Do you, too, believe that I betrayed my motherhood when I left you, against my will, to go to prison?…. I have read an article by the Moroccan writer Hadiya Sa‘id…she expressed a point of view maintained by some of our friends who love me and are concerned about you. She says that I must cease my political work and leave it to Husayn, for the sake of you children…. [1]

So writes Farida al-Naqqash to her daughter in 1981, during her second confinement in the Barrages women’s prison just north of Cairo.

The memoirs of political prisoners, in any society, starkly articulate the struggle of individuals and opposition groups to attain basic human rights: freedom of expression and movement, privacy, health, humane treatment and, above all, the right to a voice in the organization of one's society. Equally, this literature shows the mental processes and psychological reactions of a prisoner in resisting and combatting the denial of those rights. Yet the recognition of a special struggle runs throughout prison memoirs by politically active women. The anguish of imposed guilt for working outside women’s traditionally defined spheres, and the struggle against this punishing emotion, are among the sharpest manifestations of women’s “special treatment” as political prisoners — a treatment meted out even by well-meaning female comrades, as al-Naqqash suggests above. Women in prison must confront forms of oppression deriving from and reinforcing their unequal position in the society at large. The denial of human rights extends in the case of women to a denial that they are equal beings in the political sphere. As al-Naqqash writes to her husband:

I’m pursued here by accusing looks, which in themselves often communicate the question: Was it really necessary for you and your husband both to become involved in political work so that your children would face this sort of life? They accuse me to the point where I begin asking myself whether I could and should have spared you this double anxiety….

Implicit in this accusation, of course, is that it is her duty, but not her husband’s, to renounce political work. Al-Naqqash rejects this notion, but her convictions do not fully mask her struggle against the self-doubt which such accusations raise. Repeatedly, she asks herself whether she does indeed have the right sense of priorities. The guilt is not easy to dispel. The female political prisoner finds herself fighting not only the isolation and self-doubt which any political prisoner potentially faces, but also fighting the identity, the duties, and the sphere which society has shaped for her, and of which — in prison — she is constantly reminded. Nawal al-Sa‘dawi, finding herself in the same Egyptian prison in which al-Naqqash was incarcerated, recalls how, as a young girl, defining her own name as independent from that of her father and grandfather was a struggle. [2] These memories return in prison, recalled by the circumstances there and inseparable from the resistance and reaffirmation of commitment which imprisonment for “political crimes” demands.

“They are Troublemakers”

The authorities and much of the public regard political prisoners as “criminal deviants,” but women political prisoners are further denigrated as “social deviants.” Women are not meant to get their hands and minds “dirty” with political work! In the Citadel prison in Cairo, where al-Naqqash was held in 1979 before being transferred to the women’s prison, the male prison guards found it hard to believe that their female charges were capable of “singing for the revolution” — let alone playing chess with bits of bread. Women politicals are regarded as particularly “obnoxious” mischiefmakers, who defy society’s definition of “women’s place,” of women’s identity. Heading for the prosecutor’s headquarters for further interrogation, al-Naqqash and her colleagues refused to ride in a filthy vehicle with no seats. They overheard the officer in charge communicating by walkie-talkie with his superior: “They are troublemakers (mushaghibat), all of them are troublemakers, and I can’t deal with them….”

Farida al-Naqqash’s Al-Sijn, dam‘atani, wa-wardah(Prison, Two Tears, and a Flower) was published in 1985. The first half had appeared five years earlier as Al-Sijn…al-Watan (Prison…the Nation), after al-Naqqash had spent two months in prison in 1979, accused of membership in the banned Egyptian Communist Party. A further 11 months in prison in 1981-1982 made possible an expansion of the memoirs of this veteran oppositional figure, a leading member of the leftwing Tagammu‘ Party and journalist in the party’s organ, Al-Ahali.

Nawal al-Sa‘dawi’s Mudhakkirati fi sijn al-nisa’(My Memoirs in the Women’s Prison) came out in 1984. Al-Sa‘dawi entered prison in September 1981, several months after al-Naqqash had been detained. Al-Sa‘dawi spent two and one-half months in the Barrages prison, during Sadat’s massive round-up of oppositional figures from every political persuasion, individuals linked only by their opposition to Sadat’s treaty with Israel. Al-Sa‘dawi, a well-known and prolific writer, doctor and speaker on women’s rights, is a founder of the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association.

