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The most obvious of these is Marxism. While many Middle Easterners, notably neotraditionalists, reject Marxism as foreign and irrelevant, most of those, both inside and outside the region, who question the applicability of feminism have no objections to applying concepts like class, imperialism, capitalism, and exploitation to Middle Eastern societies. Gender analyses seem to generate much more intellectual squeamishness than arguments derived from other social problematics. Yet gender consciousness is hardly new to Middle Eastern society.

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Social, cultural, historical, and legal questions relating to male-female roles, equality of women, and so forth have been part and parcel of Arabo-Islamic discourse for centuries. Nawal El Saadawi has locked her powerful pen on many of the gender obsessions in her own culture and has woven memorable narratives around them. But to seek to exclude feminist perspectives that is, the reality that as groups males dominate females across the planet from particular geopolitical zones—in this case the Arab world, the Middle East, or the world of Islam—is automatically to privilege patriarchal discourses within these zones.

Anti-imperialism can easily become a trap through which nationalism, while seeking to defend the native against the outsider, really defends those in power in the native society. A feminism that is not internationalist will find itself powerless because it will allow nationalisms to be used against the empowerment of women in each separate society. The problem, however, lies deeper than the sociological specificity of Dr.

Rather, it goes to the very heart of the problematic notions of East-versus-West and authenticity. But it is not important whether she was intended in this depiction. But in fact both our Moroccan author and Nawal El Saadawi are circulating in an international world, one in which the East-West dichotomy is often misleading. To be sure, both writers begin in a regional context that is linguistically defined.

They do this by deciding to write in Arabic. At the same time, they are swiftly drawn, more willingly than not, into a transnational circulation of cultural products. I know of no Arabic author who does not wish to see his or her work translated and integrated into the world literary scene. Anyone who thinks this phenomenon is limited to the secularists—or the leftists, or the Westernized intellectuals—needs but walk into the Islamist bookstores of Paris and London, where one can find loving translations into the languages of the colonizers of the works of the most anti-Western Islamic neotraditionalists.

And this is to say nothing of the Middle Eastern intellectuals whose lives are spent in exile in Western countries, hence partaking of at least two cultures. And what of the many literary genres, such as the novel and the short story, in which non-Western writers like our Moroccan friend indulge—and which likewise are originally Western?

To speak of authenticity in this context is as vain as the tourist search for the authentic, unspoiled site, which ceases to be authentic as soon as the tourist sets foot in it. For there is no authentic modern Arab world or discourse if that means one untainted by Western culture. More important, there is no contemporary intellectual figure, be he or she the most neotraditionalist of Islamic revivalists, whose thought has not been powerfully affected by modern European ideas.

Furthermore, the discourse of authenticity plays two related political roles in the region. The second is a plea for recognition on the part of the budding artist or intellectual who has yet to gain access to the more lucrative international markets. When El Saadawi writes, she does not speak for all Arab women. Hers is one voice. That does not mean that on a certain level of generality some of her fictional situations do not speak about all Arab women, indeed potentially about all women.

Though not all of her work is realistic in the literary sense, her texts are overwhelmingly based on her own direct knowledge and experience. The rich linguistic specificity of these narratives can suffer when they are transposed into another language, such as English. A translation is a new cultural product, one that speaks to new audiences and new cultural concerns. Too often, rather than analyzing this feminist literature, they have acted as if they wished to isolate it from the mainstream of Arabic letters.

Consider, for example, this recent assessment by a Middle East specialist: The Egyptian physician, polemicist and authoress [sic] Nawal al-Saadawi has several works in English translation: some of these are extended in length and partly imaginative and are therefore considered to be novels.

In each case these works combine autobiographical references and personal opinions with fictional representations of persons either real or imagined in a radical feminist context with heavily emotional, anti-establishmentarian and anti-Islamic overtones. They are highly controversial in the Arab world. But still more is at issue. The debate over art and political engagement is an old one. But her writing is not limited to her political engagement. Indeed, its artfulness supports its politics. It is as complex as the Arabo-Islamic heritage that gave it birth.

Our task here is not to make a catalogue of works that discuss Nawal El Saadawi. It is sufficient to glance at any study on women in the Middle East, both literary and nonliterary, in any language to find her included. Badawi Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, , p. The later expanded edition of this work solves the problem by eliminating reference to Nawal El Saadawi altogether. Margaret R. Higonnet Ithaca: Cornell University Press, , p. See Chapter 5 below. Nahid Toubia, trans. Freda Hussain New York: St.

Of course, there is nothing sociologically unique or even particularly Islamic in this development. After World War II in the United States, for instance, women who had entered the work force in the national emergency were eased back into more domestic roles. Haleh Afshar London: Macmillan, , pp. I have been present at lectures and participated on panels with Dr. El Saadawi on many occasions at which she has enunciated these positions. For a recent attempt to link Orientalism and feminist approaches to the study of Middle Eastern women, see Edward W. Knopf, , pp. See also Minh-ha T.

