Academic journal article Tamkang Review

Truly Living as a Woman: Sexual Politics in Alifa Rifaat and Nawal El Saadawi's Short Stories

Academic journal article Tamkang Review

Truly Living as a Woman: Sexual Politics in Alifa Rifaat and Nawal El Saadawi's Short Stories

Article excerpt

At home she washes off the dust from the road performing her ablutions and praying before she eats. After she eats, she goes to sleep with God's book under her pillow. She wakes to the sound of her father's voice calling her to fix his food. After he eats, he prays and asks God to protect his daughter from the devil.

--Nawal El Saadawi, "Eyes" 206


As an Egyptian nationalist feminist, Nawal El Saadawi assumes a secular position, denounces the link between feminine virtues and traditional values in Islamic fundamentalism. Born in 1931, El Saadawi is a writer, doctor and women rights activist in Egypt. She was Egypt's Director of Public Health from 1965 to 1972, until she was dismissed from the position as a consequence of her political activities and the controversial book, Women and Sex. She was imprisoned under Anwar Sadat for her political activities. Growing up in the small village of Kafr Tahla by the Nile, El Saadawi gives particular attention to peasant women in her writing through the middle-class lens. Nawal El Saadawi has written many books about women in Islam, concentrating particularly on the custom of female genital cutting (1) in her culture. Alifa Rifaat (1930- 1996) is unique among Arab women writers. She did not receive university education, speaks only Arabic and has rarely traveled abroad. Immunity from Western cultural exposure lends authenticity to her accounts of Muslim women under sexual segregation and their despair in daily life. Criticizing FGC, Bahiyya remains religiously faithful and passive toward her fate in "Bahiyya's Eyes." The haunting melancholia and dreams in "My World of the Unknown" are treated with sensitivity to Islam beyond bland Western prescriptions.

When Nawal El Saadawi (1931-) resists colonial cultural invasion, the basis on which she builds to reverse unequal cultural power relationships is anti- Freudian, anti-penis-envy gender/sexual theory from the West. She occupies the double positions of the West and Islam full of tensions, contradictions, unsettlement and overlaps in between. By making use of the short story form, as this paper argues, El Saadawi is empowered to fight for more spaces in Egyptian women's private domain which has long been obstructed by the Westernized, male-led liberation agenda in the nationalist-modernist movement since the turn of the twentieth century. This paper also examines the limitations of nationalist-modernist approach. She has two limitations: first, she retains assumptions on feminine essences; second, the gains of education and employment are class-specific. On the other hand, the short story form that Alifa Rifaat (1931-1996) employs creates a complex time-place that expresses the emergent new Arabo-Islamic identities up against the adamant call for the return to Islamic traditions in the 1970s. Rifaat depicts Egyptian women's intimate daily life in a self-alienated and yet uncanny manner so that the idea of the feminine traditional role is both re-assured and subverted. Her short stories initiate a double move that both constructs Egyptian women's selfhood and disrupts homogenous national boundaries.

Rifaat's representations of Egyptian women's subordination, virginity and genital excision reflect the development of Islamist modernity in the 1970s and 1980s, persuading a majority of middle-class college women and working women to follow a complete way of life rooted in Islam (Hatem 92). As compared to secularist discourse, Islamism sought to make the nuclear family Islamic, with its emphasis on intimacy in heterosexual couples and modern educational systems (92). The nationalist-secularist discourse was more universalist than culturally specific, though it justified universalism by erasing the universalist marks from the public domain and by offering an essential view regarding the local culture as backward and inferior (86). Islamism emerged not as a challenge against modernity but as a power struggle against the secular middle class (87). …

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