Woman, Femininity, Body, & Medicine in Nawal El Saadawi’s novella Memoirs of a Woman Doctor (1960)
By Dalia Said Mostafa
Nawal El Saadawi (1931-2021) was a renowned Egyptian feminist activist, physician, writer, and novelist. Her passing away in March 2021 led to countless obituaries underscoring her accomplishments and celebrating her outstanding career in fighting for gender equality and social justice for women, men and children. But El Saadawi was also a controversial figure who caused much disturbance to authorities in Egypt due to her long-standing feminist activism against patriarchal dominance and the oppression of women. This essay will focus on her first short fictional work Memoirs of a Woman Doctor, which was published in the original Arabic in 1960. I have selected this work because it addresses crucially relevant concepts to current debates about the intersections between the woman’s search of her femininity, perception of body and sexuality, and discusses to what extent the medical field can be empowering for women. The text reflects an early awakening to feminist issues on the author’s part through the portrayal of a young female doctor who decides to study Medicine in 1950s’ Egypt as a way of rebellion against the rules of a traditional-patriarchal society. However, through her journey as a career woman, she discovers that her profession as a doctor does not answer many questions about the key dilemma with which she has struggled since childhood: why are women deprived of equal rights to men? As a result, she explores what femininity entails as a gendered concept, and what a love relationship means to her.
What gives Memoirs a profound influence is the fact that El Saadawi was trained as a physician and psychiatrist in Egypt and started to practice medicine in the mid-1950s. As a university graduate, she worked in rural areas around Egypt, which gave her a first-hand experience in treating peasant women and men, and their children. This experience is fictionalised in the narrative. Here, the author brings to our attention the doctor’s affective world of sentiments towards patients. Their physical and emotional pain come to shape her perception of gender constructions, class divisions, and poverty.
During her life, El Saadawi occupied the positions of Director of Public Health in the Ministry of Health; Assistant General Secretary of the Medical Association; and the chief editor of a health journal. In 1971, she published one of her most controversial books, Women and Sex, which led to her dismissal from her government post at the Ministry of Health. This was followed in 1976 by the publication of Men and Sex, which initiated an extensive debate in academia about her views and contributions to global feminist theory. In 1981, as a result of criticising President Anwar Sadat’s politics and economic policies, she was arrested and imprisoned, together with 1500 writers, artists and opposition figures.
She spent three months in prison, and later on in 1983 she published her well-known non-fiction book Memoirs from the Women’s Prison. In 1982, and upon her release from prison, El Saadawi founded a feminist organisation in Cairo, the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association, which advocated women’s rights in the Arab world and hosted multiple public seminars. It was later closed down in 1991 by the Egyptian authorities.
El Saadawi was the author of over 50 literary and non-fiction works spanning the genres of novel, essay, drama, memoir and medical texts. Her work has been translated into more than 30 languages. As she wrote in a simple, clear and accessible Arabic style, she had a huge readership from around the region. She was one of the first Arab feminists during the decades of the 1960s and 1970s who opened the debate around women’s sexuality and notions of sexual pleasure and fulfilment. She broke the silence on taboo issues regarding both women and men’s sexual relations in Arab societies. She was also one of the first Arab women writers who spoke in public about the detrimental impact of female genital mutilation (FGM), which is widely practiced in Egyptian society until today; and arguably the first public figure who drew attention to the issues of domestic violence against women and children as well as familial incest. As a result of her views, she was forced into exile in the 1990s following the appearance of her name on death lists circulated by extremist Islamist groups. She lived in the USA and worked as a visiting professor at a number of American universities. Later on, she returned to Egypt and lived there until she passed away in March 2021.