Many of the studies in Judith Tucker, ed. We shall have ample occasion to see this in many of the chapters below e. This objection has been made orally to me on many occasions by both Arabs and non-Arabs. The negative image of Arabs in the West has been much studied. One of the most interesting works in this regard is that of Jack G. It would be equally vain to speak of an authentic medieval Arabic culture, if by this one meant one untainted by influences from Greece to Persia. The historic greatness of Arabic culture, indeed, has been its capacity to act as the cosmopolitan vehicle for the integration of diverse civilizational strands.

Issa Boullata ; emphasis added. Perhaps because he is not a literary critic, Tarabishi is less concerned with formal generic issues. The most articulate statement on this topic is, again, that of Joanna Russ, How to Suppress. The struggle between me and my femininity began very early…before my femininity sprouted and before I knew anything about myself, my sex, or my origin…indeed, before I knew what hollow had enclosed me before I was tossed out into this wide world.

Thus does Nawal El Saadawi enter the domain of modern Arabic novelists. What about the physician of the title? Medicine and the physician play key roles in the saga of the female protagonist. That social power permits the female to overcome the power of the male. The corporal consciousness is linked to a body knowledge that subverts claims of patriarchal superiority by showing the artificiality of socially created gender distinctions.

The social power and body knowledge thematics give revolutionary force to a novel that might otherwise seem conservative in its general plot structure. After all, this is the story of a protagonist who finds a successful resolution in the context of existing society. But as we shall see in this and subsequent chapters, the social power associated with such happy endings is not available to all women. Several of the most sophisticated and most influential writers of the contemporary Arab world are or have been practicing physicians.

There is a societal reason for this: in the Egyptian educational system, for example, the best secondary school graduates frequently entered the faculty of medicine, the career path that was at once the most demanding and the most prestigious. Further, different branches of the Arab intellectual elite are far closer to one another than is the case in the West more like the situation in nineteenth-century Europe, for example. Much the same phenomenon exists in the fiction of medical practitioners in the West, like Richard Selzer and William Carlos Williams.

But relative to her Western colleagues, the Egyptian feminist doctor makes less of disease and cures, focusing more often on the social role of medicine and the physician. Often, fictional situations that could lead to the medical treatment of physical maladies are resolved without professional intervention. If the medical interaction between physician and patient is not the primary concern in these narratives, what is? In fact, the most pervasive function of medicine and the physician in the Saadawian fictional corpus is that of a repository of social power.

In Memoirs of a Woman Doctor El Saadawi sets forth the major issues related to medicine and the physician that would dominate the rest of her fictional corpus. Despite its title and first-person narration, which suggest an autobiographical account especially for those who know that its author is a female medical practitioner , the text nowhere formally presents itself as autobiography.

Memoirs of a Woman Doctor is a female Bildungsroman that adopts the fiction of autobiography. These sentiments extend to her female body as well, giving rise to resentment and hatred of its physical peculiarities. Science appeals to her greatly, but eventually this fascination is transferred to nature, when she moves to a peaceful country village. The accompanying partial resolution permits the hero to make peace with other figures in her life.

The first, with an engineer, ends in disaster when he tries to block her career. The second, with a physician, also fails. Memoirs of a Woman Doctor tells a story of conflict and conquest. The language of its first-person narration is deceptively simple, consisting of short, choppy sentences generously interspersed with ellipses. The ellipses are not without meaning; they signal a hesitation on the part of the narrator, an uncertainty in the process of discovery of self.

To do so, social barriers are broken, ones associated with the body. Biology, we discover, is not destiny for this precocious narrator. As a child, the hero of Memoirs hated …the ugly, limited world of women, from which emanated the odor of garlic and onion. That loathsome word that my mother repeated every day until I hated it…And I never heard it without imagining in front of me a man with a big belly inside of which was a table of food… [13].

My brother cuts his hair and leaves it free, he does not comb it, but as for me, my hair grows longer and longer. My mother combs it twice a day, chains it in braids, and imprisons its ends in ribbons…. My brother wakes up and leaves his bed as it is, but I, I have to make my bed and his as well. My brother goes out in the street to play, without permission from my mother or my father, and returns at any time…but I, I do not go out without permission.

My brother takes a bigger piece of meat than mine, eats quickly, and drinks the soup with an audible sound, yet my mother does not say anything to him…. As for me…! I am a girl! I must watch my every movement…I must hide my desire for food and so I eat slowly and drink soup without a sound…. My brother plays…jumps…turns somersaults…but I, whenever I sit and the dress rides up a centimeter on my thighs, my mother throws a sharp, wounding glance at me. Braids and ribbons are normally external signs of femininity. Perhaps it is not accidental, then, that her first overt act of rebellion should consist in her going to a beauty shop to have her hair cut.

Memoirs chronicles three adolescent sexual encounters between the hero and members of the opposite sex. The first involves a doorkeeper who approaches her when she is sitting on a bench and attempts to explore her sexual parts with his hand. She stands up in terror and runs away.

