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…”