Books by two other, rather different, Egyptian women also incorporate memoirs of prison life. Zaynab al-Ghazali al-Jabili became active in the Muslim Brotherhood (al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun) in 1949, after 13 years as founding president of the Muslim Women’s Association. She was jailed, along with many of her colleagues, male and female, in the military prison in 1965, transferred to the Women’s Prison in 1967, and released in 1971. Her book, Ayyam min Hayati (Days of My Life), chronicles her early activities and Nasser’s treatment of the Brotherhood, as well as the period she spent in the prisons. [3] Safinaz Kazim’s work, ‘An al-sijn wa-al-hurriyya (On Prison and Freedom) takes prison experiences as a central motif. [4] A journalist who has traversed the political spectrum in Egypt, from the secularist left to an Islamist point of view, Kazim has been jailed three times on political charges, most recently in the same round-up as al-Sa‘dawi.

These works vary so greatly in the politics which their writers espouse and in their treatments of prison experience that when similarities in theme and expression emerge, they are all the more striking. The authors also reflect on the experiences of women imprisoned for “non-political” reasons which they link, explicitly or implicitly, to the political and economic structures and the received mores of the society.

Al-Naqqash’s book, a documentary which traces the Egyptian government’s repression of leftist political activity throughout the 1970s, emphasizes the broad historical context, into which she inserts her own situation through an immediate description of prison life and the inclusion of letters to her family written while in prison. The documentary is valuable also for its detailed coverage of interrogations, court sessions and the experiences of her comrades in and out of prison. She stresses the contradictions between Egypt’s constitutional and legal system on the one hand, and the treatment of the opposition on the other, as the judicial system is reduced to an arm of the regime.

Al-Sa‘dawi’s memoir is more personal and immediate, conveying impressionistic reactions to her interrogation and imprisonment and portraying the conditions of life in the Barrages prison through her immediate contacts with other inmates. Al-Naqqash’s descriptions of prison life serve more explicitly as starting points for reflections on the experience and future of the left in Egypt. She places greater emphasis on the collectivity of the struggle; she portrays herself as a bit player. [5]

Al-Ghazali’s narrative, insofar as it treats prison itself, focuses heavily on her own experience, particularly since she was in solitary confinement or with only one other inmate for most of her years in prison. She introduces and interweaves this experience with that of the Brotherhood as a whole in the Nasser years. She aims to document the accusations and harsh treatment to which Brotherhood members were subjected through her own story. The particular ways in which women are punished — not only for the crimes but also for being women — emerge in her accounts as well.

Kazim’s book is the most metaphorical, and the least specifically descriptive. Only two of her essays of personal reflections and polemics deal specifically with prison.

A fifth book by Walid al-Fahum, a (male) Palestinian lawyer in occupied Palestine, poses a counterpoint. [6] Al-Fahum articulates the conditions and coping strategies of Palestinian women politicals jailed in the Neve Tirza, a military prison in Ramleh. This book takes up many of the same themes and concerns through the reported words of the prisoners. Reconstructed conversations between al-Fahum and his clients are nterspersed with reproduced newspaper accounts of the lawyer’s reports.

These Middle Eastern works also show points of similarity with memoirs written by women political prisoners in other societies, such as Alicia Partnoy, held in a secret prison by the Argentinian military regime for five months in 1977; Domitila Barrios de Chungara, jailed twice in the late 1960s for her work in the Bolivian labor movement; Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, imprisoned in the US Federal Penitentiary for Women under the Smith Act, 1955-1957, as a member of the Communist Party; and Eugenia Semyonovna Ginzburg, who spent 18 years in prisons and labor camps during Stalin’s purges. Comparison with such works demonstrates the commonalities of women's experiences as political prisoners worldwide. [7]

The aims of these writers extend beyond the portrayal of conditions within prison and the “special treatment” of women within. Prison becomes a metaphor for the society — as suggested in the title of al-Naqqash’s earlier edition, “Prison…The Nation.” Prison is praxis; it is also self-education. By its nature, the prison system exemplifies starkly the boundaries against which one must struggle, the structures which appear immutable. As al-Naqqash says,

…in prison, as we are testing our hardness in facing the transient hardships and our ability to deal with them, we can become acquainted in a concrete, day-to-day fashion with the heavy exploitation borne by the people, by the poor when prison and humiliation surround them and when all roads are closed, and they lack even the recognition of their humanity.

