Nawal El Saadawi

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Annotated by:
Saleh, Mona

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir


Dr. El Saadawi is an Egyptian feminist activist and a psychiatrist who originally published this book in Arabic in 1977. She has had a tumultuous relationship with the Egyptian government and was imprisoned after criticizing former President Anwar Sadat. During her career she worked at several universities in the United States. The Hidden Face of Eve: Women in the Arab World  has seamlessly incorporated elements of memoir and critical analysis of Arab culture and Islam. El Saadawi divides  the book into four sections: The Mutilated Half, Women in History, The Arab Woman, and Breaking Through. The book opens with Dr. El Saadawi recounting in the first-person her harrowing experience with female genital mutilation (a very common practice in her home country of Egypt) when she was 6 years old. She uses very descriptive, perhaps even graphic language, to describe the experience in all its horror. This early childhood memory sets the stage for the audience to bear witness to all the various types of misogyny that many Egyptian and Arab women inevitably experience. 

Dr. El Saadawi then skillfully relates memories of being told, for example, to not ask too many questions because she was a girl, and states that she has never heard the word “bint” (Arabic word for girl) used in a positive fashion. These nuggets of personal experiences are inserted into an overview of the complaints of stifled sexuality and associated sequelae with which her psychiatric patients struggled. She delves into the topics of Islam’s take on non-marital sex, illegitimate children, and prostitution thrown against the backdrop of her personal experiences seeing young, poor girls who work as maids being raped and impregnated by the men of the families who employ them and then being held as the sole accountable party.

After the first section, Dr. El Saadawi broadens her focus to include the status of women starting with Eve (whom the major monotheistic religions, including Islam, believe to be the first woman on Earth). Dr. El Saadawi investigates the historical designation of women as inferior in the Jewish faith and explains that as Christianity and Islam evolved against this backdrop, they also assigned women to a similar status. She insightfully points out how femininity did not evolve independently of society but rather that femininity and a woman’s place in society (all societies) are direct reflections of socioeconomic practices or goals of that society. 

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