“why had my mother made gods of them?”

March 3, 2011 § 1 Comment

Memoirs of a Woman Doctor is my first Nawal El El Saadawi book. I say this with embarrassment. I’ve heard of her, certainly, and read bits of her essays throughout the years without having paid acute attention to her body of work. A mistake that was fortunately rectified with the recent Egyptian uprising, in which we were all treated to video interviews with the formidable, intelligent 80-year-old El Saadawi. I was recommended to start with Woman at Point Zero, but apparently the only work of fiction by El Saadawi available in local bookshops is Memoirs of a Woman Doctor. It’s entirely possible that Woman at Point Zero may be banned here (“surreptitiously banned”) but I’ve no way of knowing for sure. I didn’t want to wait weeks for the books to make their way to me, seized as I was by an indecipherable need to read her now. In the midst of reading Memoirs, I forgot all about my self-imposed moratorium on book-buying and bought two of her nonfiction works, The Hidden Face of Eve and The Nawal El El Saadawi Reader, both of which popped up serendipitously when I was at MPH looking for something else. I would have liked it to be all Nawal El-Saadawi all the time, but as usual I got sidetracked by other books. I hope to read Eve and the Reader some point very soon.

Memoirs is a spare, slim novel – a novella, actually, and in a way I’m glad I started here. It feels apt somehow because it’s El Saadawi’s first book. In so many ways, it reads almost like prose poetry; a distillation of one Egyptian woman’s thoughts and feelings as she courageously cuts down societal barriers that stand in the way of her gender and her attempts at self-knowledge. Memoirs was initially serialised in an Egyptian magazine, Ruz al-Yusuf, in 1957. Because of its controversial nature, sections were deleted or removed, El Saadawi explains in her preface to this edition. And because she lost the first manuscript, the book has survived its various reprints in a sort of half-assembled form, slightly different from the original manuscript she wrote right after graduating from the School of Medicine in Cairo.

While the language is smooth – almost deceptively so, considering the complex ideas that are constantly wrestling with each other within the narrative framework – there are parts of the book that seem a little rough around the edges. The pacing sometimes appears uneven because ephemeral details are jettisoned in favour of the narrator’s impressions, thoughts, feelings, and reflections. But Memoirs is not meant to be read or understood as though it were an exercise in realism. As the title suggests, the book reads like journal entries that gently skim over the events of the narrator’s life while swooping down and settling in amidst her thoughts, reflections and responses. It’s heightened perception, it’s sensibility refined and condensed. Because of this, the prose feels almost naked, bare, stripped of its linguistic masks and cover. There are parts of this book that read like a polemic and that in turn remind me of the equally-polemical nonfiction King Kong Theory, by Virginie Despentes.

In Memoirs, as in King Kong Theory, awareness for the woman narrator begins with the body. For the narrator in Memoirs, her body has long been its own cage (hair must be neatly combed, desire and hunger for food must not be exhibited, dress must not rise above the knee), but when she hits puberty and notices changes in her body that, in turn, invite unwanted advances from men and further social sanctioning of what her body can and cannot do in public spaces, she becomes determined to renounce it. (That this occurs simultaneously with the narrator’s need to renounce her mother, or at least what her mother represents for her, recalling Kristeva’s formulation of abjection.) And renounce it she does, when she enters medical school and finds the physical human body made banal, ordinary, and most importantly – something to be studied and understood and placed within reliable knowledge systems. In death, both men and women are naked; revealed to be nothing more than flesh. With her mind, she can break apart the ideological chains that keep the female body shackled: “I had charted my way in life, the way of the mind. I had carried out the death sentence on my body so that I no longer felt it existed.” Similarly, Despentes comes face-to-face with the reality of her body when she is raped at age 17 in 1986 while hitchhiking back from a concert with a female friend.  As Despentes writes, “Post-rape, the only acceptable response is to turn the violence inwards, onto yourself. Put on forty pounds, for instance. Withdraw from the sexual marketplace because you are soiled goods, take yourself out of the realm of desire.”