Memoirs of a Woman Doctor
Written in a modernist style and aiming at dismantling the image of the Egyptian woman as submissive and weak, El Saadawi brings to our attention a new vision of this woman and empowers her with a strong voice. In the mid-1950s when she was writing this novella, the country was beginning to re-build itself in a new postcolonial era, against the historical backdrop of long decades of colonialism and a corrupt monarchical regime. In the aftermath of the 1952 Free Officers’ coup, which heralded a political and social revolution, large sectors of the Egyptian population felt emancipated from multiple forms of oppression. Women also believed that new doors were opening for them in education, workplaces, and the possibility to play active roles in the construction of this newly liberated nation. As K. Guèye observes in her article “Tyrannical Femininity” about El Saadawi’s novella: “[The] text interweaves the personal and the political by depicting the situation of the educated, urban, Egyptian woman in the decolonizing era of the 1950s.”
The socio-political context in which El Saadawi situates her anonymous narrator informs our understanding of the sharp, precise language used throughout the text. This literary pursuit differentiates her work from those of the male pioneers of Egyptian literature at the time, such as Naguib Mahfouz, Yehia Haqqi, and Taha Hussein. In fact, El Saadawi was criticised on many occasions that her fiction could not reach the high standard of literary masterpieces similar to those written by such canonical male authors. Yet, what we need to bear in mind is that she aimed to introduce a new literary language through her voice as a young and modern writer.
So, what are the key characteristics of this discourse that El Saadawi proposes?Memoirs takes the form of a “diary”or an “account”of a young girl growing up into womanhood, a coming-of-age experience of a female protagonist, whilst reflecting on her upbringing within a traditional household and her rebellion against the rules set in place by a rigid order. The protagonist goes through a “gendering process” in quest for understanding her feminine self. The memoir can also be read as a journey of a female doctor into the world of science, the sphere of learning, and sexual awakening. The narratortells of her early upbringing, about her choice to enroll at the Medical School, then her work as a physician until she reaches status and fame, her failed marriage, and finally how she comes to terms with her femininity and falls in love.
There is an uncompromising toneexpressed through the first-person narrative voice which captures our attention from the first few lines of the book:
The conflict between me and my femininity began very early on, before my female characteristics had become pronounced and before I knew anything about myself, my sex and my origins, indeed before I knew the nature of the cavitywhich had housed me before I was expelled into the wide world.p. 9
Such a revelation gives the reader a glimpse into this female self who is in a kind of “war” with her own femininity. The narrator tells us that the gendered category “Girl”which her mother shouts at her, carries within it many signifiers, the most important of which is the way she is treated unequally to her brother. In the following passage, one can relate to her confusion as a child over this unjustified preference for her brother, especially that she associates her sentiments with sensory experiences (in this case taste and smell):
My brother took a bigger piece of meat than me, gobbled it up and drank his soup noisily and my mother never said a word. But I was different: I was a girl. I had to watch every movement I made, hide my longing for the food, eat slowly and drink my soup without a sound.p. 10
Once menstruation commences, the narrator is no longer allowed to play with the boys on the street; no longer allowed to run and jump; she becomes a prisoner of her growing body:
I grew. I grew taller than my brother even though he was older than me. I grew taller than the other children of my age. I withdrew from their midst and sat alone thinking. My childhood was over, a brief, breathless childhood. I’d scarcely been aware of it before it was gone, leaving me with a mature woman’s bodycarrying deep inside it a ten-year-old child.p. 13
From the way others stare at her whilst growing into adolescence, she feels there is something that needs to be hidden about her body. The narrator feels that her femininity is tyrannical: “I didn’t recognize this body which sprang a new shame on me every day, adding to my weakness and my preoccupation with myself. What would grow on my body next? What other new symptom would my tyrannical femininitybreak out in?” (p. 12) Thus, through her account of childhood and early youth, she unfolds the emotional implications of a female child growing up within a traditional middle-class family in 1950s’ Egypt, which sets her apart from her mother’s and grandmother’s generations.
In the “Author’s Note”for the 1989 English edition of the novella, El Saadawi comments that even though Memoirs was written thirty years earlier just after she graduated from the Faculty of Medicine in 1955, “the book still expresses a reality which is relevant today.” At that point, she had not even started reading any feminist literature. She goes on to say: “It is a simple, spontaneous novel in which there is a lot of anger against the oppression of women in my country, but also a great deal of hope for change, for wider horizons and a better future” (Memoirs, p. 8).