Prison becomes immediate experience of the homeland. This is where Kazim’s metaphor begins:

For me, prison is no longer the beggar's cell full of scabies and lice…nor is it the punishment cell…nor the solitary detention cell…rather, it is all the sorts of tyrannical oppression and the violation of the citizen’s rights which are guaranteed by the constitution….

For al-Ghazali, the Women’s Prison represents “the moral decadence [of the society]…the swamps, brackish with depravities…[where] humankind sinks to the bottomless imensions in which the individual’s humanity disappears…” Al-Sa‘dawi links her prison experience to memories of childhood and young adulthood which express the limitations placed on females “outside.” For the Palestinian women of Neve Tirza, imprisonment goes beyond the walls to take on a double dimension against which they must fight: “[we are imprisoned] twice: once in the prison of customs, traditions, outlooks and societal laws, and again in the prison of the occupier — the political prison of Neve Tirza.”

Flynn’s description of prison life illustrates throughout a linkage between prison and the society, especially in emphasizing the predominance there of women with little education and with reduced opportunities due to their double status as females and as members of non-Caucasian minority groups. There are no rich women in prison, she says. Partnoy’s experience in prison as a “disappeared person” exemplifies, explicitly, what she saw happening in her society under the military regime. Chungara’s detention in prison is presented as an extension of the oppressions carried out against the Bolivian working class generally, and women in particular. Ginzburg’s experience yields a portrayal of the situation faced by thousands of Communist Party members in the USSR in the 1930s.

Harsh Education

In prison, the unequal position of women appears immediately in the lack of facilities for women and the denial that women have needs which may differ from those of men. This denial is inseparable from the lack of recognition that women can be political prisoners. It also shows in the attitudes of the (male) prison administrations: somehow, it is “worse” for women to be in prison. The denial of human rights becomes on this level a denial of rights for women within the prison: at the same time that the prison guards are astonished to see women playing chess, they think nothing of “opening the cell door upon us at any time they wish, day or night — is this not expressive of the fixed ideas in [their] minds on the inferiority of women?”

There were no facilities for pregnant women and no gynecologist in the women’s prison, noted al-Sa‘dawi and al-Naqqash. Meanwhile, the mostly male top prison administration and the almost entirely male employees of the other prisons described in these memoirs defined women only according to biological and sexual functions. But these memoirs make it clear that the problem of facilities is only the surface. The special problems women face in prison — or which they face to a greater extent than men — are those they face outside. These problems begin with the particular kinds of physical and mental anguish, related in these memoirs, which can be imposed on women: attempted or threatened rape, used as a form of torture; being forced to disrobe before male prison employees; attempted or threatened destruction of a pregnant woman’s unborn baby; being forced to give birth and bring up a child in the harsh circumstances of prison; forced separation from a nursing or young child; the threat of losing one’s children.

Such threats are common to both political and non-political women prisoners. However, the generally middle-class and well-educated political women who write these memoirs are not subjected to as much physical humiliation or to as punishing living conditions as are the generally uneducated non-politicals. The exception is the case of the Palestinian women, who are treated far worse than are the Israeli non-political women.

The “sadd ma‘nawi” as al-Naqqash calls it, the mental and emotional barrier, poses the real threat. Physical separation from children becomes a mental burden for parents, but especially for women, as they fight the notion that they bear a special responsibility for children and hence a special burden of guilt. This is linked also to the struggle to get men who are spouses and comrades to assume new responsibilities in the home as part of their own political work — a struggle which the Palestinian prisoners note bitterly.

Linked to this is a concern about the harsh and premature political education which one’s children have forcibly undergone — a concern voiced repeatedly by al-Naqqash. It is a worry also for al-Sa‘dawi, as she sees her children for the first time after leaving prison, and before they have noticed her presence: “A deep, suppressed sadness had transformed the eyes of children into the eyes of old people. Had I seen their eyes — these eyes — in prison, it would have destroyed me.” It is ironic that the state, by its actions, precludes children’s unencumbered development of political consciousness. There is no opportunity for them to think out their position by themselves. Al-Naqqash’s young daughter Rasha already knows how to pack a suitcase for prison. The children have faced house searches while their parents were absent, in interrogation or prison; the policeman insults Rasha — both her youth and her femaleness — when she demands a search warrant, just as Chungara’s young daughter faces the bullying policeman who wants to know her mother’s whereabouts with the statement, “Do you really think my mommy’s so dumb? Knowing that you’d look for her, do you really think she’d tell us where she is?”

