Images of Exile and the Female Condition in Nawal El Saadawi's The Fall of the Imam and Memoirs from the Women's Prison

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Author: Brinda Mehta
Editor: Jeffrey W. Hunter
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 11,174 words

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[(essay date 1999) In the essay below, Mehta explores El Saadawi's portrayal of female exile, confinement, exclusion, and physical and psychological marginalization in The Fall of the Imam.]

The polemical writings of Nawal El Saadawi are based on a severe indictment of patriarchal religious and sociopolitical institutions in Egypt that endorse the disenfranchisement of women through the thematics of violence, repression, and manipulation. Like the noted Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi, El Saadawi emphasizes the manipulation and falsification of the Hadith, or teachings of the Prophet, by the male elite to serve as edicts of female oppression, thereby obfuscating Muhammad's egalitarian message through a writing out of "his-story" in which women were silenced, excluded, secluded, and contained. In The Veil and the Male Elite, Mernissi affirms:

Not only have the sacred texts always been manipulated, but manipulation of them is a structural characteristic of the practice of power in Muslim societies. Since all power from the seventh century, was only legitimated by religion, political forces and economic interests pushed for the fabrication of false traditions.(8)

Women were thus victims of falsified realities, prisoners of unjust laws and traditions, dominated by male strategies of female marginalization. In this way, women were caught between two spaces, two conflicting realities of Islam: on the one hand, the male-fabricated sociopolitical, aimed at restriction and privation, and on the other, the religious, as articulated by the Prophet, based on equal citizenship.

In this study, I would like to show how the political reality of Islam creates a certain dysphoric space of feminine representation, as reflected in El Saadawi's texts. Women are exiled in this "land of no return" in which they are dispossessed and dis-located, precisely because the politically machinated distortions of Islam have strengthened patriarchal prescriptions for women by legitimizing their relegation to second-class citizenship through the imposition of socially validated stereotypes and ambivalence. Exile serves as both a metaphor and a reality for women. Physical exile or displacement is represented by the experience of incarceration in the women's prison. Symbolic or psychological exile is the result of several levels of societal dispersal that make women prisoners of their physical selves (confinement of the body), as well as their social selves (relegation to second-class citizenship).

The Fall of the Imam is a violent remonstrance against institutionalized injustices against women, crimes that go unnoticed due to an insidious system of arbitrary justice that has been orchestrated by men to impose a veil (of shame) on the day-to-day reality of women. The novel is organized like a sociopolitical palimpsest whose deciphering involves the act of uncovering several layers of a fragmented narrative to expose the multilayered and multifaceted levels of social hypocrisy that inhibit female self-actualization. The analysis of the female condition, as outlined in The Fall of the Imam, is the organizing principle that connects an apparently disconnected narrative to constitute a case study of violence against women.

Using a technique similar to that of a recurring Kafkaesque nightmare, El Saadawi exposes this no man's land...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100098654