She is asked to meet him, as a matrimonial prospect. When her father announces that she is first in her class, she expects the guest to show some admiration. But all she sees is the man scrutinizing her body, his eyes settling finally on her chest. She runs from the room, again in terror. They take a walk together and decide to run a race. When she is about to win, however, he pulls her down and tries to kiss her.

For a moment, she wishes that he would embrace her fiercely, but when she comes back to her senses she becomes angry and slaps him. The first example, with the doorkeeper, is a clear trespass. Normally, in middle-class Egyptian society such an encounter would be viewed as socially licit, or at least free of violation. The narrator does not experience it that way, though, and so she runs away with the same terror.

Hence this encounter must also be understood as an illicit one, representing a physical violation, though one more subtle than that committed by the doorkeeper. In the incident with her cousin, likewise, she interprets his advances as physical transgression, despite her own initial desire. Notwithstanding their varying degrees of social acceptability, these three incidents are all treated in the text as more or less open forms of physical violation, as the exercise of unwanted male sexual power over woman.

The balance of power has shifted. Medicine equals power; in fact, it is this power that motivates the narrator to attend the faculty of medicine in the first place. Nor is it mere coincidence that all these repudiations occur before the narrator decides to pursue medicine, a career centered on the body.

The body will be the conquered, not the conqueror. These declarations of superiority are social and intellectual: the narrator will prove that she is smarter than malekind. The Faculty of Medicine?! Yes medicine…. The word has a fearful impression on me…it reminds me of white shining glasses under which are two penetrating eyes moving with amazing speed…and strong tapered fingers holding a sharp frightening long needle….

My mother was trembling in fear and looking at him with supplication and humility…And my brother was shaking from fear…And my father was lying in bed looking at him with imploration and a plea for mercy…. Medicine is a fearful thing…Very fearful…My mother, my brother, and my father look at it with a look of reverence and veneration. I will be a physician then…I will learn medicine…I will put on my face white shining glasses…I will make my eyes under them penetrating, moving with amazing speed.

And I will make my fingers strong, tapered. I will hold with them a sharp frightening long needle. I will make my mother tremble in fear and look at me with supplication and humility…And I will make my brother shake in front of me from fear…And I will make my father look at me with imploration and a plea for mercy… [20]. This first exposure to medicine is interesting indeed, for here the science is subsumed in the identity of its practitioner, a male physician.

That the physician should be a male may seem logical at first glance. But this gender label has deeper implications. Medicine on the one hand, the traditional world of the mother on the other: these are not foreign pairs on the contemporary Arabic literary scene. What appeals initially to the female narrator of Memoirs is the effect that this man has on her family members: mother, brother, father—all three tremble before the mighty physician.

The narrator would have us believe that their trepidation is the direct result of the raw power of the scientist. A closer look reveals, however, that the father is lying in bed. Is he ill? If so, might not his reaction and that of the mother and brother be related to his infirmity? The narrator is oddly silent here. In asserting her decision to become a physician, the young woman speaks of the effect she will have on her three family members: mother, father, and brother.

Their response to the to-be female physician will be identical to those they already displayed to the male physician, but with one major difference. This time, the father is not lying in bed. There is no question about his physical state. The reason for his reaction and that of the other family members is clear: it is the female physician. But what does it mean to be this idolized specialist? These body parts, eyes and fingers, are each linked to instruments external to the body, glasses and a needle.

When the female supplants him, she is transformed into those identical corporal and noncorporal parts. The eyes and the fingers are highly suggestive. The fingers are holding a long needle, an instrument of penetration. Power is reduced to its social and male sexual components. And the primary vector of this power is the gaze. The scopic penetrating activity of the physicians operates in a dialectical relationship with the scopic activity of the other family members. Their glance is generated alternately by fear or a desire for mercy.

It becomes even more significant when seen in a Middle Eastern context. With this delicate scopic game, Nawal El Saadawi has entered a gender debate, one quite vigorous in the contemporary Islamic world, over the glance. Men looking at women, women looking at men: these issues plague Muslim religious authorities today. The debate is a long-standing one in the Arabo-Islamic tradition; its roots go back centuries. This power, initially the attribute of the male, will become the property of the female through the science of medicine. Medicine will do more for the narrator of Memoirs.

In literary Arabic, this word signifies something shameful, defective, and imperfect, the genitals, and something that must be covered.

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As the signifier for the genitalia, it refers to men as well. But this loaded word also stands for the femininity of the female physician. In this discourse, a physical reality that in itself possesses no necessary moral or social meaning is invested with a moral value.

This investment, in turn, dictates social conclusions. Her entire body takes on the notions of shame and imperfection. Such a generalization is perfectly consistent with traditional Arabo-Islamic values. This narrator is treading on provocative ground. After all, we are still in the domain of the corporal.

But nature is equally important for her ultimate liberation, helping to heal her wounds and lead her to a rebirth. After she completes her medical studies, our hero replaces the god of science with that of nature. These actions, now performed with unrestrained physicality, show once again the limitations that a female body traditionally places on its subject. But what an education the narrator receives in medical school! The most powerful manifestation of that education is in the form of cadavers.