Al-Naqqash, Partnoy and Chungara worry over the lack of stability which their children have experienced. Are we making the children our victims? al-Naqqash asks herself. But, again, prison is praxis: “For our children to learn the language of this age will do them no harm.”

The struggle to surmount this particular barrier is brought to a critical point in prison. Used by the prison authorities, at times explicitly, to break women down, such challenges are accompanied by mental games premised on the belief that women can be broken more easily than men. Al-Ghazali’s jailers show continued astonishment at her fortitude, and their comments suggest their over-confidence as well as their paternalism: “We want you to open your heart to us.” Women are not expected to resist actively; the senior officer of the police sent to arrest al-Sa’dawi is astonished at her refusal to ride between two men in the car. Women are not expected to be “stubborn,” the Palestinians learn. These reactions are linked to clear expressions of paternalistic and sexist attitudes; al-Ghazali is addressed as “bint” (girl), and her jailers argue that if she continues to undergo the treatment they are meting out to make her “confess,” her husband will no longer find her attractive. The use of sexual innuendo and humiliation is still clearer; being forced to use the toilet in front of a watching male, or being molested by the guards, is not as difficult to take as the verbal humiliation noted by almost all of these political prisoners. The sexually-oriented insults thrown at a French woman in the Cairo Citadel prison by the Internal Security policeman were ugly enough to embarrass even the prosecutor, she tells al-Naqqash and her other cellmates. Small consolation.

Such tactics, al-Naqqash states, are actually effective, for she sees in prison that women are less prepared by their upbringing than are men to resist the psychological punishments of prolonged imprisonment. Even for a political veteran like herself, the loss of self-confidence is a danger. In a letter to her husband, she writes,

As is habitual for those like me who have little self-confidence, I blame myself [for succumbing to feelings of uselessness]…and I say [to myself] sometimes, this is the heritage of women, a heritage whose roots are struck deep in time…. Then I leave my writing because it is not worth finishing…

Al-Naqqash links her own situation to the messages left by other female political prisoners in the graffiti on the prison walls. She notices that graffiti left by women tend more towards emotional content and less towards political analysis, contrary to those left by men — an indication of a difference in cultural preparedness. Moreover, women make themselves invisible: when men inscribe their lovers’ names on the wall, they sign their own names, whereas women do not:

the reality [inside prison] established for me that women in general are more backward and ignorant than men, and that the deep sense of inferiority circulates among them just as it does among men with regards to women, and perhaps [among women] even more.

Restrictions on women’s freedom of expression have grown, she says, and this is linked both to the ascendancy of conservative, religiously-based outlooks and to increasing socioeconomic gaps in the society. Here al-Naqqash realizes the importance of independent political work by and on behalf of women — confessing that she herself has tended to ignore this. Perhaps the prison officers are correct, she notes ruefully, in being surprised that women play chess.

Prison Classes

The struggle for self-realization, for confidence, for one’s right to be a political woman, is a larger struggle. Acquiring and maintaining one’s freedom is at once an internal and an external process; both levels are confronted sharply in the confined space of prison. In these memoirs, conditions of prison life come to represent the political and economic structures of the society. Crowdedness and hunger lead to conflict. Poor health becomes worse — and the prison officials control access to doctors and medicine. Religious views have been inculcated in a way that creates divisions. Costs are high, and money is power. The top echelon of drug dealers hold wealth, and thus power, even in relation to prison guards. The jailed procuresses whom al-Naqqash meets regard themselves as “clean” and of a different class than the prostitutes they control. Class divisions and unequal power are also illustrated in the prisoners’ status as servants of the jailers. But it is only the poor prisoners who are controlled by the jailers. It is they who do not know their rights — even as prisoners. Particularly as poor women who are likely to have been barred from education and participation in public life, if not in the work force, they lack the experience and knowledge to resist.