El Saadawi’s narrator endures unwanted sexual harassment and advances in her puberty, and by the time she goes to medical school, she too is ready to turn the violence inward by justifying it as a turn outward – to the life of the mind. But bit by bit, as bodies become her trade and her source of knowledge, they begin to teach her things:

This was my first encounter with a naked man, and in the course of it men lost their dread power and illusory greatness in my eyes. A man had fallen from his throne and lay on a dissecting table next to a woman. Why had my mother made all these tremendous distinctions between me and my brother, and portrayed man as a god whom I would have to serve in the kitchen all my life?


A man’s body! The terror of mothers and little girls who sweltered in the heat of the kitchen to fill it with food, and carried the spectre of it with them day and night.

El Saadawi’s protagonist, like Despentes after her harrowing ordeal, are not women who want to acquiesce to societal norms and go away quietly as they have been taught and expected to do. Instead, they find themselves imbued with that insatiable need to ask all the wrong questions. There is a need to reclaim a sense of power that was never given to them in the first place, as in the case of the narrator of Memoirs, or to reclaim power that was violently taken away from them, as in the case of Despentes. The (re)claiming of power may reinforce unfortunate binaries – men as the oppressor, women as the oppressed, but one gets the sense that is a momentary conceptual pause on the way towards recovery. This certainly leads to Despentes’ anguished proclamation: “Rape is the exclusive male domain. Not war, hunting, raw desire, violence, or barbarism, but rape, which women – until now – have never taken possession of.” Despentes thinks about why she couldn’t bring herself to use the pen-knife she carried with her against her assailants: “From the instant I realized what was happening, I was convinced they were the stronger ones.” Women, she says, still feel the need to say that “violence is not the answer” even when violence is being inflicted upon them. Despentes astutely points out that this is a pervasive frame of reference and belief that is designed, in part, to make women internalise vulnerability, recognising in a difference sense what Laura Kipnis described in The Female Thing: Dirt, Envy, Sex, Vulnerability as “an unjust distribution of fear and insecurity between the sexes historically”.

'Ten Types of Female Nudes' by Ishikawa Toraji

Picture above borrowed from here.

I can’t help but recall the ways in which characters in other books have wrestled conceptually with the idea of their own messy, hysterical, always-the-wrong-size-in-the-wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time bodies, like Sophie in Edwidge Danticat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory, who learns that the burdens of her body is hers alone to bear despite the fact that her mother is able to violate it in a most intimate and humiliating way to ensure that Sophie is still a virgin. Or the narrator in Angela Carter’s short story, ‘The Tiger’s Bride’, who finds the prospect of bodily transformation from human to possible animal (monster) a delicious, sexually-inviting one. Or Esther Sharp in The Bell Jar who learns that her body must be circumscribed, disciplined, and made malleable by strangers administering drugs. Or how Mary Gaitskill’s Two Girls, Fat and Thin probes the idea of body as destiny for the female psyche: how the shape of a woman’s body can shape her interior landscape. There is a reason why we sigh over the idea of a woman’s face launching a thousand ships, but back away in fear/disgust/boredom when we are made to contemplate how a woman’s body may have launched a thousand psychical disorders.

The narrator in Memoirs learns to identify the illusory ideologies that keep power relations frozen on the operating table as she literally cuts into physical bodies and attempts to heal or fix them. The physical cutting-up prefigures the metaphorical slicing and dicing of long-held assumptions, beliefs, codes of conduct, and prohibitions. But having this kind of power, as a doctor, over her patient’s ill, feeble bodies – men and women – is not a power trip but a cause for discontent. As she observes how she’s taught to examine her patients, mechanically, coldly, without consideration, and sees how her (mostly) male colleagues are taught to do the same, the narrator becomes dissatisfied:

This arrogant, proud and mighty man, constantly strutting and fretting,, thinking and innovating, was supported on earth by a body separated from extinction by a hair’s breadth. Once severed – and severed it must inevitably be one day – there was no power on earth which could join it together again.