Medicine through dissection will permit the physical destruction of the two bodies and with them a recasting of many of the issues that earlier plagued the narrator. There she is in the dissection room in the presence of the two naked bodies. It is as if she were reliving her childhood and reexamining the values that her mother and society tried to instill in her.

Even her previous violations will be redefined. Why did my mother place these enormous differences between me and my brother and make of man a deity for whom I had to spend all my life cooking food? Why is society always trying to persuade me that masculinity is a distinction and an honor and femininity a disgrace and weakness? Is it possible for my mother to believe that I am standing with a naked man in front of me and with a scalpel in my hand with which I will open his stomach and his head?

And who is society? Is it not men like my brother whose mother raised him since his childhood as a god? Is it not women like my mother who are weak and useless? How is it possible for these people to believe that there is a woman who knows nothing about man except that he is muscles, arteries, nerves, and bones? But that is only half of it. The scalpel and the opening of the stomach and the head will reappear in the book like an obsession. That dreadful thing with which mothers frighten their young daughters, so they are consumed by the fire of the kitchen for the sake of his satiation and they dream of his spectral figure night and day!

There he is, man, thrown in front of me, naked, ugly, torn to pieces…. I did not imagine that life would disprove my mother to me so quickly…Or would avenge me of man in this way…That dejected man who looked at my breasts one day and saw nothing of my body but them…. Once again, mothers are to blame, for they instill the values of domesticity in their daughters.

The result? More than polysemy is involved here, however. From the world of enforced domesticity, woman moves into the domain of religious punishment, from the world of onion and garlic into that of eternal damnation. What a stunning reversal of the earlier discourse of marriage inculcated by the mother! Nonetheless, the narrator has still not had her full revenge.

The dead male corpse is made to pay for the illicit acts of the male gender in its entirety. The female corpse, whose inanimate existence is framed by her hair, also has a role to play. Both in introducing us to this anonymous young woman and in closing the account of the dissection, the narrator focuses on a single body part: the hair.

It begins the description long and soft and ends it in the pail of the dissection room, together with the other discarded body parts, in a striking narrative trajectory. In between, the narrator moves along the body down from the hair to the white teeth and long, painted fingernails, ending at the chest.

Much like her dead male colleague on the dissection table, the female corpse fulfills more than a medical function. Her breasts are over her chest but they are thin, hanging down…. The two pieces of flesh that tortured me during my childhood…the two that determine the future of girls and occupy the minds and eyes of men…. There they are resting under my scalpel, dried up, wrinkled like two pieces of shoe leather! They move from the dead body to become attached first to the narrator and then to the entirety of women.

When they return to the corpse, it is as two desiccated objects resembling shoe leather. From body parts that elicit such admiration on the part of men and society , the breasts join the lower body in a less than flattering image. The hair is equally eloquent. The power of the hair should come as no surprise. After all, was it not a basis of difference between the narrator and her brother? Part of the power of these dissection room scenes lies in their imagery. But more than language and image are at issue here. In question is the redefinition of societal gender boundaries.

The cadavers are unwilling pawns in this morbid game. The identity of sorts between the narrator and the female corpse means that the narrator has died as well. I will never die and become a corpse like these corpses stretched out in front of me on the tables. It is as if only death could fully exorcise the traumatic experiences of her youth. But this is not just any death.

It is death seen through the prism of medicine. The medical universe has once again united the social and the corporal. The process of dissection, along with the rest of the medical school experience, leads the narrator to the conclusion, proven by science, that woman is like man, and man like animals. Yet there is more to medicine in Memoirs than the power of knowledge.

Although at first the hero conceives of medicine as science and as an all-powerful deity, she begins to change her mind when she sees one of the physician instructors slap a patient; she now decides that this medicine, at least, lacks compassion. In fact, medicine is not only the catalyst that redefines childhood experiences in the dissection of the two corpses, for example , but it is also the element that will delimit the adult experiences of the female protagonist.

This will be accomplished not by the bodies of the dead, however, but by the bodies of the living, in the form of patients. The first patient the female physician encounters is a young woman afflicted with rheumatism. To add to the complexity of the situation, this patient is pregnant, and we meet her as she is giving birth.

Her fate is doomed, though: she dies during childbirth, leaving behind a healthy baby. The physician finds medicine to be particularly ineffective in helping her to understand this mystery that permits life to emanate from death. Like the pregnant woman, this man has a greater role to play than that of simple patient, the object merely of professional duty. His diseased existence permits the hero to feel pain for the first time in her life.

Her outbreak of tears elicits an emotional response from the patient, who tries to reassure her. This role reversal has its function. The sick old man bears a gift for the hero: he helps her regain her faith in humanity. And as if this were not enough, his smile causes her to become aware of her love for life. Is it a surprise, then, that medicine and patients become coterminous with the amorous relationships of this woman doctor? Their relationship begins as one of mutual misunderstanding.