Prison is also a microcosm of broader gender relations and inequalities, for the reasons non-political women are in prison often articulate their situations outside. Some of these women are here because they are the sole support of their families; their lack of education and the position of women in the labor market have forced them, they tell al-Naqqash and al-Sa‘dawi, to turn to prostitution or participate in drug rings. Once inside, they do not have the resources to escape. Moreover, they are branded by social attitudes. Al-Naqqash mentions one woman who had been employed as a maid by visitors from the Gulf; needing to retain the job in order to support her children, she was coerced into prostitution. Remarks al-Naqqash, “this picture recurs with great frequency among the prostitutes, murderers and female drug dealers; rarely has greed been a strong cause of the situations they have found themselves in — or thus they were trying to portray the story to us so we would be convinced that the fate into which they had been pushed was compulsory.” Al-Sa‘dawi links these conditions to men’s attempts to control women:

Behind every one of these women prisoners is a man: a father branding his daughter for a life of thievery, a husband beating his wife into practicing prostitution, a brother threatening his sister so she will smuggle hashish and hard drugs for him, the head of a gang stealing a young female child and training her to beg in the streets&hellip.

Similarly, the woman prison warden in charge of al-Sa‘dawi and her cellmates notes that women go to jail for the crimes men have committed, and she links this to women’s inculcated attitudes about their roles and responsibilities:

Lots of them over in the murderers’ cell are wronged…. A man kills someone and escapes, so his mother or his wife or sister enters prison. A mother tries to save her son, by claiming that she was the murderess. The wife, too, gives herself in sacrifice for her husband. A man escapes from the army, so they grab his mother and wife. A man pushes his wife into working as a prostitute or into pushing drugs, and it’s she who gets put into prison. Women have it rotten, doctor. They go to prison for the sake of others.

Even the top women drug dealers in the prison, who hold some measure of power inside, are often controlled by men outside.

For many women in prison, sexual oppression has put them into jail: forced into early marriages, facing rape in marriage, those who escape are compelled by the society’s attitudes towards single women to support themselves through illegal channels. They have the added anxiety, once in prison, of knowing that they have brought shame on their families. And shame is passed on: a woman convicted for prostitution tells al-Naqqash that she was brought up by a mother who had also known the prostitution cell of the women’s prison. Women political prisoners, too, suffer from the effect that their activities may have on family honor; one of the Palestinian women held in Neve Tirza tells al-Fahum ruefully that her imprisonment has made it almost mpossible for her sisters to marry.

Interwoven with these portraits is a portrayal of the relationship between women in the prison. Indeed, this is the crux of the metaphor of prison as a microcosm of society. The relationship between political prisoners and women in the prison administration reflects the relationship between political forces in the society: government and American imperialism versus all oppositional forces (al-Sa‘dawi); or the ruling system versus the left coupled with “the people” (al-Naqqash); or the government and the left versus the religious forces (al-Ghazali, Kazim); or occupier versus occupied (al-Fahum). There is initially — and permanently in the cases of al-Ghazali and Kazim — no meeting ground. In al-Ghazali's narrative, this is communicated in the use of language: she and her Muslim Brotherhood colleagues always speak in classical Arabic, while her jailers — women and men — speak very colloquial Arabic. And the stand-off is represented in labels: al-atqiya‘ versus al-shayatin, al-fujjar, al-jahiliyya (“the pure” versus “the devils,” “the debauched,” and those “ignorant” of Islam).

But a difference emerges between the male prison administration and the female employees — one of both gender and class. Female employees are on the bottom of the prison hierarchy; they are co-opted into a system run by men. They follow the male authority structure of the prison, yet they are sympathetic to the women prisoners and cognizant of the particular problems women face inside — and outside — of prison. Indeed, their own situation, their own appearance, hardly differs from that of their charges, notices al-Naqqash. Their position in the hierarchy is represented spatially in al-Sa‘dawi’s description: in inspection, it is the men who come in first, stand to the center, and give the signals. The women are at the end of the line, physically between the male administrators and the prisoners. Any indication from the women employees of sympathy for the prisoners is punished, and the chief prison administrator vents his wrath on his female subordinate, the one most likely — he thinks — to remain silent. Al-Naqqash recalls one woman warden who lost two days’ pay because the chief officer found her too lenient with the women prisoners. And al-Sa‘dawi says: “Shawisha Nabawiyya astonished me sometimes by taking courageous stands in which she stood firmly on the side of right and showed no fear of the prison administration’s power.”