Science toppled from its throne and fell at my feet naked and powerless, just as man had done before.

The more significant battle comes, as expected, when the narrator has to deal with one actual, living, breathing man – the man she ends up marrying. El Saadawi’s deft ability to zero in on the heart of gender and sexual relations enables her to show how patriarchy ends up shooting itself in the foot when women who are expected to internalise it decide to answer to no one, not even their husbands. Patriarchy, I know, is not a trendy word to use – people dislike it because it alienates potential “allies”, makes men uncomfortable and defensive, or, you know, whatever – but El Saadawi paints in a few bold strokes the realities of a society that is patriarchal not because men are determined to be evil or women are determined to be victims, but because both have accepted this symbolic order of the Name-of-the-Father. The narrator’s mother is a spectre constantly looming over her reflections on men – “How weak men were! Why had my mother made gods of them?”

This is the narrator’s constant refrain throughout Memoirs. Men are just… people. Lumps of flesh, bodies. Equally beautiful as women, equally repulsive. Why, she asks, why have we made them lords of other (lesser) men, lords of women?

The narrator’s husband is someone who has recently lost his beloved mother. He’s sensitive, passive and soft, framed as a sort of polar opposite to the narrator. Yet, failing to find someone to replace his mother – the narrator refuses to be his mother or his obedient wife-subject – he returns to behavioural norms that reflect his unwillingness to explore beyond the boundaries. If you won’t be my mother, then I’ll be your patriarch. The marriage, predictably, ends. The signs of manhood (or womanhood) are pervasive, after all:

And yet he considered himself a man. He had a man’s features: a deep voice and a bushy moustache. Other men were in his employ, women stole glances at his moustache and children he passed in streets and alleys didn’t dare make rude remarks or throw stones at him.

As El Saadawi seems to want to remind us, so many of our gender performances are signs signifying nothing.

Memoirs is also structured somewhat like a parable: that of a woman’s triumph to meet her match in both the life of the mind and life of the heart/body. There is, in a sense, a “happy ending”. This sense of happiness, if we can call it that, comes out of constant questioning – every time the narrator goes ahead, guns blazing, with her unorthodox choices, she’s brought back to “reality” again with an inner voice that just won’t quit:

What do you want? You rebelled against everything and refused to lead a woman’s life. You ran after truth and truth made you shut yourself away from yourself. And men? You looked at them, searched around and were thrown into disarray; then you pursed your lips disparagingly.

The narrator’s mental back and forth reveals her vulnerability to societal injunctions and her own personal doubts, channelled as it through memories of her mother’s comments on how girls should behave conduct their lives. These moments of doubt, signifying the narrator’s confusion and ambivalence, are the more valuable sections of the book –mirroring the kind of to-be-or-not-to-be moments that may perhaps be the condition of most women’s lives, what more those living in societies that are superficially-considered to have one foot in “modernity” and another firmly in “tradition”. This dichotomy between tradition and modernity is something a gazillion theorists and historicists have explored, but one who comes to mind right now is Talal Asad. In this interview with Saba Mahmood, he parses the concepts with clarity and elegance (and I’m going to quote it at length):

I think that one needs to recognize that when one talks about tradition, one should be talking about, in a sense, a dimension of social life and not a stage of social development. In an important sense, tradition and modernity are not really two mutually exclusive states of a culture or society but different aspects of historicity. Many of the things that are thought of as modern belong to traditions which have their roots in Western history. A changing tradition is often developing rapidly but a tradition nevertheless. When people talk about liberalism as a tradition, they recognize that it is a tradition in which there are possibilities of argument, reformulation, and encounter with other traditions, that there is a possibility of addressing contemporary problems through the liberal tradition. So one thinks of liberalism as a tradition central to modernity. How is it that one has something that is a tradition but that is also central to modernity? Clearly, liberalism is not a mixture of the traditional and the modern. It is a tradition that defines one central aspect of Western modernity. It is no less modern by virtue of being a tradition than anything else is modern. It has its critics, both within the West and outside, but it is perhaps the dominant tradition of political and moral thought and practice. And yet this is not the way in which most social scientists have talked about so-called “traditional” societies/cultures in the non-European world generally, and in the Islamic world in particular.