The union is doomed. Once locked into the relationship, however, the physician finds her husband urging her to abandon her clinic and her medical career. Her response? She leaves him. In the prenuptial stages of the relationship, the man offers more than he is in fact willing to deliver. The woman is lured into what she believes is a relationship of mutual equality; the marriage, however, proves to be the opposite. This is the first part of the archetypal structure. Instead, she leaves her husband and continues her quest. Before the narrator finally meets the right partner, she must have a second negative relationship, this time with another physician and instigated by a man afflicted with cancer.

The couple meet at an official dinner party, where both express an aversion to the traditional trappings of these sorts of gatherings. He is dying. The young man is in desperate need of a blood transfusion, and the artist goes out to get the blood. He also helps the physician to set up the transfusion. When she urges him to move away from the patient lest he become infected, he replies: —And you?

He looked at me in silence…And he did not move from his place until I finished setting up the transfusion equipment… [52]. This episode leads to the personal fulfillment of the narrator of Memoirs, a fulfillment that is arrived at neither quickly nor easily.

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What gives this incident its curative power? This most recent relationship was initiated on nonmedical, neutral ground, at an official dinner party. The medical emergency surfaces only after the couple have declared their love for each other. But this fact does not necessarily seal the relationship. The patient still has an important role to play. He, in fact, does the driving. And he helps to set up the transfusion, remaining with the doctor until the operation proves successful. Her companion asks her: —Do you need something? I sat on a wooden chest next to the patient and injected him with medicine…I prepared the blood transfusion equipment…and determined the blood type… [54].

He goes out and brings blood, the life-giving force. The blood type is irrelevant. The two will participate equally in this activity of giving life. They will cure the patient and allow him to be reborn. As a couple, they are participating in the activity of birth, albeit metaphorically. We have in a sense come full circle. Here, the couple gives birth, in what is for them a life-giving process. Medicine is at last successful. And if we remember that the momentous phone call occurs in the text directly after their mutual declarations of love, after the couple has formed itself, then childbirth seems the logical next step.

It is only because the doctor is able to overcome her obsession with medicine as power that she is also able to transcend her focus on the male-female power struggle and come to terms with both her femininity and medicine. This last is now science and art, reason and compassion. One of the interesting elements in the system outlined by the narrative is that while the female physician-heroes integrate these two aspects of medicine, the male physicians do not. The incident with the patient afflicted with cancer is a case in point.

Indeed, in Memoirs, and in the work of Nawal El Saadawi generally, one really finds two types of physicians: those who are capable of compassion almost invariably women and the cold-hearted embodiments of science always men. In only two short stories by Nawal El Saadawi do male physicians play a central role without being opposed to women doctors in the same narrative. Rajab, economically less well off than his neighbor, whose Cadillac he envies. Rajab insults his staff, has too many patients and not enough beds, and feels that he has wasted his seven years in medicine.

The arbitrariness of making the woman doctor caring and her male counterpart uncaring is evident when one looks at the strategy of Sherif Hetata, also a physician-writer and the husband of Nawal El Saadawi. Nawal El Saadawi develops the sexual politics of medicine in two ways: first, by using it as a vehicle for women to regain their lost power; and second, by making it the focus of her own call for the integration of traditionally male and female qualities. This complex of elements is not restricted to Memoirs of a Woman Doctor.

In Two Women in One, for example, similar themes emerge. The female hero is a medical student who is torn between her medical training and her career as an artist. The thematic nexus of science and art, entities that pull in opposite directions, pervades the fictional narratives of Nawal El Saadawi, tearing her female heroes apart. Here, the physician narrator expresses her disgust at both her financial and her social status when she wonders how she could possibly have lost her way and entered the field of medicine.

Thus medicine becomes a focus for conflicts and choices in the lives of young women, and these conflicts and choices revolve around medicine as a total system, especially as a career. This she does by focusing on the physician-patient relationship, using a significant, and eminently characteristic, literary technique. This technique is one of embedding or enframing, familiar to Eastern and Western readers alike from The Thousand and One Nights.

She begins the story by explaining her interest in the case of one of the prisoners, Firdaws, a prostitute convicted of murder and awaiting execution. The physician is drawn to this woman—realizing, at the end of the novel, that she herself is no better than the prostitute. We shall examine this duo in detail in Chapter 3. The voice of many other Saadawian female heroes is epistolary. The physician narrator of the novella The Thread tells the reader, in the frame, that she once had occasion to examine a woman with strange symptoms.

The physician later receives a letter from this patient, outlining events from her perspective. Thus we see the doctor and medicine through the eyes of this patient, who has had a neurotic relationship with her father. The Thread and Woman at Point Zero are similar in several respects.

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Gender Oppression According to Saadawi's Memoirs of a Woman Doctor

In each case a female physician is reflected through the eyes of a female patient, with the patient receiving more narrative space than the doctor. In addition, both works deliberately set the patient up as the social opposite of the physician. In this way, both The Thread and Woman at Point Zero cast doubt on the role of the physician as an epitome of science and wisdom, superior to, and detached from, the patient. It is no coincidence that external and internal narrators, doctor and patient, are both women.

