A Daughter of Isis: An Autobiography of Nawal El Saadawi. – Statistical Data Included – Review – book review
Nawal El Saadawi, A Daughter of Isis: An Autobiography of Nawal El Saadawi. London and New York: Zed Books Ltd, 1999. 294 pages. Hardcover $55.00.
SEEKING A TEMPORARY RESPITE from death threats back home and agonizing over living a status of exile in North Carolina, the author takes up the project of writing her autobiography as a way to make sense of her existence. Now over 60 years old Saadawi engages in the process of self-reflection while consciously challenges her representation of “self-life-text” against time and memory. “Rediscovering the past” is fused with the present, adding a layer of uncertainty and complexity to the life she seeks to retrieve/undo. How she perceives the past and what discourses she draws upon are in themselves revealing, particularly, in the light of her longstanding political activism and commitment to issues of gender equity.
Saadawi’s autobiography is a journey back to the 1940s and covers her childhood and early adulthood in her country of origin, Egypt. Defiant and proud, the narrative of self conveys a sense of empowerment and agency. “Daughter of Isis”, a Goddess figure whom Saadawi admires and imaginatively inhabits, symbolizes a role model, embodying power/resistance duality in achieving an autonomous self. Indeed, the author’s constructed self-image, “freedom fighter,” aptly reflects her numerous struggles against social injustices and other forms of social constraints, including the power of language and discourses that legitimate oppressive practices in religion, culture and politics. The power of language in constructing us is revealed by exploring how words that signify “love and justice… shift meanings as we grow older” (p. 15). The very same words become “a sword over my head, a veil over my mind and face” (p. 16). This autobiography carries the early signs of Saadawi’s numerous struggles for emancipation and demo cracy as expressed in both spoken and written words.
The text uncovers a social world as inhabited and consumed by the author’s experiences and critical observations of what it is like to grow up in a society strictly regulated by patriarchal order and structured around hierarchical divisions based on gender, rigid social status, and class. Questions of race/color, national identity/belonging, displacement and colonialism are also among the running themes considered. Throughout the text gender, sexuality, class and race are figured prominently as they constitute Saadawi’s subjective reality and understanding of what it means to become a woman, to be subjected to the male gaze, to be positioned as a marginal class and, significantly, to have the ‘wrong’ color. Saadawi’s statement that: “I was proud of my dark skin and did not believe in a femininity born with slave society and handed down to us with class and patriarchy” (p. 7) captures the complexity surrounding her sense of gender oppression.
Crucially, Saadawi’s writing of self is positioned in relational and comparative terms that cut across simple divisions between gender and class. In this context, she focuses on the dynamics of unequal power relations and observes that systems of domination and subordination are both structurally and discursively constituted. The enactment of these issues are further explored in various institutional settings–family, schools, and community at large. She describes critical moments of her life by moving between different spaces. For example, the familial space which describes her conflicting relations with kin and siblings especially with her older brother; the cultural sphere where practices of rituals and rites of passage are constantly resisted; the expressive realm that consumes her artistic tendencies–music, imagining, writing short stories and keeping diaries. Through these stories of self/subjectivity, constructions of Otherness are subversively articulated and illustrated with brilliant insights and wit.
Saadawi successfully combines, what Fraser (1992:17) describes as feminist agency: “the power of social constraints and the capacity to act situatedly against them.” With detailed descriptions and reflexivity Saadawi narrates her life story from the experience of an embattled identity, grounded in everyday life practices and lived with contradictions amidst and against hierarchical gender/class/race relations. As a child, Saadawi tells us how she grew up in a racially mixed family background with oppositional class relations. Her mother was descendant from the Pashas ruling class with Turkish origin and identified as “white” in contrast to her father a self-made man of African roots and peasant background. And significantly she inherits her father’s physicality (features, color, height) which marks her as different followed by the given name “Warwar”, the slave girl. But what is intriguing in the story is the realization that the emerging tensions and identity conflicts are largely contributed by “arrogant” maternal kin (aunties and uncles) rather than her immediate family. Having to live with such contradictions is likened to positioning herself on the border of those hierarchies, occupying, in Buttler’s term, an “in-between space” from which to resist subordination, and to challenge the very acts of exclusionary gender practices. Saadawi’s struggles at such critical moments are chilling and capture one’s imagination with familiar stories that deeply touch us in one way or another.
