselves, once they become an effective political force.” As we all know, this does not merely apply to Arab women. There is also the acknowledgement that “progress for women, and an improvement of their status, can never be attained unless the whole of society moves forward.”

Can you see why I wished to greet Women’s History Month by reading someone like Nawal El Saadawi? But because there is no one like Nawal El Saadawi, I read her.

“…with liberation they stand to lose nothing else but their chains…”

Bahiyyih Nakhjavani: The Woman Who Read Too Much

“The woman is you,” remarked those who saw me with this book.

I can only hope to be half as courageous.

But who is she? “To read is to pray,” she taught. “To write is to trust.” Her words had claws, they said, but at the same time they recognized that her silence were double the weight of her words.

She believed in these: That sometimes, illiteracy was fear; that truth conquered fear; that denial was difficult in the face of truth; that the best told lies can prove short-sighted before the long truths of eternity; and that there was no escape for those who took refuge in their ignorance. And of pride? “Love had nothing to do with it.”

Who was she again? Throughout the story we only know her as the woman who read too much. All the women in the book were not given names. Set during the Qajar Dynasty in the 1800s when literacy among women in Persia was not encouraged, and the details of their lives were largely invisible and unrecorded — as it had been for centuries, and as it had been for most parts of the world; this clever literary trick by Bahiyyih Nakhjavani is most likely a curtsy to Virginia Woolf who wrote, “For most of history, anonymous was a woman.”

“No marker on her grave then? None.” Her death is something readers will know right from the beginning. Her story is written in such a peculiar way that it moves forward while moving backwards simultaneously, proving that the best of these Iranian women writers are masters not only in subtlety but also in form, and one can only try not to blink and miss allusions or be helplessly lost.

“History is filled with screams that are ignored.” The reading woman is executed for what she stands, for opposing unreasonable orthodoxy, “for stating the obvious rather than for deviating from the truth,” condemned for showing other women “how to inscribe their lives on the pages of history… giving them the tools by which to be autonomous.” Her death only fanned the flames of the emancipation of women, especially the emancipation of the mind.

Nakhjavani surprises us in the afterword by revealing that the woman who read too much; who, after all, had a name, was a real woman. Tahirih Qurratu’l-Ayn, the symbolic mother of literacy in Iran.

I glance around my library as I write and wonder at the sudden awareness that, on my shelves organized by geography, the Iran section is the only one where women authors outnumber the men. What better way to honor her!

Here in the midst of “look how far we’ve come” and “miles to go before we sleep,” reading this makes me ponder on the women who came before us; back to Enheduanna (2286-2251 BCE), a woman, the first known author, and to the endless library of history we long to fill… and read.

We’ve always had the rights of the mind at our disposal. We need only take up courage to use them.

The world changed when definitions of womankind were altered.”