Despite the orientalist book cover of a veiled woman and the fact that the original title was “The naked face of the Arab woman” and not the submissive “hidden face of eve” I would still recommend this dense and intense read. As a doctor and psychiatrist, Nawal el-saadawi has seen and heard many women pass through her clinic doors for issues related to gendered violence. Whether it’s circumcisions and general mutilations gone wrong, or bleeding out and infected from the cultural practice of a woman puncturing through the hymen with a finger to draw blood, or men coming over to demand to know whether their new wives were really virgins, she was in direct contact with the culture and women she’s writing about. A generational epidemic where girls are sexually assaulted by older male relatives, girls who are killed for the sake of honour even if they are innocent, women who resort to dangerous home abortions so they can continue working at their exploitative jobs where they are paid less than men for more hours.She also makes the huge but important effort to point out the structural factors, fearlessly implicating religious culture and tradition as well, that continues to be used to justify horrific, systematic abuse against women. If you want to know of a struggle beyond what we usually hear about, I highly recommend this read. Nawal el-saadawi holds no punches.
This was such an intense read. It is quite canonical reading for those interested in feminism, and especially women’s oppression and issues in the Arab world (which is very diverse). But of course, this can bring issues of orientalisation or condescension from liberal feminists so in this edition Saadawi wrote a preface to counter that possibility by pointing out that feminism that isn’t what we today call ‘intersectional’ or sensitive or informed of the culture it’s addressing, will lead to further oppression of the women it’s supposedly directed at.
Criticism is fine, in this case if we want to criticise Islam/Islamic societies, that certainly can be done in a constructive way (which Saadawi does in the book fearlessly, and which she has been punished for), but done badly, it can be used to subject people to further geo-political violence (just like how Afghanistan women were bombed along with their country folk by American forces with one of the reasons justifying invasion was that they needed to be rescued from their ‘barbaric’ society that was oppressing them).
The first 60 pages of this was incredibly difficult, almost distressing to read. Nawal El-Saadawi is a doctor and psychiatrist, so she has had many people come through the doors of clinic seeking for her help and advice and she would share the horrific cases she has seen time and again, connecting it with the larger issues plaguing women in the Arab world when it comes to the obsession with virginity, controlling female sexuality, and how violent that becomes when honour is physicallly located in the hymen.
She starts out by describing how as a child she was taken from her bed by 4 adults (one of whom was her mother), and experienced her circumcision traumatically. Unlike in Singapore where it’s done as type one (and commonly known as ‘circumcision’) the FGM performed in the Arab world can be more severe with some places even subjecting girls to type 4 FGM (look it up, I don’t want to describe it). She has seen many women go through her clinic for excessive bleeding from circumcision, or infections. Some girls even die from severe circumcisions.
Apart from FGM, she described how the prevailing myths and lack of understanding of female anatomy and sexuality has horrifically painful consequences in the experiences women go through. For example, because people expect that a virgin must bleed the first time she has sex, some women are actually hired by families to stick their finger into the married woman’s/girl’s vagina to draw blood so that it can stain the sheet & then be shown as proof of the girl’s virginity. Saadawi recounted at one point how she saw one of these old women had fingers with long nails, and dirt under them. Needless to say, women can get infections from this practice. Women have also been through ‘honour-killing’ because they were accused of being promiscuous or of having sex before marriage, even if some of them were actually innocent.
She explained how such singular, downright ignorant lack of understanding render women subject to fate. Some women are born with hymens that are thin, or too thick, if the proof of virginity lies on a broken hymen, those who have broken their hymens as young girls while playing or stretching or whatever, find themselves in a difficult situation. For women who are rich enogh to afford it, they can get hymen reconstruction surgery. A poor, rural woman will not, however, get this option. I am describing this in detail because she did, and I think, for her, explaining these practices openly is really brings home the fact of how material and physical the suffering of women are.
Further on she explains how the repression of healthy sexuality in societies that have punished it have resulted in women being subjected to the lust of men in twisted ways. The vulnerable ones tend to be younger girls, who are often sexually assaulted by older male relatives since they are easy prey & the power dynamic protects the man from being punished.
I think what’s good about Saadawi is that she gets very specific, but also links these issues to larger structural problems. I think everyone tries that of course, but she does it quite well. Although admittedly I am not well-versed in the problems of Arab women beyond what I’ve read so I might miss out some issues. But for example, to point out that that rich women and poor, rural women face very different pains, is very important. Poor women can’t buy their way out of many problems, the way the rich can, and at the same time, they are subjected to harsher working conditions. They have to work out of economic necessity, and when a community is poor, it will be willing to change or overlook certain ideas about women participating in the workplace. However, these women often have to work excruciatingly long hours for very little pay, and often work through being pregnant or give themselves abortions just to keep their jobs.
Re: abortions. Saadawi shows how policies that affect reproductive rights for women can be arbitrary and contingent ultimately not on the moral debates surrounding it, but on the needs of the population. States would either allow or disallow abortion (and find religious justification later on to suit their position) based on their population problems, whether they need more people or not. It really brings home the point how women’s bodies and women’s autonomy are subject to power dynamics or people in power (mostly men) who decide the course of action.
I also enjoyed her detailing how the accumulation of wealth and property was what allowed hierarchy to develop, the split between those who own & accumulate property and those who don’t (essentially the rich-poor divide), and subsequently, the subjugation of women would follow up. In this sense, I really started to understand how feminism is very much a class issue, even though personally I have always in my rhetoric said that “women as a class suffer under patriarchy”, Saadawi’s explanations have really driven that home for me and explained it clearly. I wish I could reproduce it here! But I already returned the book to my friend Fadiah.
These were the important bits I remembered or stuck with me! I would recommend it, but just note that it is quite a heavy and dense read.