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The Hidden Faces of Eve, by Nawal El Saadawi.

August 28, 2013

The Hidden Faces of Eve, by Nawal El Saadawi.  Zed Books (1980), Paperback, 224 pages.


An account, written in 1980, of the problems faced by Arab women by an important  Egyptian doctor and literary figure.

Nawal El Saadawi speaks out as an Arab woman, grounding her words in the unnecessary abuses she and other women face in the present and the strengths they have shown in the past.  Although her words sometimes resonate with those of western feminists, she is never a mere copy of them.

The Hidden Faces of Eve opens with El Saadawi’s own traumatic experience of circumcision, when she was taken from her bed at age 6, unaware of what was happening.   The fact that both her parents were unusually well educated did not prevent them from assuming that this act was simply what was done.  She goes on to relate the physical damage to women and girls that she saw in her medical practice. The images are disturbing, but El Saadawi believes that progress can only come when the problems of women, traditionally kept hidden, are exposed.   She sees women as an integral part of their larger society and polices making improvements in their lives as necessary for substantial social change to occur.

Female circumcision is not the only problem which Arab women and girls faced.  El Saadawi also describes the problem of sexual abuse of young girls by other family members and the excessive attention given to virginity in Arab culture.  She relates how women were rejected when they did not bleed on their wedding night, despite the fact that bleeding is not a valid test of virginity because of normal women’s physical differences.  El Saadawi alsowrites about other issues related to sexuality such as illegitimacy, prostitution and abortion, and the ways in which ideas about female beauty distort women’s lives.

After exposing women’s abuses, El Saadawi recounts the ways in which women have played a critical role in Egyptian and other Arabic history.  She writes about the archeological finding that women and their goddesses were the leaders in pre-agricultural Egypt.  I know something of this pattern which has been found in Europe, but nothing of the parallel story elsewhere.  The forceful roles of women seen among the early pharaohs were also new to me.  Like feminists elsewhere, El Saadawi blames the rise of patriarchy and private property that came with agriculture as ending this era of women-led societies.

For El Saadawi, religion has played a key role in the establishment of male supremacy, but it alone is not to blame.  Despite western attempts to blame Islam for women’s oppression, the earlier monotheistic religions of Judaism and Christianity also advocated the submission of women.  Islam only followed the pattern of male gods and obedient women they had initiated.  At first Islam allowed for expanded roles for women, but gradually the religion became an advocate for male domination.   El Saadawi’s account of women in the history of Islam follows the same themes as later, more scholarly studies like those of Leila Ahmed.   She believes that theologians and moralists in all monotheisms have issued two contradictory statements about sexuality; that sex is to be enjoyed within marriage and that sex will led to chaos and destruction.  We need to realize the problem such a morality poses for both women and men.

In her discussion of the twentieth century, El Saadawi introduces readers to women who were active in the first wave of feminism and women who fought against those who had colonized their lands.  She chides the male literary figures whom she claims have not been able to write about “the sexual and moral tragedy” in the lives of women.  The legal structure around marriage and divorce is also deeply flawed, but she points out legal changes alone will not resolve women’s problems.

The complete and real liberation of women, whether in the Arab world or the West or the Far East, can only become a fact when humanity does away with class society and exploitation for all time, and when the patriarchal system with its values, structures and vestiges has been erased from the life and mind of people.

In other words, women need a revolutionary restructuring of all our social, political and economic institutions, and a true revolution demands attention to the problems we define as belonging to women.  Given El Saadawi’s basic commitment to revolution, it is not surprising that she does not provide a list of actions to take now.  She inspires us with dreams of a better world and tells us that it is possible.  (I wrote this review right after hearing the speeches and commentary about the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech where many were talking about the need to dream.)

I learned much from The Hidden Face of Eve, and I have great respect for its author.  I found her to be sensitive to women’s problems while able to control her obvious anger about them.  She provided me with background for some of the writings of more recent Arab women.  Unlike many with Arab roots today, she did not attack western feminism, but focused sharply on the culture in which she lived; a culture both like and unlike our own. Given the fact that the book was written 30 years ago, it is not surprising that she does not deal with homosexuality or other issues that have gained attention in recent years.

I strongly recommend this book to everyone interested in feminism, and/or Arab women.

One Comment leave one →
  1. August 29, 2013 2:35 pm

    A great review, Marilyn. El Saadawi is one author I would love to read. I’ve been targeting authors from the Arab world and she come highly recommended.

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