There have been three distinct phases of women’s literature on sex, the body, and womanhood over the past century in Egypt. From literature that avoided any mention of women’s bodies through omitting any terms referring to female genitalia, a period of rebellion ensued, combatting the masculinist approach that placed women in a constant struggle for autonomy over their bodies.
The language adopted by these female authors to address their readers would later develop to the point that the erotic became a visible genre in its own right. A number of novels surfaced, reclaiming women’s rights in determining their sexual destiny.
Though at first they were scarce, these writings ultimately penetrated the restrictions imposed on women discussing sexuality. But how have repression and freedom determined the sexual lives of women in literature?
Women and Sex by Nawal El Saadawi
Radical feminist icon Nawal El Saadawi wrote from personal experience, based on her work as a physician in her own clinic. In the fourth edition of her book Women and Sex (published by Dar Al Mostakbal in 1990), Saadawi recounts stories of men obsessed with women’s and young girls’ hymens.
“A 16-year-old girl from a rural area came to my clinic. She looked like a child. At first, I thought her enlarged stomach was due to malnutrition. It wasn’t until I looked at her face that I saw it was very pale. Her husband thought she was seven months pregnant, but when I asked her about her period, she replied that she never had a period in her life. I examined her, and told her husband that the girl is still a virgin, as evidenced by her thick hymen.”
“I had read about a similar homicide incident before, but when the autopsy was performed by the forensic physician, it revealed that the girl’s enlarged abdomen was not because she was pregnant, but caused by the accumulation of menstrual blood to her imperforate hymen,” Saadawi writes in the book.
Mohamed Samir Abdel Salam, a scholar of feminist novels and a literary critic, notes that, in her book, Saadawi fuses between a humanistic view of the patient, and society’s traditions and customs, with the purpose of scientifically counteracting misconceptions, such as those surrounding virginity and female genital mutilation (FGM).
Lahw al-Abalesa (Devils’ Dalliances) By Sohair El-Masadfa
In her novel, Lahw al-Abalesa, Egyptian writer Sohair El-Masadfa tells the story of Maha El-Souefi, who returns to Egypt from Moscow to live with her sister Nagwa in a village called Hawd el-Gamous (literally translating to the buffalo’s basin). Each sister faces a distinctive struggle with her own body and sexuality. On the one hand, Maha’s husband wants to marry another woman, while on the other, Nagwa has chosen to abstain from men entirely.
Maha is the only person who knows of her sister’s abstinence, while Nagwa recalls how her husband divorced after just one day of being married, because she did not bleed on the wedding night—where in Egyptian tradition, a woman’s honor and the fate of her marriage is determined by her hymen.
Critic Abdel Salam says that the female body undergoes magical transformations in the novel, acting as a determinant in both characters’ narrative paths. El-Masadfa utilizes the body in a creative and poetic way, whereby the characters’ fantasies revolve around it.
Accusations of Debauchery
El-Masadfa, who is also the acting director of General Egyptian Book Organization, faced significant criticism over her novel. The novel caused a stir, even after its second edition was published five years after it was released. Former Muslim Brotherhood member and parliament member Hamdy Hassan Zahran issued a request to the parliament in 2010, demanding the confiscation of the novel, claiming that it promotes debauchery.
Ini Ohadesak L’tara (I Speak to You So You Can See) by Mona Prince
A social researcher named Ain meets Ali, a Moroccan man working at the Arab League in Cairo. They make love, and decide to live together without marriage. Ain’s views on love come into conflict with Ali’s desire to be married, causing tensions to erupt in their affair.
During her research trips, Ain meets men with whom she engaged in sexual relations, but with each exchange, she feels part of her soul is lost. On one of her trips in South Sinai, she meets a man named Apollo, with whom she subsequently becomes involved in a sexual relationship with him. He then offers to marry her. Ain’s self-image is destroyed, while Ali ends up marrying a woman that does not share his interests.
Prince’s novel, published by Dar Merit in 2008, explores the discrepancies between sexual desire and love, describing the sexual relationship between a man and a woman in an audacious and novel manner.
Headscarves and Hymens by Mona Eltahawy
Firebrand Mona Eltahawy starts her book Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution ( 2015) with the short story, Distant View of a Minaret by Egyptian author Alifa Rifaat. In Eltahawy’s words, Rifaat recounts the story of a woman “so unmoved by sex with her husband that as he focuses solely on his pleasure, she notices a spider web she must sweep off the ceiling”.
As a sequel to her widely read Foreign Policy article, entitled “Why Do They Hate Us?”, Eltahawy uses the book to narrate real-life events that women encountered. From virginity inspections of female protesters in Egypt in March 2013, to a woman who was raped by several men in Saudi Arabia. Acoording to Eltahawy woman was flogged, while the men walked free, and unpunished.
Eltahawy uses the overarching theme of hate to weave in the practice of FGM as an example of hate exercised on female bodies. Eltahawy further explores the idea of men’s desire for covering women in general, whether in the form of obstructing their ideas, or covering their bodies using headscarves and other conservative attire.
