The Feminist Theory in the Writing of Nawal El Saadawi essay

Women in Muslim countries such as Egypt suffer from discrimination and inferior positions in society.  Public opinion concerning the Muslim world perceives Islam as the ideological basis for discrimination of women.   Such a view of Islam is erroneous and Nawal El Saadawi sets out to debunk this myth about Islam as a kind of anti-feminist religion.  In her book “The Hidden Face of Eve: Women in the Arab World”, Nawal El Saadawi explores the current social practices that put women in a disadvantageous position and maintains their inferiority to men.  Remarkably, she concludes that Islam has little to do with the discrimination of women, while cultural traditions, being deep-rooted in many Muslim societies, are mainly imposed by men on the entire society.  Thus, it is a traditional Muslim society characterized by male dominance in all spheres of social, economic and political life that is at the root of discriminatory beliefs and practices ”“ not the teachings of Islam.

Saadawi conducts in-depth research into discriminatory and often barbarous practices accepted in the Arab world, particularly Egypt.  She researches the history and origin of these practices, which the Arab world takes for granted as practices existing from the beginning of time and authorized by Allah.   In the process, the author tries to reveal the actual position of women in the Muslim world.  Though the book was originally written in the 1970s, it has bearing even in today’s Muslim world.

Saadawi reveals that the position of Muslim women is very difficult because they have to debunk existing biases and stereotypes to attain higher social and economic power, and to become equal to men.  But they cannot do this because they are deprived of practical opportunities to influence the current policies in the Muslim world.   A major problem of the modern feminist movement in the Muslim world is under representation of women in politics.

Without political representation, women have no voice or vote.   In addition, their secondary role in the social and economic life of the Muslim world deprives them of the knowledge and strategies they might use to influence policies defining development.  The secondary position of women in the Muslim world is based on several factors, including cultural traditions of the region and different initial opportunities for men and women in the region.  The difference in opportunities is a consequence of dominant cultural traditions.  The Muslim culture is based on norms of Islam and it may vary from a country to country, but there is a cultural core, which makes all people living in the Muslim world united.  In fact, Islam may be viewed as a core of Muslim culture, but the problem is that Islam is developed by males.  Hence, Islam and Muslim culture are dominated by men and masculine views that prevail in local culture.

In such a context, the position of Muslim women is extremely discriminated.  Saadawi reveals that Muslim women have little access to education, though the situation has improved in recent years.  Traditionally, education of women was viewed as unnecessary because women were traditionally focused on household and family life.  She argues that local traditions consistently affect women’s access to education.  Nevertheless, today, the situation begins to change because Muslim women want to have opportunities for professional development, which requires education.

Saadawi starts her book with the night she and her sister were subjected to circumcision, a ritual which seems quite shocking to western readers and which Saadawi believes unjust as it succumbs women to these practices against their will.   But it is not personal experience she uses to develop her thesis.  Instead, Saadawi does a historical analysis of the development of discriminatory traditions and norms to show that the current discrimination of women in the Arab world results from the historical oppression of women by men.

Saadawi also researches existing norms and traditions from a religious point of view as she seeks to understand how Islam actually affected the development of discriminatory practices in the Arab world.  She shows that the existing norms and traditions were not really developed or supported by Islam.  For instance, the ritual of circumcision, which the author has remembered since her childhood, is not Islamic and she draws a number of other examples when discriminatory norms and traditions were imposed by men on women independently and regardless of Islam.

Thus, the author is effective because she studies the same norm/ritual/tradition from two different angles: historic and religious.  Saadawi is successful in her original approach because a priori historical and religious approaches to the study of traditions, culture, as well as issues, are antagonistic.  But the author manages to avoid slipping to religious biases or prejudices.  In contrast, even when she analyzes traditions of the Arab world from a religious perspective, she still focuses on the validity and reliability of her research because she views Islam in objective scientific terms as one of the existing religions.

Saadawi’s research of the existing inequity in Muslim society often leads to unexpected conclusions since often norms which used to be perceived as traditional attributes of Islam turn out to be irrelevant to Islam.   Moreover, her conclusions undermine the basis of the westerners’ perception of Islam because she challenged the major symbols associated with Islam as being irrelevant to Islam proper.   Saadawi studies the origin ofe three major concepts in her book: veil, polygamy and legal inequality.  For western readers, these three concepts are closely associated and practically inseparable from Islam, but Saadawi totally rejects such a view on these concepts.  For instance, she argues that the tradition of polygamy existed in ancient societies, including Arab societies, long before the development of Islam and its spread in the Arab world as the major religion.  This is why Islam cannot be the ideological basis or the religion authorizing polygamy in the Arab world.

Saadawi argues that Islam is not a discriminatory religion at all.  Instead, the discrimination existed long before Islam.  Islam as a religion simply did not ban these discriminatory practices, and generally does not even refers to these discriminatory practices.

The author also argues that some discriminatory elements and concepts, such as the veil, are deeply-rooted in Arab societies.  Even though the discriminatory practices have not been introduced by Islam, they still persist.  The author concludes that the existing social order and culture are unjust since they promote inequity, while Islam actually seems to be fairer in relation to gender roles compared to cultural norms and traditions which are not of the religious origin.

Saadawi logically arrives to the conclusion that the existing social system and culture have to be changed.  She actually proves that the inequality of men and women cannot be justified by Islam and, as such, opens the way to the development of feminism in the Arab world because often the religious norms are believed to be the basis of the existing cultural norms and traditions.  As Saadawi debunks this myth, she appeals to Muslim women and the entire society to improve the position of women in the Muslim world.  She pays particular attention to female writers, whom she believes are able to change public opinion, but she points out that they are also oppressed in the Arab world as all other women.