Discourse of feminism in the West (and among Western-influenced or educated feminists in the East/South/Third World/I’m still not sure what’s the proper term, but perhaps there never can be a proper one) can sometimes (unconsciously, perhaps) slide into the position of framing the Western female experience as the telos for women in “oppressed, third world” countries everywhere. El Saadawi’s narrator is a welcome example of a portrayal of a woman who has grown up internalising and fighting against the demands of patriarchy that deems itself traditional (and therefore “right” in a society that wants to place inherent value on tradition), and one who is coming to terms with a feminism that deems itself “free” (free from the demands of the female body, free from heteronormative sexuality), and finds both lacking. If the personal is political, then, it only works if the political is cognizant of the multifarious formulations of the personal.

Painting of nude female by Antonio Blanco

Image taken from here.

This brings to mind Lila Abu-Lughod’s essay, ‘Orientalism and Middle East Feminist Studies’, which I read sometime back and was moved to reread again while reading this book. Abu-Lughod writes:

The solution is to refuse the tradition/Western modernity divide, but how sophisticated do you have to be to manage this?

This question – “how sophisticated do you have to be to manage this” – is something I’ve struggled with for ages, and I doubt I’m a special exception. It’s a searing question. How sophisticated do you have to be to manage this? Over the course of writing this review I went back and forth numerous times because my words didn’t sufficiently describe or explain that bizarre, unnameable space that women straddle in societies like Egypt, or India, or Indonesia, or Malaysia, or Pakistan, or Tunisia or [insert name of country here] where the reasonable, eminently sound position is to, of course, reject this divide. But how? Each time I write about this, I’m aware that I’m complicit in valuing one position over another when I don’t mean to, and in the end, adopting an incoherent, broadly-based stance that does very little to reflect actual personal, lived conditions.[i] It makes my head spin. It makes me value all the more essays by Lila Abu-Lughod. It also makes me value literature that features protagonists like the one in Memoirs who live out the experience of this frenzied duality, even if they’re not necessarily model-feminists in the way we would like them to be. This is perhaps El-Saadawi’s gift as a fiction writer, even in a book like this one with its occasionally-flimsy moments.

This passage in Memoirs appears towards the final page and it’s one that made me stop and think and think and think:

Thirty years of my life had gone by without my realizing the truth, without my understanding what life was about or realizing my own potential. How could I have done, when I’d only thought about taking? – although I couldn’t have given something which I didn’t have to give.

I couldn’t have given something which I didn’t have to give.

How sophisticated do you have to be to manage this?


[i] In the course of writing this, I read two excellent takes on issues similar to what I’ve been thinking about: Meghan Drury’s thoughtful attempt at outlining forms of imperial feminism and Millicent’s excellent take on on Gaddafi’s female personal bodyguards, followed by really intriguing comments – especially the point made by Lapata on Talal Asad’s formulation that “seduction is a critical engine by which capitalism functions”. These are excellent, thoughtful pieces that you must read.


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§ One Response to “why had my mother made gods of them?”

  • […] “Why had my mother made Gods of them”: Subashini on Nawal El El Saadawi’s Memoirs of a Woman Doctor Millicent on “What Can We Say About Qadaffi’s Female Bodyguards“ Megan Drury on “Imperial Feminism“ South-South on “Roger Ebert’s ‘Sad Focus’” and “The Fabric of Democracy” […]

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