Following her “revolutionary” father’s preoccupation with political democracy against British occupation and internal ruling “Pashas,” Saadawi from early on develops a strong sense of social justice and this is reflected in the way she explores issues of social inequality in both personal and institutional contexts. She depicts the lives of men/women, husband/wife, brothers/sisters, teachers/students, and rich and poor by revealing what is “hidden through the fear of God, the father, the husband, the teacher. . . fear of the nation to which we belong or those we love” (p. 17). In these instances, Saadawi highlights the power of hegemonic religious discourse/language in constructing women’s (and men’s) ways of life as well as legitimating the status-quo in terms of hierarchical and differential positioning. She looks at how gender divisions, orchestrated by the discourse of Islam, become the basis by which social relations are organized and given legitimacy in social norms, and cultural images. Women’s lives, in particular, are mostly depicted in terms of their failed personal dreams, even when fashioning themselves in the image of “womanhood.” Unlike her ambition to change/transform traditions, women’s struggles, including her mother’s, against patriarchal oppressive practices are mainly portrayed with muted resistance, simply enduring what is considered to be “God’s will”. However, listening to her paternal grandmother’s personal tales of resistance Saadawi concedes that “women have an unwritten history told orally by one generation to the other” (p. 57). With this recognition Saadawi seeks to unearth subjugated knowledge(s) and builds on making them visible. She engages the reader with powerful images of a variety of women’s lives in a colorful tapestry in which tales of myth, fiction and reality serve to deconstruct as much as reconstruct the making of gender.
To Saadawi, body politics is an issue close to home. She recounts powerful tales of how cultural images and meanings in relation to femininity/masculinity are in one way or another consumed by ourselves/our bodies. Sexuality is expressed as a sign of repression and signifies shame, which ironically justifies its violation. Saadawi describes, for instance, her own forced genital circumcision, followed by other practices of “humility,” such as ripping the hair off the body to please men’s desire to “conquer the female body.” Again, more cultural images are depicted of how the female body is associated with shame and pain and could only be “protected” by following maelstrom discourse of “legitimacy,” including that of marriage. Why is it, Saadawi asks, that “everything in a woman’s life” is seen as “shameful, even her face,” referring to the veil. It is through her own corporeal experience, and observations of other women, that Saadawi makes the necessary link between body and self and shows how the very act of self-embodiment, becomes a site of resistance. To Saadawi, this constituted a political space from which her agency is articulated.
Overall, I find the way she writes herself into the text invokes contradictions between vulnerability and strength in considering acts of resistance against conformity. But what is interesting is that throughout her accounts of inequalities and injustices around her she maintains personal visions/dreams for a better place for women. Towards this end Saadawi’s life journey, informed by both liberal and socialist tendencies, tells a penetrating story of courage and achievement. After all, the slogan sisterhood is global and struggle against universal women’s victimization remains central to Saadawi’s daily politics. In addition, Saadawi is rather skeptical of the complementary model of gender equality as she is critical of its operation even in her own “loving” and “caring” immediate family. Hence, the notion “equal but different” usually means that women remain subjected indiscriminately to male-defined traditional values.
The strength of the book is its contribution to on-going debate within feminism on question of sameness/difference, patriarchy and women’s subordination. Equally, the book presents some challenges to post-colonial feminism on issues of race/color and the elevation of Whiteness as a color symbolizing power and desire. The book is a pleasure to read for its rich textuality, clarity of prose, engaging style with a sense of humor. I strongly recommend it for both feminist scholars and the general public. On a more personal note, Saadawi’s identification with the homeland, the river Nile, Arabic language/ literature continues to constitute a meaningful existence and powerful sense of belonging.
Nabila Jaber teaches in the Department of Feminist Studies, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand.
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