A classic of modern Arab writing, The Hidden Face of Eve receives fresh life with this beautiful new edition. Nawal El Saadawi’s shocking account of female oppression in the Muslim world is as powerful today as it was when it was first published. El Saadawi’s experiences working as a doctor in Egyptian villages, witnessing forced prostitution, honor killings, sexual abuse, and female circumcision, drove her to pen this book. The Hidden Face of Eve explores the circumstances that led to this violently unjust situation by examining historical roles of Arab women in religion and literature, ultimately arguing that injustices—such as polygamy, the veil, and legal inequality—are incompatible with the essence of Islam and inherent human rights.
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About the Author
Nawal El Saadawi is a renowned Egyptian writer, novelist, and activist. She has published more than forty books, which have been translated into more than hirty languages.
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The Hidden Face of Eve
Women in the Arab World
By Nawal El Saadawi, Sherif Hetata
Zed Books LtdCopyright © 2007 Nawal El Saadawi
All rights reserved.
THE QUESTION THAT NO ONE WOULD ANSWER
I was six years old that night when I lay in my bed, warm and peaceful in that pleasurable state which lies halfway between wakefulness and sleep, with the rosy dreams of childhood flitting by, like gentle fairies in quick succession. I felt something move under the blankets, something like a huge hand, cold and rough, fumbling over my body, as though looking for something. Almost simultaneously another hand, as cold and as rough and as big as the first one, was clapped over my mouth, to prevent me from screaming.
They carried me to the bathroom. I do not know how many of them there were, nor do I remember their faces, or whether they were men or women. The world to me seemed enveloped in a dark fog which prevented me from seeing. Or perhaps they put some kind of a cover over my eyes. All I remember is that I was frightened and that there were many of them, and that something like an iron grasp caught hold of my hand and my arms and my thighs, so that I became unable to resist or even to move. I also remember the icy touch of the bathroom tiles under my naked body, and unknown voices and humming sounds interrupted now and again by a rasping metallic sound which reminded me of the butcher when he used to sharpen his knife before slaughtering a sheep for Eid.
My blood was frozen in my veins. It looked to me as though some thieves had broken into my room and kidnapped me from my bed. They were getting ready to cut my throat which was always what happened with disobedient girls like myself in the stories that my old rural grandmother was so fond of telling me.
I strained my ears trying to catch the rasp of the metallic sound. The moment it ceased, it was as though my heart stopped beating with it. I was unable to see, and somehow my breathing seemed also to have stopped. Yet I imagined the thing that was making the rasping sound coming closer and closer to me. Somehow it was not approaching my neck as I had expected but another part of my body. Somewhere below my belly, as though seeking something buried between my thighs. At that very moment I realized that my thighs had been pulled wide apart, and that each of my lower limbs was being held as far away from the other as possible, gripped by steel fingers that never relinquished their pressure. I felt that the rasping knife or blade was heading straight down towards my throat. Then suddenly the sharp metallic edge seemed to drop between my thighs and there cut off a piece of flesh from my body.
I screamed with pain despite the tight hand held over my mouth, for the pain was not just a pain, it was like a searing flame that went through my whole body. After a few moments, I saw a red pool of blood around my hips.
I did not know what they had cut off from my body, and I did not try to find out. I just wept, and called out to my mother for help. But the worst shock of all was when I looked around and found her standing by my side. Yes, it was her, I could not be mistaken, in flesh and blood, right in the midst of these strangers, talking to them and smiling at them, as though they had not participated in slaughtering her daughter just a few moments ago.
They carried me to my bed. I saw them catch hold of my sister, who was two years younger, in exactly the same way they had caught hold of me a few minutes earlier. I cried out with all my might. No! No! I could see my sister's face held between the big rough hands. It had a deathly pallor and her wide black eyes met mine for a split second, a glance of dark terror which I can never forget. A moment later and she was gone, behind the door of the bathroom where I had just been. The look we exchanged seemed to say: 'Now we know what it is. Now we know where lies our tragedy. We were born of a special sex, the female sex. We are destined in advance to taste of misery, and to have a part of our body torn away by cold, unfeeling cruel hands.'
My family was not an uneducated Egyptian family. On the contrary, both my parents had been fortunate enough to have a very good education, by the standards of those days. My father was a university graduate and that year (1937) had been appointed General Controller of Education for the Province of Menoufia in the Delta region to the North of Cairo. My mother had been taught in French schools by her father who was Director-General of Army Recruitment. Nevertheless, the custom of circumcising girls was very prevalent at the time, and no girl could escape having her clitoris amputated, irrespective of whether her family lived in a rural or an urban area. When I returned to school after having recovered from the operation, I asked my classmates and friends about what had happened to me, only to discover that all of them without exception had been through the same experience, no matter what social class they came from (upper class, middle or lower-middle class).