Human Contact

At the same time, this is not entirely a male-female divide. Al-Naqqash notes repeatedly the tension between the prison authorities and the elite Security Police, and between those police and the army conscripts who carry out their orders. It is part of her political stance to show that communication and empathy exist not only between female prisoners and female employees, but also between the prisoners and the lower ranks of the security apparatus, whether men or women. The poor soldiers who transport the prisoners to and from the prosecutor’s headquarters and the courts speak to her of their economic suffering. Within the uncompromising conditions of prison, human contact is established, for the prison guards and the soldiers are themselves in a larger prison. One of the soldiers asks al-Naqqash to write an article about their poverty as soon as she is released; how, she wonders, am I to tell him that I have been barred from writing in the Egyptian press? The distinction between the Security Police and the poor soldiers becomes the distinction between repressive government and suffering people.

For al-Ghazali, the human contact — and the ultimate victory of her cause — is represented in the desire of two soldiers employed by the security administration to convert to “true Islam.” One was locked in her cell and ordered to rape her; when he refused and converted, he was hanged.

These writers express a certain optimism as they describe the curiosity which certain lower echelon prison employees show towards political prisoners. The educational possibilities are endless. The struggle to educate other women to the contradictions in their situations goes on in prison as it does outside. The confrontation is more clearly defined in prison, and thus serves as an appropriate synecdoche for the struggle beyond. It begins with human contact and a prison guard’s willingness to offer information and help. Relationships are formed.

The administration recognizes the potential for solidarity, and teaches its employees that political prisoners — especially female ones — are not people, that these political women are in fact helpless. The employees, like the male authorities, cannot believe or accept that a woman would “do it on her own.” One Palestinian, speaking to al-Fahum about the difficulty of even being permitted to see him, their lawyer, says: “They believe that you, as a man, are inciting us — as if we need inciting…. The female director of the prison and its female administration take orders from the male director of prisons and the male administration of that office, and so the female director and administration reckon that we also take orders….” At the same time, a contradiction is evident in the prison employees’ attitudes, for they are afraid of women who write, women who are trying to get an education, or, in the Israeli prison, the very mention of Palestinian national culture among the women prisoners.

Ironically, the politicals are seen by some of the lower-echelon employees as part of the ruling system, as those who will possibly be next in power. The women jailers thus deal with them gingerly. The politicals are regarded as an elite, as part of the upper class — except in the case of the Palestinians and Chungara. But in all cases, the barriers to communication can be broken down. Relationships among the female prisoners are central to the notion of prison as a microcosm. Among the politicals, the relationship is linked to the formation of political consciousness in prison — one’s own and others. Again, women’s specific problems emerge. Al-Naqqash and al-Sa‘dawi, for example, recognize that in prison, as outside, women do not have many positive role models to follow; encouraging younger, less experienced, political women is important. Prison not only creates comradeship, but also becomes a means to political solidarity and debate among those with different viewpoints. It also leads to surprises: another political prisoner in the women’s prison who approaches al-Ghazali turns out to be a Zionist Jew accused of spying. Despite their utter political incompatibility, help and support are forthcoming.

But it is really in the portrayal of relationships between the political and non-political prisoners that separation and community are shown. Interwoven with this is the treatment of the politicals by their jailers: it is clear that possibilities for communication with other prisoners are to be kept at a minimum. The authorities fear the solidarity which might develop, recognize al-Naqqash, al-Sa‘dawi, the Palestinians and Flynn. They prefer not to deal with politicals at all, for they threaten the orderly maintenance of the prison. The administration is frightened of anything which suggests collective action — even exercises carried out in the prison yard, as al-Sa‘dawi finds out. The women — politicals and non-politicals — recognize that any manifestation of solidarity is a threat.

The non-political prisoners are themselves distanced by background and class from the political prisoners. They are, in a sense, suspicious of what the political prisoners represent. Yet, they see political “crimes” as the most honorable sort of reason to be in prison, and they recall other, former, political prisoners fondly, discovers al-Naqqash. Moreover, they see imprisonment for political reasons as another facet of their own experiences, suggest al-Naqqash, al-Sa‘dawi and Kazim: the non-politicals recognize that “we are all against the government.” This is true even of the top of the prisoner hierarchy, the drug dealers.

