Tuesday, May 11, 2010

A Short Review of the Work of Nawal El Saadawi, and on Representing the Work of Women of Color

[photograph of Nawal El Saadawi is from here]

Violence against women, particularly sexual violence, is endemic globally. It isn't universal, as some proclaim, but it also isn't unique to any one or two particular cultures or civilisations. Nawal El Sadaawi has spoken out about violence against women, the oppression of women. As a Western person, I look to her as a radical feminist with much to say about the condition of women in the world, in a non-Western society, including atrocities born of patriarchal imperatives that women be controlled and dominated by men. The mistake, I think, in being a Western reader of international writings by feminists is to believe that "it's so awful for those women over there". My mother's life has known many atrocities. She is a Western woman. So too have the lives of most white women I know.

It has been brought to my attention recently (I think in a post I read on a blog), how white Western readers of literature and people engaged with matters of feminism and sex-hierarchy politics tend to represent (re-present) writers from Central Asia in particular. I've read  similar critiques over the years of how white people write about or re-present the work of African American writers, of East Asian writers, of sub-Sahara African Black writers, and of Indigenous writers. The criticism I've most encountered is this: that the white Western writer will either "exoticise" or "Westernise" the writer who is not white or Western. So when I look for reviews of books by non-white/Western writers, I am looking now for non-white/Western reviewers of the work, or, at least, reviewers who are conscious in the review of what their being white and/or Western means for how they are likely to intepret and re-present the literature of people around the world. An excellent book on this subject, which deserves its own post here, or at least one, is Sexual Textual Politics, by Toril Moi.

Source for what follows is the World Literature blog here. It has a typo or two, which I'm not changing, to not disturb the voice of the reviewer. The author or reviewer/poster is listed as rlitzak. Elsewhere on that blog, it appears to me that non-white people are reviewing the books, not all of which are by non-white writers. It was difficult for me not to change the "3007" to 2007, assuming, of course, that it was meant to refer to a year in the Western Christian calendar. ("Gregorian", I think it's called. To me it's the Western Christian calendar, regardless of what Gregor said or did.) But then I found this, and realised that's not what the number is referring to. This was but one tiny example of how my mind wanted to mis-translate information, carrying dominant and domineering Western/white supremacist assumptions about what things mean. (For more on this, please see *here*.)

One area of particular interest to me is how white and non-Muslim people write about Muslim writers who are not white. The assumptions made about what it means to be Muslim, or what happens inside Muslim societies, are often collapsed by white Western writers into caricatures and negative stereotypes. To "review" or "represent" Muslim women's writing in this way is to do a great disservice to women generally and to Muslim people generally, in my view. For it ought to be clear to me, anyway, by now, that Muslim societies are tremendously international and populous, perhaps more than are White Western societies. This helps me hold in view that my world is a smaller one that I was raised to believe. It also is far less central for most people in the world that it is for me. Although the creators and perpetrators of Western media propaganda and military force are trying their best to make the whole world Westernised, women around the world are resisting this effort, and are writing out their truths so their lives and societies are documented in first person, with perspectives and theories borne of their own regions. A critique of non-Western feminist writers, frequently by men, is that "they've all been influenced by white women in the West". This is worth examining to the extent it is not a smoke screen thrown into the air by men who wish to protect their power to oppress women. Which is also to say, when men raise this issue, I ignore it as legitimate.


Nawal El Saadawi – In Camera

“Men impose deception on women and punish them for being deceived, force them down to the lowest level and punish them for falling so low, bind them in marriage and then chastise them with menial service for life, or insults, or blows.”  
Woman at Point Zero, Nawal El Saadawi
Dr. Nawal El Saadawi wrote more then 40 books which were translated to more then 12 languages. One of them she wrote in prison, after being accused of criticism the government and being dangerous to society. She wrote it using a make-up pen and toilet paper, because they took away her pens and papers. But apparently it is not as simple as that to stop a woman like El Saadawi from saying what she believe in public, and when they didn’t let her publish her books in Egypt any more, since they “offended the society”, she moved to print in Lebanon. For a very good reason El Saadawi’s books are now only to be reached at the black market. She is one of the leaders at the revolutionary struggle for woman rights in Egypt particularly and the Muslim world in general. El Saadawi developed a feminist model to the role of woman at the Islamic culture, which of course made many people around the world mad and one might even say intimidated. In her writing there is a strong furiousness, her description are extremely vivid and she is not afraid to point an accusing finger toward men, the government, and society.  But if we look at El Saadawi’s past we can justify this burning feeling: as a child, she has experienced, like most of the woman in her society, the process of female genital mutilation, which is a culturally ritual that have never been questioned. It is no wonder then that this experience left many open wounds in her body, beside the physical absence. An evidence to the continues struggle El Saadawi is running for years against this horrible ritual and woman rights we can find in her text in camera, where there is a very strong description that implies this fight:
One of them, lying on top of her, had said: This is the way we torture you women – by depriving you of the most valuable thing you posses. Her body under him was cold as a corpse but she had managed to open her mouth and say to him: You fool! The most valuable thins I possess is not between my legs. You’re all stupid. And the most stupid among you is the one who leads you. (3007)
In the story and in her work in general, El Saadawi repeats the strong criticism toward the leaders of the society and is paving the path to a revolution of the women figure in Muslim society and manly societies around the world.

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