The literary linkage reflects their common embodiment of the female condition. Physician and patient alike are caught in the coils of sexual politics. The owner of this internal epistolary voice is named Firdaws, like the internal narrator of Woman at Point Zero. We will compare the sagas of these two women in Chapter 3, when we analyze the story of Firdaws the prostitute. In both narratives, the doctor is able to liberate the stories and give them forms that will assure their life.

If these internal narratives could have stood on their own, without help from an external narrator, what is the purpose of the embedding? First, the external first-person narrator adds a second subjectivity to that of the internal narrator. More important, the embedding technique turns the narrative authority over to the physician, who thus becomes responsible for the transmission of the internal stories. Finally, by having embedded narratives that are not directly related to medical questions, the texts extend the power of the physician beyond the medical into the general.

In these four cases of embedded narratives, the stories, both internal and external, are about women. In all four cases, moreover, a physician narrator presents the saga of a woman who might not, because of her social situation, have the opportunity for literary self-expression. The physician, as a figure of social power, thus serves as a literary conduit that allows the other voices to speak out.

Here again, medicine as a vehicle of empowerment for individual women is set against the more general context of relative female powerlessness. But something far more subtle and more culturally encompassing is being intimated. As cultural critics beginning with Michel Foucault have shown repeatedly, medicine acts as a special discourse, itself a form of power. In the Saadawian corpus, the social power of the physician merges with that of the writer. This is an odd coincidence, indeed, the initial S. In any event, the story that Dr.

Alone with the doctor, the girl refuses to be examined, but begs her to save her from this brother, who, she says, will surely kill her. The girl objects, insisting that he will simply take her to another doctor. But she is in love with another man and will marry him in a month. She swears to the physician that nothing dishonorable has occurred between them.

Similarly, a young woman had visited the narrator of Memoirs of a Woman Doctor in search of protection from murderous male relatives. Examining her own conscience and the medical code of ethics, the physician in the story calls in the brother and declares to him that his sister is honorable. It cannot distinguish between honor and dishonor. Hence, its presence is quite eloquent. This physician narrator needs a third-person narrator as an intermediary to introduce the writing process itself.

The recording of the story in writing differs from the oral and epistolary framings analyzed, although like them it requires mediation. Like the other protagonists whose sagas need to be narrated by the physician, these two characters from the countryside would not have access to the written word.

The female physician is once again the means by which silent voices can tell their stories. But this particular framing highlights an important element that redefines the other enframed narratives. The story functions as a medical case history. When viewed in this light, the other physician-mediated narratives take on a different cast: they, too, become case histories of sorts.

The rewriting of the oath is suggestive as well. Rather than adhering to traditional professional values, this physician redefines what medicine should be by setting down her own creed. This act is subversive, calling into question the authoritarian structure of professions like medicine, all of whose members are tied by this bond. Is this a feminist redefinition of medicine? It could very well be! With the brother-sister pair, El Saadawi has put her medical finger on a deep societal problem. Brother-sister jealousy is pervasive in Arabo-Islamic culture. In fact, the noted Arab folklorist Hasan El-Shamy has boldly argued that brother-sister sexual attraction, with the attendant jealousy, is so powerful in Arab culture that it replaces in its psychological centrality the Oedipus conflict of Western society.

The sister in this Saadawian short story is frightened by her brother. Twice she tells the physician that he will kill her—a not unrealistic expectation, as we will see again in the case of The Circling Song Chapter 4. The female body must be certified as honorable before it can be handed over to the would-be husband. Again medicine as social power for the female comes to the rescue. Her body is a commodity whose honor, if absent, will surely lead to her death. There, the price of a young girl is agreed upon, so much per kilo, and she is taken to the marketplace and weighed in.

Medicine and art are once again joined in an eloquent proclamation. Yet it is through medicine that she has saved the sister from the death threats of her brother.

10 Must Read Women Writers From The Middle East

The story of Dr. She may be able to save herself. She may sometimes be able to save others. But what we glimpse already in these medical narratives is another female type: the lower-class woman who loses control over her body and who, if she attempts to regain it, will meet with physical destruction. These two types, and the intense emotional electricity that is created when they meet, receive their most powerful expression in the searing novel Woman at Point Zero.

The entire text has been translated as Memoirs of a Woman Doctor, trans. This childhood novel, however, did not see the light of day until Comparative references to other Arabic, or even European, texts are merely illustrative and not exhaustive. Paxton Washington, D. On the general importance of nature for such resolutions, see ibid. It is, of course, not our task here to examine the compositional process of the author.

This negative attitude to the mother is not an aberration on the part of El Saadawi but can be seen in other Arabic texts written by women as well. How common this might be in other nondominant literatures remains to be investigated. Suffice it to say that the Anglophone Indian writer Ved Mehta follows the same procedure.

