Women, Citizenship and Difference / Feminism and Islamic Fundamentalism: The Limits of Postmodern Analysis / A Daughter of Isis: The Autobiography of Nawal El Saadawi

Article excerpt

Women, Citizenship and Difference, ed. by Nira Yuval-Davis and Pnina Werbner. London and New York: Zed Books, 1999. xii + 261 pages. Index to p. 271. Ser. Postcolonial Encounters. $65 cloth; $22.50 paper.

Feminism and Islamic Fundamentalism: The Limits of Postmodern Analysis, by Haideh Moghissi. London and New York: Zed Books, 1999. ix + 148 pages. References to p. 159. Index to p. 166. $55 cloth; $19.95 paper.

A Daughter of Isis: The Autobiography of Nawal El Saadawi, by Nawal El Saadawi. Trans. by Sherif Hetata. London and New York: Zed Books, 1999. 294 pages. Photographs. $55 cloth; $19.95 paper.

The memoir of Nawal El Saadawi, Egyptian feminist of international repute, begins with a knot that laces much of her fiction: the triumvirate of God, logocentrism, and the father. Then, El Saadawi takes readers chronologically from her birth to the completion of her education and beginning of her medical career as a village doctor, sweeping through Egyptian history from her father's nationalist activism to her own consciousness of, and participation in, the demonstrations of the 1940s and early 1950s. Tracing large events of national history through a child's consciousness, El Saadawi offers a wonderful supplementary teaching text for modern history courses; regard, for instance, little Nawal's musings on intersections of imperialist and religious authority: "In my dreams I sometimes wondered whether Miss Hamer would go to Heaven or to Hell. Perhaps she might slip into Heaven in the same way as she used to slip into our classroom. I could not see her going to Hell since Satan spoke only Arabic, so that there was no way that Miss Hamer could understand him if he whispered evil temptations in her ears" (p. 98).

The chronology of a life unfolds from the author's situation as she writes, far from Egypt, at a moment when many Egyptian intellectuals worry about physical safety, as they seek spaces in which to articulate their visions. Her meditations on the swings of memory and life center on the figure of her mother. If her father was an admired paragon of her early life (so marked a motif in feminist life stories), it is the mother's body, face, and words that recuperate that time and are crucial to recognizing the force-and the elusiveness-of memory. "I wrote to bring back my mother's face..." (p. 54). A difficult identification with the mother shapes memory:

Her world was another world which made me shiver every time I thought of it, the world of the kitchen, smelling of onions and garlic, filled with smoke or soot rising from a kerosene-burning stove.

The world of my father was the northern balcony, overlooking the flower nursery, open under the starry night, with Allah, and the Prophet Muhammad and the British and the king looking down on us (p. 60).

El Saadawi invokes the history of female education in Egypt, alluding to her time at the famous Saniyya School. Her father, a Ministry of Education employee who rose through the ranks, supported female education in principle and Nawal's education materially, yet was reluctant to admit-and slow to accept-that she, rather than his male firstborn, was the academically inclined child. Her mother and aunts, making the "patriarchal bargains" that Deniz Kandiyoti has theorized so eloquently, are nevertheless role models in ways invisible to the young Nawal but present, sometimes uncomfortably, to the writer and fighter as she looks back. Uncles, on the other hand, are forces of reaction to be feared, avoided, and opposed; adult males in this autobiography could be models for many of El Saadawi's fictional male villains.

Mother and father also enact a history of class tension and interaction. As in EI Saadawi's fiction, larger social forces are embodied in stark opposites that, literally, shine forth in different hues: the lighter, softer skins of her mother's landowning clan; the dark and sinewy hands of her paternal grandmother, wondrous exemplar of strong, down-to-earth peasant womanhood. …