However, even though Saadawi argues that the position of female writers in Egypt and the Muslim world is very difficult, it is obvious that such a view on Arab female writers is a bit outdated.  The work by Saddeka Arebi “Women and Words in Saudi Arabia: Politics of Literary Discourse”, in which the author appeals to Muslim female writers to take an active social position and struggle against the discrimination of women in the Muslim world, is proof of this.

At this point, education is apparently a crucial factor, because the number of Muslim female writers is small, even if opportunities exist for them to write.  In such a situation, it is very important that female writers, who have already managed to succeed, assist other women to succeed in their professional goals.  Arebi argues that female writers can change the public opinion consistently, if they work on the problem of discrimination and support the feminist movement in the Muslim world.

The success of female writers in the Muslim world proves that feminism can progress rapidly in Muslim countries.

A few decades ago it was practically impossible to find a successful Muslim female writer because women were traditionally illiterate and they could not read nor write.  Today they have greater opportunities to get education and start professional career as writers or journalists.  However, Muslim feminism is still under-developed in Muslim countries.  What is lacking at the moment is the popularization of feminist ideas in the society.  People are unaware of the injustice of the secondary position of women in the Muslim society.   More feminist Muslim writers and journalists could help remedy that problem.

In this respect, the role of Saadawi herself can be hardly underestimate because her essays which comprise the book “The Hidden Face of Eve: Women in the Arab World” represent a valuable material for researchers of the position of women in the Arab society. However, what is even more important her essays reveal the full extent of the discrimination and discriminatory practices that rule in the Arab society. In her book, she amply uses her personal experience and recounts facts she witnessed with her own eyes, while working in the Egyptian health care system. In such a way, she provides valuable information on real practices which were offensive and discriminatory in relation to women, who were used as tools to meet the standards and cultural norms established by men, including such practices as mutilations done to brides get a good bleed on the wedding day and prove that the woman had a hymen.

Obviously, these facts raise the public consciousness of the injustice of the existing cultural norms and traditions.

Moreover, on reading the book, the audience can hardly help from desiring radical changes in the existing social norms because the existing traditions are abnormal in the late 20th century, when democracy and the protection of human rights define the development of the entire world.

In such a context, the book written by Saadawi may be viewed as a significant contribution in the development of feminist movement in the Arab world because people, being uninformed, cannot assess the scope of the discriminatory practices, while, due to the book, they understand that the existing social system is unjust and cultural norms do not meet the basic human rights of women. In addition, it is necessary to understand the fact that many people living in the Arab world get used to take the existing cultural norms and traditions for granted. In fact, they believe that the discriminatory practices are defined by God and Islam maintains these norms and traditions.

However, Saadawi debunks this myth and proves the contrary that the discriminatory practices and traditions are imposed on women by men. In such a context, her book fulfills an important enlightening role.

For instance, one of the central concepts, which Saadawi discusses in her book, is the concept of veil. In the contemporary world, the veil became a symbol of Islam and people get used to the traditional image of a Muslim woman as a woman wearing a veil. In fact, this tradition is widely spread in Islamic countries, especially in those countries, where the radical Islamist movement rule. However, the research conducted by Saadawi reveals the fact that the view on Muslim women as veiled women is absolutely erroneous. To put it more precisely, in her historical research of the use of veil in the Arab world, she reveals numerous facts when women had to cover their faces with the veil long before Islam became widely spread and before Qur’an was written. In such a way, Saadawi reveals the fact that the veil was not invented by Muslims and it is not an Islamic tradition at all. Instead, Islam and its developer simply failed to change the existing traditions and, as they were not forbidden by Islam they persisted in the Arab world, including the tradition of wearing the veil by Muslim women. In such a way, the author proves the fact that the veil was not the invention of Islam and it is not a symbol of a Muslim woman. In stark contrast, it is rather a symbol of a woman oppressed by men and by traditions men imposed on the society and limited human rights of Arab women (Saadawi, 227). In such a way, the author shows that Islam did not bring the discriminatory tradition of the veil. Hence, she argues that the Arab women can reject this tradition because it does not contradict to Islam as a religion, but it contradict to basic human rights of women. In this respect, her work can be viewed as an appeal to the development of feminist movement in the Arab world to change the existing tradition.

Moreover, her work should be viewed not only as purely feminist, but it also has a very important religious significance. To put it more precisely, Saadawi rejects basic concepts, such as veil, polygamy and others, as Islamic concepts. Her religious research makes the audience to change the view on Islam as religion. In fact, it is due to her research, it is possible to make a conclusion that Islam is not a discriminatory religion aiming at the oppression of women. Instead, it is just one of the universal religions spread worldwide which is not more discriminatory in relation to women than any other world’s religion.

Thus, taking into account all above mentioned, it is possible to conclude that “The Hidden Face of Eve: Women in the Arab World” by Nawal El Sadawi is a very important book which reveals the real position of women in the Arab world and which reveals the fact that discrimination of women is the result of historical traditions imposed by male dominated-culture rather than traditions defined by Islam. Even as she documents how women of Muslim countries are severely oppressed and suffer from severe discrimination, Saadawi sees possibility in the development of the feminist movement.  And as she debunks the myth that Islam is responsible for their oppressed position, Saadawi shows Muslim women ”“ by example and by historical and religious analysis ”“ the way to equality.


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