In rural areas, among the poor peasant families, all the girls are circumcised as I later on found out from my relatives in Kafr Tahla. This custom is still very common in the villages, and even in the cities a large proportion of families believe it is necessary. However, the spread of education and a greater understanding among parents is making increasing numbers of fathers and mothers abstain from circumcising their daughters.
The memory of circumcision continued to track me down like a nightmare. I had a feeling of insecurity, of the unknown waiting for me at every step I took into the future. I did not even know if there were new surprises being stored up for me by my mother and father, or my grandmother, or the people around me. Society had made me feel, since the day that I opened my eyes on life, that I was a girl, and that the word Bint (girl) when pronounced by anyone is almost always accompanied by a frown.
Even when I had grown up and graduated as a doctor in 1955, I could not forget the painful incident that had made me lose my childhood once and for all, and that deprived me during my youth and for many years of married life from enjoying the fullness of my sexuality and the completeness of life that can only come from all-round psychological equilibrium. Nightmares of a similar nature followed me throughout the years, especially during the period when I was working as a medical doctor in the rural areas. There I very often had to treat young girls who had come to the out-patients clinic bleeding profusely after a circumcision. Many of them used to lose their lives as a result of the inhuman and primitive way in which the operation, savage enough in itself, was performed. Others were afflicted with acute or chronic infections from which they sometimes suffered for the rest of their days. And most of them, if not all, became the victims later on of sexual or mental distortions as a result of this experience.
My profession led me, at one stage, to examine patients coming from various Arab countries. Among them were Sudanese women. I was horrified to observe that the Sudanese girl undergoes an operation for circumcision which is ten times more cruel than that to which Egyptian girls are subjected. In Egypt it is only the clitoris which is amputated, and usually not completely. But in the Sudan, the operation consists in the complete removal of all the external genital organs. They cut off the clitoris, the two major outer lips (labia majora) and the two minor inner lips (labia minora). Then the wound is repaired. The outer opening of the vagina is the only portion left intact, not however without having ensured that, during the process of repairing, some narrowing of the opening is carried out with a few extra stitches. The result is that on the marriage night it is necessary to widen the external opening by slitting one or both ends with a sharp scalpel or razor so that the male organ can be introduced. When a Sudanese woman is divorced, the external opening is narrowed once more to ensure that she cannot have sexual relations. If she remarries, widening is done again.
My feeling of anger and rebellion used to mount up as I listened to these women explaining to me what happens during the circumcision of a Sudanese girl. My anger grew tenfold when in 1969 I paid a visit to the Sudan only to discover that the practice of circumcision was unabated, whether in rural areas, or even in the cities and towns.
Despite my medical upbringing and my education, in those days I was not able to understand why girls were made to undergo this barbaric procedure. Time and again I asked myself the question: 'Why? Why?' But I could never get an answer to this question which was becoming more and more insistent, just as I was never able to get an answer to the questions that raced around in my mind the day that both my sister and I were circumcised.
This question somehow seemed to be linked to other things that puzzled me. Why did they favour my brother as regards food, and the freedom to go out of the house? Why was he treated better than I was in all these matters? Why could my brother laugh at the top of his voice, move his legs freely, run and play as much as he wished, whereas I was not supposed to look into people's eyes directly, but was meant to drop my glance whenever I was confronted with someone? If I laughed, I was expected to keep my voice so low that people could hardly hear me or, better, confine myself to smiling timidly. When I played, my legs were not supposed to move freely, but had to be kept politely together. My duties were primarily to help in cleaning the house and cooking, in addition to studying since I was at school. The brothers however, the boys, were not expected to do anything but study,
My family was educated and therefore differentiation between the boys and girls, especially as my father was himself a teacher, never reached the extent which is so common in other families. I used to feel very sorry for my young girl relatives when they were forced out of school in order to get married to an old man just because he happened to own some land, or when their younger brothers would humiliate and beat them for no reason at all, except that as boys they could afford to act superior to their sisters.
My brother tried to dominate me, in turn, but my father was a broad-mindedly man and tried as best he could to treat his children without discriminating between the boys and the girls. My mother, also, used to say that a girl is equal to a boy, but I used to feel that in practice this was often not the case.
Whenever this differentiation occurred I used to rebel, sometimes violently, and would ask my mother and father why it was that my brother was accorded privileges that were not given to me, despite the fact that I was doing better than him at school. My father and mother, however, never had any answer to give me except: 'It is so ...' I would retort: 'Why should it be so?' And back would come the answer again, unchanged: 'Because it is so ...' If I was in an obstinate mood, I would repeat the question again. Then, at the end of their patience, they would say almost in the same voice: 'He is a boy, and you are a girl.'
Perhaps they thought that this answer would be enough to convince me, or at least to keep me quiet. But on the contrary it always made me persist more than ever. I would ask: 'What is the difference between a boy and a girl?'
