Guest Review – The Hidden Face of Eve: Women in the Arab World

August 29, 2011

Today, I’m featuring a lovely book blogger, Amy from Amy Reads. Here’s a little bit about her blog, in Amy’s own words:

Amy is a twenty-something bibliophile who is addicted to reading and discussing books, which she does at her blog, Amy Reads. She reads an eclectic mix of fiction and non-fiction and loves to promote African (especially Nigerian) and GLBTQ literature. Amy Reads was started on January 1st, 2010, and has been growing ever since. Originally from Prince Edward Island, she is now based in Toronto, Ontario.


Title: The Hidden Face of Eve: Women in the Arab World

Author: Nawal el Saadawi

Translator: Sherif Hetata

Publisher / Year: Beacon Press / 1980

Pages: 212

Genre: Non-Fiction, Women’s Studies, Politics

Source: Better World Books

Rating: 4.5/5

Why I Read It: I’ve been reading more Saadawi after featuring her for our Year of Feminist Classics Project.

Date Read: 27/08/11

From the cover:

This powerful account of brutality against women in the Muslim world remains as shocking today as when it was first published, more than a quarter of a century ago. It was the horrific female genital mutilation that she suffered aged only six, which first awakened Nawal el Saadawi’s sense of the violence and injustice which permeated her society. Her experiences working as a doctor in villages around Egypt, witnessing prostitution, honour killings and sexual abuse, inspired her to write in order to give voice to this suffering. She goes on explore the causes of the situation through a discussion of the historical role of Arab women in religion and literature. Saadawi argues that the veil, polygamy and legal inequality are incompatible with the just and peaceful Islam which she envisages.

This is the first work of non-fiction that I’ve read by Saadawi but it gives a lot of, I think, important context to her works of fiction. In this book, which is arranged as a collection of interrelated essays, she examines the status of women in the Arab world and talks about the myriad issues affecting her. Part of this is the discussion of economics and class as oppressive forces, and the importance of them.

The collection is laid out in four parts. The first, ‘The Mutilated Half’, discusses the status of women and the various injustices to which she is subjected. In this section Saadawi points out again and again that the status of women is not dictated by Islam, and points out how Islam has changed in many ways but that culture dictates the rules that are maintained and enforced. She talks about patriarchy and class systems and the injustices of these systems have enforced strict rules and codes on women.

For the life of people and their essential needs are dependent on economics and not on religion. Throughout human history the standards and values of religion have themselves been shaped by the economy. The oppression of women in any society is in its turn an expression of an economic structure built on land ownership, systems of inheritance and parenthood, and the patriarchal family as an inbuilt social unit. (page 4)

In this section the author also discusses the double standard where economic reasons are blamed for the oppression of women in the Western world while religion is always blamed in the Arab world. In this sense throughout the book she opens the eyes of many who like to find easy answers and point the blame at religion as opposed to taking a closer look at the real situation on the ground in many places. Time and again she points to the double force of government corruption and foreign imperialism and the misinterpretation of religion that these groups allow to flourish.

The second section titled ‘Women in History’ looks at women throughout history as a class worldwide. She talks about trends all over the world starting with the original women both in myths and in real life throughout the evolution of the human race. In this section she makes a large number of sweeping generic claims that in some cases perhaps go too far, but she does still provide interesting information and lays it out to show that Arab woman have developed along with women all over the world in similar systems.

The third section is ‘The Arab Woman’. This section continues from the look at women in general and narrows in to the Arab woman through history to the present including her portrayals in literature. Here she looks at the view from inside and the view from outside the Arab world. Saadawi also discusses the bias shown by the completely dismissal of history and progress out of the Arab world shown by those in the West. She says on page 152:

This bias cannot be explained by the natural superiority claimed by some ‘scientists’ for the Western brain and its alleged qualities of greater intelligence and creativeness, but rather by a deliberate attempt to erase the cultural heritage of peoples who were once colonized, to sever the continuity between their past, present, and future, and thus render easier the attempts at imperialistic and reactionary subjugation for those who still dream of maintaining more modern versions of old colonial empires.

The collection ends with the fourth section, ‘Breaking Through’. In this section Saadawi talks about the women’s liberation movement in the Arab world and the forerunners who have been working to better the status of women for over a hundred years now (since the late 1800s and early 1900s). She talks about how those in power, even if the power structure contains women, is not going to be effective if the current patriarchal norm is maintained. Saadawi points out on page 179:

In no country in the world has it happened that women have achieved equal rights with men simply because they have been give their political rights.

This section also looks at the ways in which women are gaining more rights, and the ways they are being kept from basic rights, in terms of work and marriage. It highlights the large amount of work that is still to be done.

Although written over thirty years ago this book remains quite relevant today. Many of the issues she discusses are still issues which call for solutions in terms of culture and policy changes in many areas of the Arab world. While progress has been made, the class divide still exasperates issues that affect women with little end in sight. One can hope that the revolutions in recent months in many Arab countries will lead to more just societies, and we will all be watching closely to see if this is the case.

Many of the issues highlighted by Saadawi in this collection are issues we face elsewhere in the world as well. As religion makes increasing gains into politics in the US and women lose more and more rights it is easy to see how economic models are used as a backdrop to the oppression of women. This volume should rather be a warning to all of us on the current economic models and a help in pointing to solutions for the future. It should also serve as a warning to anyone trying to take the easy route in terms of generalizing on the causes of women’s oppression around the world without first doing the adequate research.


This book is a part of the Ramadan Reading event happening here this month.

You can find other posts in the series by clicking on the image to the right, or by taking a look at the schedule of posts and reviews.

7 Comments

  • Amy August 29, 2011 at 5:01 pm

    Thanks for running this project and letting me do a guest post for you Carina 🙂

  • zibilee August 29, 2011 at 5:11 pm

    It sounds like this book is just chock full of information and ideas, and I imagine that it would probably be a great resource for those readers looking to explore these issues. I liked that you highlighted and discussed each section of the book. You had some wonderful insights, Amy!

    • Amy August 30, 2011 at 6:15 pm

      Thank you very much zibilee 🙂

  • carolinareads August 29, 2011 at 8:23 pm

    This books sounds great and it sure has some interesting views.

    • Amy August 30, 2011 at 8:17 pm

      Definitely interesting and recommended Carolinareads 🙂

  • Vishy August 30, 2011 at 10:24 pm

    Thanks Carina for featuring this guest post by Amy!

    Wonderful review, Amy! This looks like a must-read book! I really have to read my first el Saadawi book soon!

    • Amy September 3, 2011 at 7:25 pm

      Thank you Vishy 🙂

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