Laa’nat al-Raghba (The Curse of Desire) by Taghrid Ihsan
“The hours the followed the wedding, all the way until dawn, were like a nightmare. It all came to an end with him pulling me by the hair. His face was inches away from mine as he said: ‘You are not a virgin.’ I couldn’t believe what I was hearing! And all because of a few drops of blood that wouldn’t leave my body.”
This is a small excerpt from the novel Laa’nta al-Raghba, which deals with the archaic traditions popular in Upper Egypt, whereby girls and young women must prove their honor by displaying their virginal blood on their wedding night.
For decades, sex in Egyptian literature was a man's game... until these women came to shake things up.
The 20-year-old author Taghrid Ihsan outlines the experiences undergone by the majority of women in Egyptian society, describing them as being robbed of their sexual rights under the guise of marriage. Through the novel, she discusses issues such as sexual assault in prisons and in the public sphere, using a stark, direct vernacular that seeks to address the reader on an intellectual level, rather than appealing to instincts, approaching the topics with an appropriate sense of gravity.
Ihsan says that the stories recounted in the novel are based on true stories that she collected through correspondences with young women on social media.
Mamarat Lelfaqd (Corridors of Loss) by Howaida Saleh
In Howaida Saleh’s Mamarat Lelfaqd, control is exercised over the protagonist’s body throughout all stages of her life. During her childhood, her father denies her wish to ride a bicycle, fearing it might break her hymen. A few years later, she is forced to undergo FGM. The protagonist moves to another phase where she discovers having a tumor, leading to hysterectomy. In each phase of the novel, the protagonist enters constantly-narrowing corridors, losing part of her body with each stage.
The novel, which was published in 2015, expressed the daily forms of repression experienced by Egyptian girls and women.
Saleh comments on her novel, saying: “I tried to maintain a literary language that suits the reader, and does not contain indecent words. I wanted it to be a novel could be taken home without fear.”
“The only measure of judgment is art, and not morality. One cannot judge or limit art according to the dictates of morality,” she continues.
‘Ala Ferash Freud (On Freud's Bed) by Nahla Karam
“My conversation with him led me into bed.” This is how Mariam begins her conversation with her friend Noura about her relationship with Ilhami, with whom she engages in sexual conversations over the phone. As for Noura, she vividly recounts her memories, such as that of her first period, and the arguments between her mother and her aunt over the necessity of explaining the menstrual cycle to her.
Nahla Karam, the author of ‘Ala Ferash Freud (published by New Culture House in 2015), takes the reader on a journey of sexual relationships, between love and lust, and how education, and family restrictions over women’s sexual lives affect them. Some of characters engage in relationships with several men, while others resort to masturbation, and others still, like Noura, write erotic poems, living in fear of the shame of anyone reading them.
On Being a Female Author Writing About Sex
Feminist activist and columnist Alaa Ahmed el-Kasabany, 24, says that her decision to write about sexual topics is predicated on whether or not it would serve the feminist cause.
“My refusal to write erotic literature is my personal choice as a reader and a writer, but I do believe it is important to write about women’s sexual issues,” she notes.
“Rights in Middle Eastern societies are monopolized by man; they monopolize the right to sexual satisfaction, depriving woman of it. The same applies to erotic literature; men alone have the right to discuss and write about it. As for a woman, if she discusses it, she is described as a whore.”
“Society cannot accept the prospect of either a man or a woman discussing their sexual life. Women never broach the subject of sexual inequality in their writings. It simply is not accepted in society, while, culturally, a woman with sexual knowledge is deemed a criminal.”
Kasbany’s writings are distinguished by their audacity; she discussed women’s rights in all their different aspects, including sexual rights.
She says that she faced violent attacks on her writings, adding: “I demand my right to an equal relationship, free from rape, or coercion. Yet, the attacks against me were violent and vicious, accusing me of immorality and debauchery.”
According to Mohamed Samir Abdel Salam from Minya University, who has extensively researched feminist novels from 1900 until 2003, “erotica was neither an ends nor a means in the novels discussed in the research I conducted during this period”.
The research dealt with the feminist novel from an academic perspective, employing Gaton Bachelard’s theories on the anima-animus dialectic.
Through this lens, Abdel Salam’s studies concluded that there was no women’s literature explicitly addressing sexuality or sexual issues in Egypt over the past 100 years.
“Latifa al-Zayyat is the first author that called for a rebellion, not over the body, but a rebellion against the patriarchy and society. The body was only a part of it. After that, women began to formulate the feminine persona,” Abdel Salam notes
Moreover, Howaida Saleh says: “There were extremely few writings as part of a limited phenomenon. Women were restricted by internal psychological restrictions, as well as societal attacks in the Arab world. Even among some of the most liberated authors who lived in Europe, only one writing about the sexual life. Arab female authors cannot devote their lives to this genre as a project.”