Nawal El Saadawi the outspoken Egyptian doctor, writer, activist and the author of over 40 books and articles is still piercing the establishment with her controversial and bolshie rhetoric at the age of 84. Despite being incarcerated for her critique by the government, she has continued to unabashedly expose hypocrisies in society. First published in 1975, Two Women in One will have undoubtedly shocked the conservative classes. Although I am unable to verify to what extent Bahia Shaheen, the protagonist, is a manifestation of El Saadawi and her experiences one cannot help but draw parallels between what she has revealed in her interviews and the character’s life.
Bahia grows up in a stiflingly oppressive environment. Attempting to care for her every need, her father pays for her university fees and gives her regular pocket money. Her mother comforts her and stuffs her with food to keep her from wanting. Her parents undoubtedly love her and she admits the feeling is mutual, but the limits they impose on their daughter suffocates their relationship eventually siphoning her off from the family. Her desire to seclude herself is manifested physically and emotionally as she wallows in her room ostensibly pouring over her textbooks. Her desire to outwardly protest results in awkward social interactions and an open reluctance to concede to societal expectations of feminine garb and behaviour. Her restrained interaction with her family make it impossible to understand her character through the eyes of others, and her reactions to her parents and classmates are often muddled and at times hallucinatory. She asks her mother more than once whether she ‘is even Bahia’.
The earlier chapters in TWIO have a tendency to read tediously as it seems Bahia can only stomach brief stints in the real world before she relaunches herself into a fanciful alternate reality. As the story progresses El Saadawi provides piecemeal insights into Bahia’s character, gradually relieving the reader of their contempt for her whimsical thoughts and inability to focus on the present. She surprises us, or perhaps not, as she attempts to sever the monotony and futility of her daily existence with guillotine-like force. She rips herself from convention risking ridicule and arrest to achieve her ideals of freedom.
This tale may only be of 124 pages and despite it being packed with issues ripe for discussion, El Saadawi does not neglect FGM. She makes it clear that one of the reasons why Bahia’s society continues to practice the act is its lack of education, which paradoxically coincides with its encouragement of women’s education in the biological sciences. The students’ treatment of sexual organs in the laboratory is just as anyone would expect – but violently contrasts their unwillingness to understand them as anything other than parts solely created for the practical function of procreation.
Nawal El Saadawi has written an uncompromising and unapologetic description of one facet of oppression in Egypt experienced by many. Readers are forced to acknowledge her message and question whether they are also contributors to genderised oppression. El Saadawi’s voice is starkly authentic. Not wishing the claim she is the voice of all Arab women, she has still succeeded in articulating the thoughts of many who have not found the space to express themselves. Literature can be considered one of the best representatives of a culture in the time it was written and for this reason, I believe that for those with a genuine desire to understand rather than those looking for an excuse to chastise a peoples, Two Women in One provides a an excellent tool for debate and discussion.