At this point my old grandmother, who very often paid us a visit, would intervene in the discussion, which she always described as being an 'infringement of good manners', and scold me sharply: 'I have never in all my life seen a girl with such a long tongue as you. Of course you are not like your brother. Your brother is a boy, a boy, do you hear? I wish you had been born a boy like him!'
No one in the family was ever able to give me a convincing answer to my question. So the question continued to turn around restlessly in my mind, and would jump to the forefront every time something happened that would emphasize the fact that the male is treated everywhere and at all times as though he belongs to a species which is superior to that of the female.
When I started to go to school, I noticed that the teachers would write my father's name on my notebooks, but never that of my mother. So I asked my mother why, and again she answered, 'It is so.' My father, however, explained that children are named after their father, and when I sought to find out the reason he repeated the phrase that I knew well by now: 'It is so.' I summoned up all my courage and said: 'Why is it so?' But this time I could see from my father's face that he really did not know the answer. I never asked him the question again, except later on when my search for the truth led me to ask him many other questions, and to talk to him about many other things that I was discovering on the way.
However from that day onwards I realized that I had to find my own answer to the question that no one would answer. From that day also extends the long path that has led to this book.CHAPTER 2
SEXUAL AGGRESSION AGAINST THE FEMALE CHILD
All children who are born healthy and normal feel that they are complete human beings. This, however, is not so for the female child.
From the moment she is born and even before she learns to pronounce words, the way people look at her, the expression in their eyes, and their glances somehow indicate that she was born 'incomplete' or 'with something missing'. From the day of her birth to the moment of death, a question will continue to haunt her: 'Why?' Why is it that preference is given to her brother, despite the fact that they are the same, or that she may even be superior to him in many ways, or at least in some aspects?
The first aggression experienced by the female child in society is the feeling that people do not welcome her coming into the world. In some families, and especially in rural areas, this 'coldness' may go even further, and become an atmosphere of depression and sadness, or even lead to the punishment of the mother with insults or blows or even divorce. As a child, I saw one of my paternal aunts being submitted to resounding slaps on her face because she had given birth to a third daughter rather than a male child, and I overheard her husband threatening her with divorce if she ever gave birth to a female child again instead of giving him a son. The father so hated this child that he used to insult his wife if she used to care for her, or even just feed her sufficiently. The baby died before she had completed forty days of her life, and I do not know whether she died of neglect, or whether the mother smothered her to death in order to 'have peace and give peace', as we say in our country.
The rate of infantile mortality remains very high in rural areas, and overall in most Arab countries, as a result of the low standards of living and education But the proportion is much higher in female children than it is in males, and this is often due to neglect. However the situation is improving as a result of better economic and educational standards, and the disparity in infantile mortality rates between females and males is rapidly disappearing.
A female child may be met with much less gloom and more human feelings if born into an educated Arab family living in a city. Nevertheless, from the moment she starts to crawl or stand on her two feet, she is taught that her sexual organs are something to fear and should be treated with caution, especially the part that much later in life she begins to know as the hymen.
Excerpted from The Hidden Face of Eve by Nawal El Saadawi, Sherif Hetata. Copyright © 2007 Nawal El Saadawi. Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
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Table of Contents
Foreword by Ronak Husni Preface to the English Edition IntroductionPart I The Mutilated Half 1. The Question that No One Would Answer 2. Sexual Aggression against the Female Child 3. The Grandfather with Bad Manners 4. The Injustice of Justice 5. The Very Fine Membrane Called ‘Honour’ 6. Circumcision of Girls 7. Obscurantism and Contradiction 8. The Illegitimate Child and the Prostitute 9. Abortion and Fertility 10. Distorted Notions about Femininity, Beauty and LovePart II Women in History 11. The Thirteenth Rib of Adam 12. Man the God, Woman the Sinful 13. Woman at the Time of the Pharaohs 14. Liberty to the Slave, But Not for the WomanPart III The Arab Woman 15. The Role of Women in Arab History 16. Love and Sex in the Life of the Arab 17. The Heroine in Arab LiteraturePart IV Breaking Through 18. Arab Pioneers of Women’s Liberation 19. Work and Women 20. Marriage and Divorce An Afterword Notes
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This book was truly informative, and interesting, giving us the truth into the lives of Islamic women. This book helped me to understand more that the practices done in their world, from veiling, to female circumcision, seemed to be of a culture than part of their religion. Their culture being largely male driven, for centuries brought upon these practices that we in Western society can not even begin to understand. Honor beatings of their women and children, rape with no persecution as well as the politics of this society. Nawal El Saadawi uses throughout this book her history of what she has seen through her life as a doctor, and the mishaps she has had to mend and those she has had to help gain their sanity back from their mistreatment. I had to read this book for a paper in school, and found that it has been one of the best books I have ever read to date. She truly cares for what she does and when she writes it is with truth and no holding back.