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. 


In my work researching female genital mutilation, a question I am often asked is if women in cultures where this is practiced support or oppose the procedure. The answer is, of course, it depends. However, on the whole this is a practice perpetuated by women unto girls and women, and Dr. El Saadawi expresses this seeming betrayal very early on in her book:

 “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” (p. 14).  

Clearly, there is a complicated mother-daughter dynamic within cultures that perpetuate strict notions of feminine honor, but what is often hard to describe to outsiders is that the mother-daughter relationship is usually not malicious. In many societies where female genital mutilation is the norm, mothers are looking to protect their daughters from the shame of being an uncut woman and ensure their daughters’ futures as eligible brides when they engage in this human rights violation. Perhaps the part of this book that expresses this nuance of the mother-daughter relationship is in the author’s dedication, “Dedicated to Zeinab Shoukry, the great woman who lived and died without giving me her name—my mother.” Even though Dr. El Saadawi’s mother was responsible for her cutting, there was still love in their relationship. 

In all of my research on this topic, I have found the most accurate portrayals of  female genital mutilation and the culture that surrounds it are the stories of  direct survivors, such as Dr. El Saadawi. She not only relates her experience of undergoing female genital mutilation, but she describes all of the other parts of culture that go with this, such as her constantly being treated as “less than” when compared to her brothers, even when she was a little girl growing up. These first hand accounts show how her culture and society made repeated, systematic attempts to stamp out her individuality in order to align with their notions of proper girlhood and womanhood. 

Dr. El Saadawi adeptly points out that the extreme emphasis on virginity and the notion of honor that are often placed on women in the Middle East is in part accountable for the steady continuation of female genital mutilation: 

“The importance given to virginity and an intact hymen in these societies is the reason why female circumcision still remains a very widespread practice...Behind circumcision lies the belief that, by removing parts of a girls’ external genital organs, sexual desire is minimized” (p. 50). 
I highly recommend this book to anyone who wishes to learn or understand more about Arab culture with a specific eye towards how women are treated within this culture and the possible explanations for such treatment. Dr. El Saadawi makes truly powerful insights in this book, and it remains as relevant and powerful now as it was when first published in 1977.


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