Fedwa Malti-Douglas, Men, Women and God(s): Nawal El Saadawi and Arab Feminist Poetics (California, 1995).
Nawal El Saadawi’s writing, like that of other writers who have sought to question dominant political structures and social norms in their societies, has generated considerable controversy in Egypt and the Arab world generally. In her formidable career as doctor and writer, she has repeatedly challenged male power and privilege in Egyptian and Arab political and religious life and has offered a powerful critique of women’s oppression in the Middle East. Her visibility in these efforts has incurred the opprobrium of her opponents. The Sadat government banned her books for 11 years and even imprisoned her. Both the Egyptian regime and Islamic militants have used her as a scapegoat for larger social and political problems. At the same time, and perhaps as a result, she has earned a considerable readership in the West and has come to occupy a prominent place on “Third World literature” reading lists in Western universities.
Fedwa Malti-Douglas’ study Men, Women, and God(s) offers a way to read El Saadawi as part of the growing corpus of “Third World literature” and pays tribute to the pioneering efforts of this Arab “feminist intellectual” writer. Men, Women and God(s) builds upon Malti-Douglas’ previous work on gender, the body and writing in Women’s Body, Women’s Word. In the present work, Malti-Douglas addresses these issues in a comprehensive reading of El Saadawi’s oeuvre and highlights many of the lesser known sources of her inspiration, her wrath and her development as a feminist thinker and writer. In a meticulous unraveling of the religious, political and sexual debates in which El Saadawi’s characters participate, Malti-Douglas offers a number of readings of the author’s work which would likely elude most Western readers.
Malti-Douglas shows how El Saadawi comments on gender by borrowing from and rewriting classical and traditionally male genres of Arab Islamic writing. These subversive gestures challenge the hegemony of her male counterparts, whether literary or political. Malti-Douglas also discusses El Saadawi’s frequent narrative strategy of “enframing,” in which she enables an otherwise silent and often lower-class female to speak through another female protagonist, such as the doctor-narrator in Memoirs of a Woman Doctor. This strategy resembles the subversive gesture of telling stories to stay alive and draws on the style of El Saadawi’s “medieval literary sister Shahrazad.”
Malti-Douglas demonstrates how El Saadawi’s profession as a physician has influenced not only her understanding of gender and the dynamics of male-female relations in society, but also her political and literary choices. El Saadawi’s place in modern Arabic letters has as much to do with her resistance to traditionally male genres and modes of discourse and her attempts to expand them as with her access to the worlds of writing and medicine. Malti-Douglas argues that these two professions often go hand in hand because both are governed by an elite male discourse and she explores how El Saadawi has used her unique position to claim these genres for herself and her gender. El Saadawi develops the sexual politics of medicine, writes Malti-Douglas, “first, by using it as a vehicle for women to regain their lost power, and second, by making it the focus of her own call for the integration of traditional male and female qualities.”
Malti-Douglas effectively illuminates for her readers the complexity of El Saadawi’s engagement with the themes of writing, the body, gender and patriarchy, by demonstrating a vast knowledge of classical Arabic narratives. At certain points however, Men, Women and God(s) misses opportunities to move beyond close textual readings to address El Saadawi’s writing within its broader social and political context in contemporary Egypt and the Arab world. For example, a discussion of El Saadawi’s prison memoirs invites further investigation into the nature of writing and imprisonment. It also suggests how Memoirs from the Women’s Prison touches on events of historical significance that may have affected not only El Saadawi’s later writing but also her reception in contemporary Egyptian writing and politics. Her imprisonment under Sadat, for instance, sharpened her criticism of the Egyptian government and several death threats have caused her to live in Egypt on only a part-time basis.
Undoubtedly the publication of her texts internationally is influenced in part by political events in her own country. But, it also reflects the fact that El Saadawi’s writing has been appropriated by larger geopolitical discourses in the conflictual encounter between the West and the Middle East, including anti-Islamic and anti-Arab ones. While the widespread inclusion of texts by El Saadawi in literature courses in US universities has increased their cultural diversity, her work has often been narrowly construed as exemplary of all Arab/Muslim women’s writing. Furthermore, some of her work has been used simplistically to confirm images of oppressed, veiled women on which the Western media fixates. While El Saadawi is indeed worthy of study, it is important that the inclusion of her work on college syllabi not make her a spokesperson for an entire culture in a way that confirms Western stereotypes.
Certainly, the attention paid to language, literary tradition and biography enables us to read literature that springs from unfamiliar political, religious and social landscapes, as well as to appreciate the significance of El Saadawi’s contribution to literature in the Arab world. Close readings, however, can also limit the debate and often serves anti-Islamic and anti-Arab discourses currently popular in the West. To be sure, Malti-Douglas avoids any suggestion that El Saadawi’s work is either pro-Western or anti-Muslim. El Saadawi’s work, in her view, demonstrates “that it is possible to denounce women’s oppression without taking a pro-Western stance and without forgetting the reality that class differences make in the varying patterns of that oppression.”
Nevertheless, it would have been interesting and helpful to learn more about the reception of El Saadawi’s work in both the Arab world and the West and to gain a deeper understanding of the more controversial aspects of her writing in their specific political and social contexts. It would be illuminating to discuss how and why her work is read so widely in the West.
Despite this, Malti-Douglas has made a valuable contribution by considering how feminism can be more inclusive by interrogating its expression in contexts other than the West. Men, Women and God(s) makes it possible to read and teach more critically an author like El Saadawi and enhances our knowledge of modern Arabic/Egyptian letters generally.