The Muslim world in the age of fundamentalism is about as safe a place for a serious writer as a train rail is for a penny-it’s not so much a matter of getting in trouble as a question of when it will happen. Over the last 30 or so years, Egypt has been notably inhospitable to Nawal El Saadawi. She didn’t stop with the common crime of criticizing the religious state-ending the subjugation of women is her cause, and to advance it Saadawi has excoriated every societal institution, from Islamic leadership right on down to household patriarchies.
A doctor by training, she became national public health minister only to get booted from the Sadat administration and sent to prison for her antifundamentalist politics. In unabashedly didactic fiction and nonfiction that she began writing in her twenties, Saadawi applied her clinical impulse to eviscerating supposedly sacred systems of belief, ritual, economics, and psychology. Female genital mutilation is now sensationalistic fodder for CNN, but it was Saadawi who first held up a bloody fist in the 1970s and-speaking from her own childhood experience-called for the practice’s end. Saadawi held her people accountable for how deeply sexual hypocrisies penetrate the national culture, outraging Egypt with matter-of-fact treatises on abortion, illegitimacy, female sexuality, wife-beating and humiliation, arranged marriages of girls to men, the complicity of women in perpetuating the misery of other women in order to reap the crumbs of men’s power. In thanks she got her books banned, and in 1992 had to flee to escape fundamentalist death threats.
It’s hard to say more about Saadawi’s career without hitting the library-her somber autobiography, A Daughter of Isis, ends before she’s even out of medical school. That’s perhaps a sign of good judgment. The same fierce sense of self and righteousness that have served her so well in her remarkable life are in plentiful supply here, better suited in their heroic sweep to fantastically outsized childhood memories than they would be to honest reflection on her career. It takes a little while to get cozy with this precocious girl, who lets it be known that at the age of nine or so, “walking down the street was enough for me to hate all males, all boys and all men.” Her unfashionably direct rage is certainly fathomable as she chronicles her young life as a nonperson, destined by birth to serve at the command of father, husband, and a constellation of aunts who have been delegated by custom and their own unhappiness to groom her for a life of servitude.
Her mostly comfortable girldom in a Nile Valley village is punctuated by bouts of pain and humiliation. Dumped in a basin of water by a disgusted midwife. Pierced through the ears with a hot needle. Clitoridectomized, forcibly body-waxed, groped, paraded in front of suitors who “one by one … discovered that I loved the touch of the pen in my hand much more than the feel of the ladle or the handle of a broom, and so one by one they disappeared like the whiff of a gentle breeze in the night.” With a doctor’s compulsion to comprehend bodies, Saadawi lets her experiences flow through them-how her many aunts feel and smell, how her nipple aches when one of them pinches it (“like the sting of a scorpion, or the bite of a snake”-the pinch is supposed to bring good fortune in finding a husband), her experience of her first period, in which she was so desperate to get Allah’s forgiveness that she bled all over, and thus desecrated a prayer rug.
Saadawi wants to retrieve the female body, starting with her own, from the pit of shame into which her culture has cast it. Writing these memoirs while teaching at Duke, Saadawi persists, somewhat awkwardly, in trying to give her international feminist readers what she’s heard them clamor for: a seamless account of oppression, in which women suffer demonstrable wrongs. But with the chance to write her own life, she also takes the opportunity to render her own experiences, which until now she has told in unshaded black-and-white, in full and complex color. Just six pages in Saadawi begins to recount her genital cutting, only to hesitate and say that she has not yet been able to bring herself to write fully about it. That isn’t precisely true. She launches the first section of The Hidden Face of Eve, her unrelenting 1977 exposé of the place of women in Arab culture, with a memory of the experience as vivid as any six-year-old’s could be expected to be. What’s more, her account has her mother chatting and laughing with Nawal’s aunts as she bleeds-a collaborator, not the well of inspiration to whom A Daughter of Isis is essentially dedicated.
Reimagined in autobiography, Saadawi wields her self-mythology as something more than a political tool. If anything, she overcompensates in the opposite direction, adopting a dreamy, impressionistic voice that initially reads more like an unremarkable piece of personal anthropology than the life of someone who’d grow up to change her world. But though it takes too long to get there, once she moves from confusing atmosphere-setting to actually trying to figure out how a girl in her circumstances became an outlaw subversive, A Daughter of Isis becomes a striking study of the female ego in impossible circumstances. It ends up more consistent with the spirit of explanatory American feminists-Betty Friedan, Carol Gilligan, Surviving Ophelia-than with Saadawi’s own polemics.