For a discussion of this phenomenon, see Malti-Douglas, Blindness and Autobiography, pp. The number of pamphlets that deal with this issue is enormous and proliferating at an incredible rate. The spread of the Islamist movement has made this issue even more salient, not only in the Middle East but in Europe as well.

See also Chapter 9 below. Shirley Eber London: Zed Books, I am currently completing a study on this question in contemporary Islamist discourse. Vincent L. Susan Rubin Suleiman Cambridge, Mass. See C. Sherif Hetata London: Zed Press, n. See, for example, Theodora R. Shirley Eber London: Methuen, , pp. Sherif Hetata London: Lime Tree, Muhsin Mahdi Leiden: E. Brill, ; Alf Layla wa-Layla, 2 vols. Sherif Hetata London: Zed Press, Shirley Eber London: Minerva, , pp. Woman at Point Zero: A prostitute convicted of murder and awaiting execution speaks. Her name is Firdaws, Paradise, yet her life seems the earthly antithesis of that other world.

Just as riveting is the literary creative process that gives birth to her discourse. It is also the one that has generated the greatest interest among Western critics working with the translated text. Despite these features, Memoirs is not an autobiography. An intrusive first-person narrator also enframes the haunting Circling Song see Chapter 4.

Nowhere in the Saadawian fictional corpus, however, is the problem of the biographical and the novelistic clearer than in Woman at Point Zero. Indeed, critics have had too great a tendency to see this masterpiece in biographical and documentary terms. In her introduction to the English translation of the book, she explains the circumstances that led to the writing of this work. That prison is the one El Saadawi would herself enter as a prisoner in Such a judgment, however, would reduce a superior work of art to a documentary, to occult its literary characteristics.

El Saadawi could just as easily have penned a case study of Firdaws, as she does with other female cases in Woman and Psychological Conflict. The novelistic form is no textual accident. The external narrator begins by explaining her interest in the case of one of the prisoners, a prostitute. But the prisoner is elusive, refusing to see anyone, and even refusing to sign an appeal of her sentence. Firdaws comes from a poor family. Clitoridectomy is performed on her young body. Her paternal uncle, a traditionally educated Azharite, molests her. He does look after her education, however, and takes her with him to Cairo after she is orphaned.


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There, she participates in a political demonstration, becomes infatuated with a female teacher, and graduates with superior grades. Firdaws overhears a conversation between her uncle and his wife over her future: the university is not only too expensive, but it will also allow her to mix with young men. The solution? Yes, he is retired, but he is alone, and the step-aunt does not feel that he is too old for Firdaws. The young woman runs away. But at night she does not know what to do. Two eyes are watching her and she is frightened. He is over sixty, she is not yet nineteen.

The old man is not only physically repulsive, but he is an incredible miser as well. He watches his young wife incessantly to make sure she wastes nothing, even searching the garbage for anything thrown away.

Men, Women and God(s)

On one occasion, he finds a piece of food in the refuse and beats Firdaws in punishment. There, she is told that men beat their wives, especially religious men. More beatings and misery lead Firdaws to run away yet again. A female neighbor helps Firdaws escape, this time on the road to prostitution. The experience is a rebirth for Firdaws. Is he a pimp? Firdaws does not wait but takes the occasion to run away.


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A policeman propositions her. She refuses, showing him her secondary school degree. He threatens to turn her in and, after exploiting her, does not even pay her for her services. Once again on the street, in a downpour, Firdaws gets picked up by a rich man in a car, who, however, does pay her ten pounds for her favors. This is a turning point in her life. She realizes the worth of money, she is able to eat her fill, she is able to get a clean house with a library in which she places her framed degree.

At age twenty-five, she becomes her own boss. In bed, he wants to talk. She replies that he will have to pay like anyone else. And do you also have a quick examination? Finally he declares that the major difference between the two occupations is that that of Firdaws is not respectable. This assessment convinces the prostitute to reevaluate her life.

She attempts to escape sexual slavery by working in an office as a secretary. When a pimp attempts to run her life, however, she ends up killing him. She is taken to her execution at the end of the narrative. In the epilogue, the psychiatrist concludes that she herself is no better than the prostitute. The physicality that the psychiatrist highlights in describing Firdaws will in the end sustain the narrative.

The reality of this prostitute murderer is, however, problematic: her narrative entrance and exit are couched in uncertainty. The vaginal metaphor is extended as we discover that the narration takes place in a hermetically sealed cell, a womblike structure whose window and door are closed. The two women are the only things in it.

This vaginal space is also a space of water. The psychiatrist imagines that the coldness she feels from sitting on the bare floor is like that of the ocean she swims in as in a dream. It is her orders to the medical practitioner that transport the latter into that dream universe and into the potentially enclosed world of the homosexual couple. The real fluidity of water also allows for another fluidity, in narrative roles. The psychiatrist is able to cede her place to the prostitute as she becomes the listener to the tale. Her sense of involvement is intense.

