The publication of the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective’s famous and controversial book Our Bodies, Ourselves (1976) created wide repercussions and charted a way for women all over the world to gain personal control, through the possession of objective and necessary information, over their own bodies, health status and lives.
A group of interested Egyptian women started to meet in May 1985, with the idea of finding ways to spread the message of the book to Egyptian and Arab women. They agreed to form a collective to produce a similar book in Arabic.
The process started by recruiting a coordinator. The coordinator set three rules for the choice of the collective members: First, members should come from different disciplines and share a deep commitment to women’s rights; second, they should reflect different social classes, in order to offset the middle-class bias of most professional women; and third, they should encompass different age brackets.
The original group was made up of 22 women. An initial meeting in the Suez Canal city of Ismailiyya set the agenda for the collective. The major decisions taken in Ismailiyya guided the work of the collective over the next five years and are still operative. These decisions entailed the following:
• It was important to write a book in Arabic, by women and for women, to provide correct and objective information on women’s bodies and health. A review of books available in Arabic revealed that they were either highly technical and therefore unintelligible to most women, or trivial and condescending.
• Our purpose was to produce an original book, taking into consideration the Egyptian and Arab cultural context and emphasizing prominent problems of women in the Arab world. An early idea of simply translating the American edition was rejected because it is couched in a cultural context alien to most Egyptian and Arab women and it reflects the priorities of American women. While women’s issues are international, the specific problems and priorities differ from one area to another.
• The Egyptian book should be written from the perspective of women, and in a friendly and accessible style. It should emphasize the provision of objective information in order to respect the freedom of women readers to formulate their own decisions.
• All decisions about the book’s content, format, illustrations, publications and distribution should be made collectively and democratically.
• Finally, the collective decided on a broad outline of the contents, and divided the book into two main parts. The first part adopted a life cycle approach to women’s health from childhood to after menopause; the second part dealt with particular issues such as work, nutrition, violence, traditional health care and social and psychological pressures on women.
While the collective process was arduous and time consuming, it was very rewarding. Topics were assigned to the collective members, and each chapter was written by at least two members. All collective members then read each chapter, and criticisms or other ideas were incorporated in later versions, in order to ensure the collective nature of the text. Some members who were very sensitive to criticism or could not abide by the collective’s ideas preferred to leave the collective. While it was hard to see some appreciated members abandon the process, the collective stuck by its initial decision of collaborative writing.
The subjects to be covered by the book stirred some heated debates. Some of the most controversial issues were female circumcision, violence against women, lesbianism, and the right of patients to question methods and procedures of medical treatment.
In many Western feminist health books that discuss Middle Eastern or Muslim women, the entire issue of women’s health is reduced to that of female circumcision. An understandable reaction to this attitude was an aversion by Arab women to discuss the issue at all. After many discussions, the members of the collective agreed to present the issue of circumcision in a way that explained the cultural context allowing the continuation of the practice and that offered objective information on the drawbacks of the practice to women readers.
The issue of lesbianism was another topic of heated debate. Western books on women and health seem to offer positive views of lesbianism, regarding it as a way for female liberation. In the Egyptian and Arab cultural context, simply writing about lesbianism might have threatened the whole book with censure from the religious authorities. Our research revealed that lesbianism is a very minor issue in Egypt, and not one
of the main priorities of Egyptian women for the moment. Therefore, the collective decided to drop the issue of lesbianism from its current edition.
A divisive issue that received a lot of attention from the collective members was the issue of rape. Many women, even among the collective, thought that women themselves are responsible for rape. It took many sessions and a self-education process to convince all members of the collective that rape is not a sexual crime but a crime of violence. Other members were skeptical of suggesting that violence against women is perpetrated solely by males against females, so we supplemented the chapter on violence with a discussion of violence by women against other women.
The last area of wide discussion and controversy was the right of patients to question medical treatment. The collective had insisted from the beginning on the right of women to ask for a second opinion when the matter was a grave one and involved dangerous treatment or surgery. Medical professionals who are members of the collective objected strongly to this attitude, claiming that the doctor knows best. After many discussions and debates, the collective insisted on the right of women patients to question medical treatment if there is any doubt in the mind of the patient. The book encourages women to exercise their free right to question any medical treatment and to seek another opinion in grave cases, or whenever they feel they need a second opinion.
The collective met regularly for two years to discuss fully every chapter of the book. By mid-1987, the collective held a seminar to discuss the first draft. Outside consultants and professionals were invited to critique the material, and their comments were taken seriously in rewriting the first draft.
The collective also hired a technical expert to work on the illustrations, which varied from medical graphs to photos and cartoons. After the completion of the illustrations, two chapters of the book were pre-tested. A sample of 100 women, from all age groups and most urban social classes, reviewed these two chapters. The comments were very positive and encouraging. The interviewees objected to the use of cartoons, however, and we decided to drop these from the book.
After taking into consideration different responses from the experts and the public, a final draft was ready by the end of 1988. The collective then decided to pre-test the whole manuscript again, to make sure that the book responded to the concerns of Egyptian women. The second pre-test revealed the enthusiasm of women for such a book. One woman wrote to say that, for the first time, she felt that women had a voice and that they were speaking to her concerns and problems.
After a lengthy process of searching for a suitable publisher, the collective finally decided on a woman-owned publishing firm. The publisher, while enthusiastic, was a bit hesitant about the public reception of the book. The book finally appeared in early 1991, and the collective held a public seminar to discuss the book in May 1991. The book was received enthusiastically, especially by different women’s groups, and members of the collective are constantly invited to discuss the book with different groups. The publisher’s qualms about sales were completely put to rest.
In one of the meetings to discuss the book with a group of Palestinian women, one young woman confronted me. She expressed her agony at being illiterate and therefore being deprived of reading such a book. She then asked if the collective could put the information on cassette tapes, so it could be accessible to illiterate women.
The collective is now pursuing this idea, and a project is underway to reissue the book in separate pamphlets that can be used in literacy classes in conjunction with cassette tapes of the material in each pamphlet. We are hopeful that this process can also help in eradicating illiteracy, which plagues over 60 percent of Arab women.
For the moment, the collective is receiving from various Arab women’s groups requests to buy the book. Some women have written to ask for help in forming sister organizations in other Arab countries. We hope that the message of the book will spread in the whole of the Arab world, and will start a larger movement for the improvement of women’s rights in the Arab world.