THE HIDDEN FACE OF EVE: Women in the Arab World by Nawal El Saadawi

THE HIDDEN FACE OF EVE: Women in the Arab World

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Prominent Egyptian feminist Saadawi--imprisoned in Sadat's round-up of perceived foes, and only recently released--made a stir with a powerful piece in Ms. that stands out, unfortunately, as the one strong segment here. Saadawi's overall purpose is to defend Islamic treatment of women against Western feminists' criticism--and to the extent that she has in mind Western cultural imperialism, she has a point. Otherwise, her anger at the position of Arab (especially Egyptian) women is so sharp and ever-present that her defense of Islam is unconvincing by comparison. She opens with a (repetitive) discussion of sex roles and the sexual double standard: the insistence on virginity and monogamy for women only; the selling of daughters into marriage (or prostitution); the husband's complete dominion over the wife, including the right to divorce her at will; the grisly, and often unsafe, ritual removal of the clitoris. (Her description of her own circumcision at age six--subject of the Ms. piece--chillingly evokes the horror and fear every girl must feel.) Then Saadawi launches into a review of human pre-history composed largely of specious contentions and dubious generalizations (""It is a well-known fact. . . that the elevated status of women in society, and in religion, was related to the fact that children carried her name""); and her succeeding survey of women's place in the three great religions--Judaism, Christianity, Islam--is almost equally unreliable (every footnote in her synoptic history of Judaism is to the Bible). Her attempt to prove that Islam treats women at least as well as Christianity or Judaism, if not better, fails entirely--because of that weak scholarship, because of her own expressed reactions, because she fails to consider the crucial separation of Church and State (a nation whose laws followed orthodox Christianity or Judaism would, of course, be as oppressive to women as the Islamic nations). This my-dog-is-better-than-your-dog reasoning is in any case unnecessary to the task at hand: condemnation of Western interference and control in Arab countries. For a positive view free of Saadawi's repetitions, overstatements, and contradictions, see Naila Minai's Women in Islam (1981).

Pub Date: March 1st, 1982
Publisher: Beacon