Unable to move, she feels that the earth is on top of her and not she on top of it; the sky becomes like the earth and is also pressing on her: A feeling I did not experience in my life, but once, and several years back, when I loved a man who did not love me. His refusal of me became not the refusal of one human being in a big world full of millions of humans, but the refusal of me by the entire world, with all that is in it and all who are in it.

A feeling I did not experience in my life, but once, several years back, when I was in love for the first time, and I went for the first appointment to meet my lover. The entire episode has sexual overtones. The gender of the lover in her comparisons is clearly identified: it is male. Redefining the prisoner-psychiatrist duo in terms of lover and beloved is pivotal in the narrative. It smacks, on a most superficial level, of a homosexual encounter between the two females.

The attraction on the part of the psychiatrist is clear, the underlying sexual tensions are present. Whether Firdaws is party to this redefinition, however, remains a mystery. An intricate game of sexual roles and reversals takes place in the prologue and in the epilogue as well.

The physician begins the narrative as the active member who initiates the discourse, who will give the prostitute a chance to tell her life. This superior position is not maintained for long, however. Firdaws becomes the lover, assuming the active role and converting the hitherto active psychiatrist into the passive beloved, initially scorned and then satisfied. The prostitute narrator becomes the active member of the duo. When the physician first faces her, she feels as if I had died in the first moment when my eyes met hers.

Concomitant with this role reversal between physician and prostitute is a parallel shift in the discourse. Never does this medical practitioner interrupt the story to ask a question or to alter the flow of the discourse. Rather, the opposite takes place. The psychiatrist sits on the ground of the jail cell. Has the reader simply been witness to a dream? What is the relationship between dream and reality? It is her voice that belongs to the ethereal and uncertain realm of dreams. Her body and her voice interact in a narrative game that overturns the reality of the body flanked as it is by the uncertainty of the voice; ultimately, that voice emanating from the world of dreams is responsible for the narrative.

Her voice will be choked off by the hanging. A chance meeting, a furtive touching of hands, tears on both sides: this event marks Firdaws. Is it possible for me to love a woman? Here again we find the chance meeting, the furtive touching of hands, the tears on both sides. But I am a junior employee. A complicated literary process turns similarity into identity. The two adventures are similar in uncanny ways. In both, Firdaws is confronted with an emotional attachment, one that she quickly disavows.

In both, moreover, this confrontation is the work of a female friend. Yet there is an essential difference between the two relationships: one is a socially sanctioned potential heterosexual coupling, the other is a nonsanctioned, but equally potential, homosexual coupling. The way Firdaws phrases the rejections is telling. In the male-female relationship, Firdaws is the passive party.

The Reading Room: A review of 'Memoirs of a woman doctor' | Medical Humanities

Firdaws goes so far as to fall in love with him, and he, we assume initially, falls in love with her. What a view of male-female relations, though! He does not believe Firdaws is guilty. He even writes a petition to have her sentence commuted, which she refuses to sign. Nevertheless, even though this man is not a negative character, his power and authority are subverted by female power and female bonding.

He is, in fact, proven wrong when Firdaws finally agrees to speak to the psychiatrist. And it is no literary accident that her willingness to do so is announced not by the male doctor but, as we have seen, by the female prison guard. In a sense, Firdaws may be correct in refusing to sign the petition—a refusal that will lead to her physical destruction.

Her previous experiments with potentially liberating situations were all unsuccessful. Was she not a great success in school, and to what end? The conversation she overhears between her uncle and his wife teaches her that her secondary school degree is useless. Her most recent novel Tashari stretches back to the s and explores the changing sociopolitical dynamic of the country through one family and their eventual dispersal across the globe.

This novel was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. One of her most well-known novels, The Inheritance tells the story of various Palestinian women who sacrifice everything for their men and their country only to never be acknowledged or remembered. Her first work Beyond the Veil is an unmissable text in the field of feminism and Middle-Eastern studies, exploring concepts of female sexuality within the historic context of Islam.

Doing Daily Battle: Interviews with Moroccan Women saw her interview a range of women from different socioeconomic backgrounds and lifestyles in order to present an authentic, rounded picture of the realities of womanhood in Morocco. Born in Iran, Azar Nafisi was educated in Switzerland and the United States, before returning to Iran as a professor of literature in As such, Reading Lolita in Tehran acts not only as her own memoirs, but as a portrayal of cultural and national memory.

A greatly prominent feminist novelist, critic and human rights advocate, Nawal El-Saadawi was born in Egypt in and trained as a doctor of medicine. Through this work, she observed first-hand the hardships and physical burdens women, particularly those of lower classes, underwent. She was born in Damascus in , but left Syria for Lebanon in the s and never returned. As such, her work has a distinctly Lebanese focus, with some of her most famous works including Beirut 75 , a novel exploring contemporary social issues in the city, and Beirut Nightmares , a devastating portrayal of the Lebanese Civil War.

It also demonstrates the wider implications of these laws for groups such as women, political activists and artists. Her fiction depicts many traditionally taboo subjects, including homosexuality, abortion and female infidelity, making Al-Shaykh a groundbreaking writer in the Arab world. Save to Wishlist.