Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
9 - 15 December 1999
Issue No. 459
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Books Monthly supplement Antara

In search of an attribution
WhatOs in a painting? The potential for disaster, for one thing. Nigel Ryan reviews Headlong, a tale of vanity and ambition saved only by a thoroughly modern moral equivocation

Sayyid Qutb: Othe right to revoltO
Sayyid Qutb wa Thawrat Yulyou (Sayyid Qutb and the July Revolution), Helmi el-Namnam, Cairo: Meret for Publication and Information, 1999. pp150

Interpretation and beyond
Fate of A Prisoner and Other Stories, Denys Johnson-Davies, London: Quartet Books, 1999. pp222

Questioning the body, questioning the mind
Nawal al-Saadawi, TaOam Al-Solta wal Jins(The Twins of Power and Sex), Dar al-Mustaqbal al-Arabi, Cairo 1999 , pp258

A political scientist among the historians
The Social Origins of Egyptian Expansionism During the Muhammad 'Ali Period, Fred H Lawson, The American University in Cairo Press, 1999 (first published Columbia University Press, 1992). pp215

Ancient Egyptian windfall
* Egypt, Ancient and Modern by Isabella Brega, trans. C.T.M. Milan. The American University in Cairo Press, 1999. pp135
* Egyptian Luxuries: Fragrance, Aromatherapy, and Cosmetics in Pharaonic Times. Lise Manniche with photographs by Werner Forman. The American University in Cairo Press, 1999. pp160
* Ancient Egypt. David P. Silverman ed., The American University in Cairo Press, 1999. pp255

Intersection points
Al Jadid, vol. 5, no. 28, 1999, Los Angeles, Al Jadid

Sharing the self
Dikka Khashabiya Tasa Ithnayn Bilkad (A wooden bench barely wide enough for two), Shehata el-Iryan, Cairo: Aswat Adabiya (Literary Voices) General Organisation for Cultural Palaces, 1999. pp206
To the editor

At a glance
By Mahmoud El-Wardani

* Al-Hilal, monthly magazine, issue no. 12, December 1999, Cairo: Al-Hilal Publishing House
* Al-Arabi, monthly magazine, issue no. 493, December 1999, Kuwait: Ministry of Information
* Al-Kotob: Wughat Nazar (Books: Viewpoints), monthly magazine, issue no. 11, December 1999, Cairo: The Egyptian Company for Arab and International Publication
* Mirrors, Naguib Mahfouz, translated by Roger Allen, illustrated by Seif Wanli, Cairo: AUC Press, 1999. pp186
* Ibdaa (Creativity), monthly magazine, issue no. 10, November 1999, Cairo: GEBO
* Sotour (Lines), monthly magazine, issue no. 36, November 1999, Cairo: Sotour Publications
* Al-Thaqafa Al-Alamia (OWorld CultureO), Kuwait: The National Council for Culture and Arts
* Adab wa Naqd (Literature and Criticism), monthly literary magazine, issue no. 171, November 1999, Cairo: Progressive National Unionist Party publications
* Qadaya Fikriya (Intellectual Issues), occasional book, issues no. 19 and 20, October 1999
* Al-OOsour Al-Jadida (New Eras), monthly magazine, issue no. 2, 1999, Cairo: Sinai Publishing House
* Nizwa, quarterly magazine, issue no. 20, October 1999, Oman: Omani Corporation for Press, Publishing and Advertising

To see other book supplements go to the ARCHIVES index. 


Illustrations courtesy of International Commitee of the Red Cross
"Folk drawings and tales", Cairo, 1996

Nawal al-Saadawi, Ta'am Al-Solta wal Jins(The Twins of Power and Sex), Dar al-Mustaqbal al-Arabi, Cairo 1999 , pp258

Questioning the body, questioning the mind

The Twins of Power and Sex by Nawal al-Saadawi is a collection of 34 of the author's articles, some published, others banned from publication, and all dealing with the effects of a trinity of taboos -- religious, political and sexual -- on the lives of women.

As'ila Tufuliyya ('Childhood Questions'), which was first published in the Cairo newspaper Al-Ahali in 1996, although the least controversial of the articles, appears to hold the key to the book. As its title suggests, the article does not so much expound the many problems that confront women as ask pertinent questions about the nature of the power that is exerted over them. It also asks questions about religion and about the development of relations between the sexes. These questions are inherently "childlike", if not simplistic, but nevertheless they strike at fundamental issues.

"Why is it that [in early mythological systems] the mother figure fell from grace in heaven and on earth, given the uninhibited nature of sexual relations in early human societies?" "What right does the Vatican have to intervene in matters pertaining to contraception, abortion and conjugal relations?" "Why did President George Bush take the Bible in hand as he declared war in the name of God against the 'Iraqi Satan' in mid-January 1991?" "Why, today, do we see the Israeli president, Torah in hand, announcing further murder and expulsion of the Palestinian people, also in the name of God?" "Why is it permissible for children to take only their father's name, when Ancient Egyptian society was matrilineal?" Questions such as these are designed to probe recesses of the mind in which are embedded paradigmatic relations that, by virtue of long and powerful usage, have acquired their own internal consistency and unquestioned legitimacy. Indeed, it is for this reason that these questions appear so innocent, naive and potent.