Indeed, the narrator encourages us to think about the female body and femininity as gendered conceptsand how her experience is not unique but there could be countless women who have gone through similar sentiments. In my view, it is this continuous oscillation between exploring the female body in its natural formulationon one hand and how it is unnaturally restrained by traditions on the other hand, that gives the novella an original angle. One crucial factor in this context lies in the way the author places the bodyunder the microscope of the young female doctor/narrator, in both physical and metaphorical senses. The body here is examined inside-out, in terms of the actual dissection of its organs, and also in terms of the development of thought processes and emotional interaction. To do this, the author has created a powerful register related to the body and its anatomy.
The Female Narrator and Medicine
In an Interview conducted with El Saadawi by Fedwa Malti-Douglas in 1986, the author says about Memoirsthat although the book was not “autobiographical,” parts of it reflected on her real life, for example, how she felt about being treated unequally to her brother when they were children (p. 395). She also mentions that when she joined the Faculty of Medicine at Cairo University in 1950, there weren’t many female students studying there (in her year, she remembers there was around 40 or 50 females amongst hundreds of male students) (p. 396). This ratio has shifted dramatically in recent decades where female doctors possibly exceed the number of male doctors. El Saadawi further reflects on how she loved both science and art and felt passionate about writing since an early age. As she remarks:
I think that writing is like dissection. When you dissect the body, anatomically, it gives you a lot of insight into the secrets of the body. By studying psychiatry and psychology, I began to understand character. So I don’t regret it, because it gave me, as a writer, a lot of insight into the nature of human beings.
She observes that she could not separate art and science, as both “are searching for the truth”:
In medicine we dissect the body to understand the nerves, or the liver, and the relationship of each part to the others. It is the same with the community. The human being is a microcosm of the whole society. So when you understand the body, you understand society. And vice versa.
In Memoirs, the body in its natural form acquires thought-provoking descriptions when the narrator indulges in detail about her studies at the Medical School and the knowledge she gains about bodily organs. Dissection comes to serve as a metaphor for understanding gender and its role in society. The narrator portrays to us precise images of patients’ bodies being studied and examined by the students and her reflections on death through the examination of corpses and skulls. In her chapter “Nawal al-Saadawi and Empowerment through Medicine,” Fedwa Malti-Douglas asserts that in Memoirs, “dissection of the human body plays an important role in the narrator’s gender consciousness.” She further makes this key remark: “For [Saadawi], medicine, science, and the physician are placed in a dialectical relationshipwith the feminist problematic of gender and power. […] Medicine turns into the literary locus for discussions of science, art, and gender” (1991, p. 130).
But why does the female narrator choose to study Medicine in the first place? Malti-Douglas provides this pertinent comment: “It is only because the female physician is able to overcome her obsession with medicine as powerthat she is equally able to transcend her focus on the male-female power struggle and come to terms with both her femininity and medicine” (1991, p. 133). And thus, we follow the impact of studying Medicine on the narrator’s life entwined with her mental and emotional maturity. We observe how her narrative voice shifts from the child’s tone of anger and frustration to a more contemplative and matter-of-fact tone about human nature and science. Her descriptions come to be explicit in illustrating bodily parts and her fascination with how human beings and animals share much in common regarding their anatomy. As the narrator continues to study and examine male and female bodies, her exploration of society with its restrictions on women in contrast to the freedom granted to men is complicated.
The register of expressions, technical terms and phrases which the narrator uses in describing bodily organs and their functions, expand her understanding of her gendered body, its needs and desires. “Man” becomes “human” again in her eyes. As she reflects: “I was delighted by this new world which placed men, women and the animals side by side, and by science which seemed a mighty, just and omniscient god; so I placed my trust in it and embraced its teachings” (p. 32). Yet, the “god of science knows no mercy and no shame when examining a sick, suffering, or dying body” (p. 34). These shifts in the narrator’s sensibility characterise her coming-of-age journey and unpacking of the feminine self.