There still exists a problem of dialogue, of experience and language — whether in Cairo, Ramleh, New Jersey or the Soviet Union. The intellectual political prisoner finds herself forced to bridge a gap which she has not faced before so starkly. An irony emerges for al-Naqqash, al-Sa‘dawi and Flynn: that of being a political activist who, in fact, has very little immediate contact with the “masses” on behalf of whom she believes herself to work. Al-Naqqash and Flynn both tell themselves initially that education for these women is the answer. But is it? Al-Naqqash’s eyes are opened, as an abstract knowledge of “the people” becomes concrete. How can one insist on change when a woman can only live on prostitution?

In the Palestinian case, the link between politicals and non-political prisoners is more complex, for the latter are perceived as part of a dominant and racist ruling system. Yet, the Jewish women imprisoned on criminal charges are the poor and usually illiterate members of that dominant society. The administration is not totally successful in destroying the Jewish women’s sympathy for the Palestinians, whose utter lack of rights and humane treatment in the prison is made obvious. The situation comes to a head when the Palestinians, protesting their treatment, are sprayed with directly-aimed tear gas in a closed chamber from which they cannot budge. It is the Israeli women prisoners who attempt to give them air and support.

Indeed, in all of these prison memoirs, a solidarity based on common circumstances and education to the situations of others is evident. Overcoming the gap, through both confrontation and cooperation between women, is at the center of the notion of prison as a microcosm. There is an unexpressed recognition that one is fighting a system defined and controlled by men. The prisoners are delighted when the men in the administration cannot hide their rarely-expressed discomfort with their role.

The struggle to overturn the entire prison organization and the system it represents leads to hope. Prisoners express communication, resistance, and solidarity through laughter and singing. This communication reaches beyond the prison walls; all of these prisoners recognize that people do link the imprisonment of politicals to conditions “outside.” The increased possibilities for solidarity lead to optimism. The experience of imprisonment yields a sense of the inevitability of revolution, whether along Marxist or Islamist lines, and it is a revolution inseparable from women's struggles to define their own lives.

 

Endnotes

[1] Farida al-Naqqash, Sijn, dama‘tani, wa-wardah (Cairo: Dar al-Mustaqbal al-‘Arabi, 1985), p. 253. This and all other excerpts are translated by the author.
[2] Nawal al-Sa‘dawi, ,em>Mudhakkirati fi sijn al-nisa‘ (Cairo: Dar al-Mustaqbal al-‘Arabi, 1984); translated into English as Memoires from the Women’s Prison, trans. Marilyn Booth, (London: The Women’s Press, 1986). All citations and quotations are from the English version; the incident noted is described on pp. 117-118.
[3] Zaynab al-Ghazali al-Jabili, Ayyam min hayati (Cairo: Dar al-Shuruq, 8th pr., 1986). For an interview with al-Ghazali and a translation of excerpts from her book, see Valerie J. Hoffman, “An Islamic Activist: Zaynab al-Ghazali,” in Elizabeth W. Fernea, ed., Women and the Family in the Middle East: New Voices of Change (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985), pp. 233-254.
[4] Safinaz Kazim, ‘An al-sijn wa-al-hurriya (Cairo: Al-Zahra‘ lil-Al‘lam al-‘Arabi, 1986).
[5] The distinction between al-Naqqash’s documentary focus and al-Sa‘dawi’s more impressionistic focus is conveyed in the language itself: for example, al-Naqqash repeatedly emphasizes the collectivity of the struggle, through first-person plural pronouns and the coupling, over and over, of intellectuals, students, workers, and peasants. Al-Sa‘dawi relies more heavily on the first-person singular.
[6] Walid al-Fahum, Filastiniyyat fi sijn al-nisa‘ al-isra’ili (Amman: Dar al-Jalil lil-Nashr, 1985).
[7] Alicia Partnoy, The Little School: Tales of Disappearance and Survival in Argentina (San Francisco: Cleis Press, 1986); Domitila Barrios de Chungara with Moema Viezzer, Let Me Speak!, trans. Victoria Ortiz, (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1978); Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, My Life as a Political Prisoner (New York: International Publishers, 1963); Eugenia Semyonovna Ginzburg, Journey into the Whirlwind, trans. Paul Stevenson and Max Hayward (New York and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1967, 1975).

How to cite this article:

Marilyn Booth "Prison, Gender, Praxis," Middle East Report 149 (November/December 1987).
Cancel

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This