In fact the spirit of 'Childhood Questions' pervades the articles collected in The Twins of Power and Sex. Using such blunt questioning, al-Saadawi deftly pursues various themes to generate a cohesive account of the interwoven effects of religion, power and sex on the lives of women in our society over time. Her premise can be found in the introduction to the book, in which she writes, "The logic of power has prevailed since the emergence of slavery. In the absence of justice, the strong manipulate this logic with deceptive catchphrases, from 'land for circumcision' -- epitomizing the divine covenant promising Palestine to the sons of Israel -- to 'land for peace' and the underlying principle of the marital code: obedience in return for material support."

To al-Saadawi, the public and private realms are intertwined, and she rejects such dichotomies as mind and body, heaven and earth, men and women. In 'And they ask you about Confinement', an article originally published in 1995, she illustrates these ideas by an incident that affected her personally. On this occasion she needed to renew her passport, but could not do so without the approval of her husband. How is it, she asks, that an adult woman in Egypt can become a minister, yet is barred from travel without her husband's consent? Islam does not obviate the Muslim woman's -- or non-Muslim woman's for that matter -- right to take charge of her own affairs or her freedom to travel, as long as she is not conspiring against the state.

Although the articles in the book were written at different times in al-Saadawi's life, and those that have been published first appeared in periodicals representing a variety of political outlooks, they are nevertheless bound together by a single thread. This is the author's passionate quest to get to the heart of the multifaceted economic, political, social and moral oppression of women. It is little wonder, therefore, that female circumcision and the veil receive the major thrust of her assault. Al-Saadawi writes that "from the earliest years of childhood women are brought up on a distorted notion of femininity. This upbringing represents another form of mutilation, a sort of educational circumcision to add to the physical one. Female circumcision, the veil, the law of obedience, the man's right to multiple wives, his right to control expenditure and to other such exclusively male rights are manifestations of the values and customs that came into being with the rise of the law of bondage or of slavery".

In 'A Window through the Wall between the Sexes', first published in Al-Ahram in 1976, al-Saadawi discusses women's historical exclusion from education in terms of a systematic reinforcement of traditional female roles, such as those of wife and mother, and the relation of these to cycles of underdevelopment and poverty. However it was not until 1997, and in a further article, that she contextualized the issue of education within the larger frame of a woman's innate right to satisfy the natural instinct to learn. This article, 'The Return to Metaphysics and the Problem of Woman', which represents a radicalisation of al-Saadawi's thought, was written after her return from exile in the United States, where she spent the years 1992-7, and after her name had been placed on a 'Death List' by her opponents, alongside those of other prominent Egyptian and Arab intellectuals. In it she argues that in order to properly address the relationship of women to knowledge, we must take into account "attempts being undertaken by many women's groups around the world to reinterpret the divine verses of the Torah, the Bible and the Qu'ran", attempts which, in their aim of eliminating women's oppression in the name of religion, al-Saadawi sees as "essential during this transitional phase from the philosophy of human bondage (patriarchy) to a new humanitarianism that restores the natural unity between body and soul and breaks away from a hierarchy of servitude".

For al-Saadawi the question of women's education and intelligence still needs to be insisted on, since contemporary male Egyptian intellectuals have used precisely this issue to reinforce traditional roles for women. In 'Modernity and the Return to the Past', for example, al-Saadawi examines the Egyptian playwright Tawfiq al-Hakim's play Isis (1976) in which the ancient Egyptian deity is portrayed as the constant, subservient wife who is faithful to her husband Osiris beyond his death in spite of the fact that in the actual myth Isis was a symbol of wisdom, her cult spreading to Europe where it remained influential until the 6th century. In 1986, al-Saadawi sought to redress this misrepresentation in her own play of the same name; here the protagonist is given the intellectual and political stature actually accorded to her in Ancient Egyptian mythology. Tellingly, the powers-that-be in Egyptian theatre refused to stage a production of al-Saadawi's Isis.

No book of al-Saadawi's would be complete without an attack on the veil, and The Twins of Power and Sex is no exception. In fact, the issue surfaces repeatedly. In one article, in which al-Saadawi treats the veil from a historical perspective, she writes, "The veiling of women emerged in ancient Bedouin societies as a health precaution, and then, under Judaism, it acquired religious sanctity. However in this religion the veiling of women served to protect the interests of the priestly cast, for with her face fully covered, including her eyes, she would not be able to see who ate the sacrificial offerings she had brought to the temple." Given this mixed historical background, why should women now be increasingly obliged to wear the veil, al-Saadawi asks. In 'The Rights of Women were not only the Product of Two Books by Qasem Amin', she stresses the importance of studying the historical context behind the imposition of the veil, yet she seems too cautious in her attempts to find historical justifications for arguing against it.

Perhaps if al-Saadawi had approached the problem from a societal perspective, as did Arlene Elowe Macleod in her recent Accommodating Protest: Working Women, the New Veiling and Change in Cairo, for example, a book in which the author scrupulously observes the many conflicting motives that have caused contemporary Egyptian women to wear the veil, or if she had discussed the veil in the context of Gramsci's concept of "hegemony" and the downward effect of ideas on the masses, she would have come closer to explaining the riddle of why new generations of women have opted for this otherwise curious manifestation of voluntary submission to authority. Perhaps, too, in this way she could have explained the veil as being at the same time a symbol of conformity and of non-conformity. However, whatever the case may be, perhaps the greatest contribution of this book, and the blunt questions that it contains, is that it lends legitimacy to the questioning of a younger generation seeking to understand the perplexing life around it. Reviewed by Rania Khallaf

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