The young female doctor/narrator soon learns that science can also be impotent in the face of death and uncurable illnesses, which raises doubt and confusionin her mind:
Science toppled from its throne and fell at my feet naked and powerless, just as man had done before. I looked around me, confused and upset: science had destroyed my former belief without leading me to any new faith. I realized that the path of reason which I had pledged to follow was a short, shallow one ending at a huge, impenetrable barrier.p. 39
There is a moment of awakening here when the narrator realises that even science cannot answer all her questions or end people’s suffering. She then ponders on whether “nature”is the true mighty god. She travels to the countryside and lives in a little house in a remote, peaceful village where she feels a sense of liberation of soul and mind.
We then follow the young doctor’s first marriage and subsequent divorce. She could not yield to her husband’s attempts to control her life and everything she worked hard to accomplish. Her work was the rock that she could lean on in troublesome times. We continue to follow the narrator’s journey of self-discovery and exploration until she finally meets a man who respects her as a human being. Thus, the novella ends on a note of hope, romance and trust in love.
El Saadawi’s first fictional work Memoirs of a Woman Doctor reflects an early feminist consciousness through the lens of a young female doctor who decides to study Medicine as a means of emancipation from the rules of a traditional society. In the context of her historical era, the work was an influential narrative which paved the way for the author to develop her novelistic project in the decades to come. Memoirs is also a text which underscores a crucial self-exploratory trajectory of a young woman of her femininity and what this might mean as a gendered concept. The female narrator’s journey in the field of Medicine and acquiring scientific knowledge about anatomy, the body and sexuality provokes the reader’s thoughts about the complexity of social and gender relations. What is truly fascinating about this work is its clear relevance to current debates about women’s sexuality, gender equality and social justice. The novella has lived on all these years and still inspires new readers. Through her writings and theoretical contributions, El Saadawi continues to be an influential figure in the history of Arab and Middle Eastern feminism.
 Nawal El Saadawi, Memoirs of a Woman Doctor, Catherine Cobham (trans.)(CA: City Lights publishers, 2001).
 Khadidiatou Guèye, “Tyrannical Femininity in Nawal El Saadawi’s Memoirs of a Woman Doctor’.” Research in African Literatures, vol. 41, no. 2 (Summer 2010), p. 165.
 Fedwa Malti-Douglas, “Reflections of a Feminist – Interview with Nawal Sa‘dawi,” in Opening the Gates: A Century of Arab Feminist Writing, Badran, M. and Cooke M. (eds.) (Virago, 1990), pp. 395-404.
 Fedwa Malti-Douglas, “Nawal al-Saadawi and Empowerment through Medicine,” in Woman’s Body, Woman’s Word: Gender and Discourse in Arabo-Islamic Writing (Princeton University Press, 1991), p. 397.
 Ibid., p. 398.
About the Author
Dr. Dalia Said Mostafa is an Associate Professor in the Department of Middle Eastern Studies, Hamad Bin Khalifa University (Qatar), where she teaches on the MA Programme Women, Society and Development. Previously, she was a Senior Lecturer in Arab Cultural Studies at the University of Manchester (UK). Her areas of expertise include postcolonial and comparative literature, Middle Eastern cinema, and Arab cultural studies, and has published widely in multiple academic journals. She is the author of The Egyptian Military in Popular Culture: Context and Critique (2017), and the co-author of The Egyptian Coffeehouse: Culture, Politics and Urban Space (2020).
Citation: Dalia Said Mostafa, Woman, Femininity, Body, & Medicine in Nawal El Saadawi’s novella Memoirs of a Woman Doctor (1960), in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 30.11.2023, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/49515
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Forum Transregionale Studien (2023, 30. November). Woman, Femininity, Body, & Medicine in Nawal El Saadawi’s novella Memoirs of a Woman Doctor (1960). TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 29. Februar 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/ut8e