Conceptualizing Feminist Medical Humanities: A Study of Crisscross Patterns of Medicine and Humanities in The Hidden Face of Eve
This research focuses on Nawal El-Saadawi’s The Hidden Face of Eve to navigate the ways in which women’s reproductive health is controlled and regulated by cultural and political discourses. This study has a three-fold significance. First, this perusal investigates how the intersection of the two diametrically opposed disciplines of medicine and humanities fosters a subversive space to reflect on and question systemic misogyny in medical and cultural practices. Second, it examines the role of female autonomy and agency in gendered experiences of physical and mental illness. Third, this research problematizes body politics in Saadawi’s work by examining the female body as a site for exercising political, social and discursive power. Building upon The Hidden Face of Eve, this research argues that feminist medical humanities leads to generate human-centric and equitable perspectives in response to gender politics.
Nawal El Saadawi’s The Hidden Face of Eve depicts the subjugation and exploitation of women in different parts of the world, primarily it hinges upon the context of the Middle East. The book addresses various facets of violence against women such as sexual violence, genital mutilation and reproductive labour in the form of forced marriage and child-bearing. Saadawi illustrates how patriarchal structures perpetuate sexual violence in order to exercise control and domination over the female body. The Hidden Face of Eve underscores the dire need of unsilencing the silenced voices of women, who have endured every possible form of assault. The book not only presents a microcosmic picture of the deep-rooted sexual violence against women but also creates social consciousness to address and tackle this issue. By unsilencing the silent, Saadawi challenges the oppressive social systems that enable the persistence and perpetuation of violence against women.
WOMEN RIGHTS ARE HUMAN RIGHTS
Saadawi, a doctor by profession, visited several villages of Egypt as part of her job and witnessed the wretched plight of women, who were the victims of sexual abuse, female circumcision, honour killings and abortion ban. Saadawi relies on the power of literature to delineate the suffering of women, she witnessed upon her visit to the rural areas of Egypt. She builds a compelling and gut-wrenching narrative to encompass the gravity of the situation through striking use of language. “The book opens with Dr. El Saadawi recounting in the first-person her harrowing experience with female genital mutilation (a very common practice in her home country of Egypt) when she was 6 years old. She uses very descriptive, perhaps even graphic language, to describe the experience in all its horror. This early childhood memory sets the stage for the audience to bear witness to all the various types of misogyny that many Egyptian and Arab women inevitably experience.” (Saleh n.p.). In the second and third part of the book, Saadawi uses poetic language with a tinge of humour to examine the predicament of women in the historical and religious milieu. Using the trope of ill body, many scholars in the field of medical humanities are highlighting the corporeal manifestations of gender asymmetry in medical as well as social discourses and practice.
Bina Shah is another Muslim feminist writer, who in her novel Before She Sleeps problematizes the politicization of the female body by state apparatuses and emphasizes the need for woman to reclaim their bodily autonomy and rights. Shah’s novel not only contextualizes contemporary gender politics in Pakistan but also enunciates the bold stance of Pakistani feminists to regain their bodily agency. Many parallels can be drawn between the female rebels of Panah and the female proponents of Aurat March. Shah’s novel also offers a literary translation of the outrageous slogans of the Aurat March.
The slogan mera jism meri marzi (My body, My choice) is an opposition to forced marriages, honour killing, and domestic abuse and proves to be a subversion to the normative structures of Pakistani patriarchal society. It shows that women in Pakistan [. . .] have started demanding rights to their own bodies that they have lost in the deeply engraved patriarchal norms on the pretext of forced marriagedomestic abuse and obliged family lives. (Afzal 122).
Sabine’s acute awareness regarding her bodily ownership culminates into the defiance of oppressive social dictates of the Green City. She escapes the claustrophobic environment of the Green City and takes abode in Panah as the place offers the reproductive freedom that she has been yearning for the longest time. “It may be a life in the shadows, but at least no Bureau tells us whom to marry, whom to open our legs for. Nobody can experiment on our ovaries and wombs [ . . . ] but here in the Panah, we are humans again” (Shah 85). The novel depicts how the homogenization of women’s identity as mechanical beings serving reproductive function in a patriarchal society dispossesses them of their individual identity. Shah’s novel bringing together medical concerns and human experiences, illustrates the ways in which women’s reproductive health is controlled and regulated by social and political discourses.
El Saadawi also investigates the ways in which oppressive patriarchal structures curb women’s right to abortion by imposing cultural, religious and legal restrictions on them. Saadawi argues that the right to safe and legal abortion is an indispensible element of women’s rights. She states that the act of abortion should be de-stigmatised and decriminalized by prioritizing women’s access to safe medical procedures that do not threaten their health and life. Citing horrendous repercussions of denying women the right to abortion, the book underscores the dire need for re-claiming women’s reproductive health and bodily autonomy.
The complex and debatable issue of abortion requires an insightful analysis in order to understand its multifaceted aspects. Analyzing this issue through the lens of medical humanities invites an analysis of the ethical considerations involved in this medical procedure. “By integrating abortion education into medical curricula, fostering interdisciplinary collaboration, and engaging with policymakers and community stakeholders, medical humanities contribute to comprehensive and culturally sensitive approaches to addressing abortion” (Weitz n.p.). Medical humanities provides a platform to examine the issue of abortion while taking into consideration the intersecting elements of class, race and geography which determine a woman’s access to abortion. Thus, drawing upon social inequalities and power dynamics, discussions in medical humanities allow us to look into the cause and effect of health disparities. The Hidden face of Eve through the use of striking language humanizes the traumatic stories of those women, who had been seeking abortion.
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)
Nawal El-Saadawi is a prominent Muslim feminist, who is an advocate for bodily rights and autonomy of women. Through her work, she has raised awareness about female genital mutilation and its necessary eradication. The Hidden Face of Eve draws upon an extensive description of the practice of female genital mutilation and its wide-ranging implications on the physical, social and reproductive well-being of women. The book also highlights the psychological trauma that accompanies this practice and depicts that the victims are never able to fully recover from it. “FGM/C is defined as “all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. Most women and girls who are cut live in Africa and Asia. Universally considered a violation of human rights, FGM/C not only physically harms women and girls, but it also causes psychological problems because of the traumatic experiences the victims undergo” (El Gibaly 1). El Saadawi argues that practices such as female genital mutilation demonstrate an ideological manifestation of patriarchal power since such acts are based on gaining control over women’s sexuality.
Women all over the world particularly in Muslim countries are exposed to health hazards due to the culturally-ingrained practice of Female Genital Mutilation. Medical Humanities, a genre based on forging connections between medicine and humanities, generates a multitude of viewpoints to investigate the political, cultural and medical dimensions of Female Genital Mutilation. This perusal will take into consideration existing studies and research that foreground dire health consequences of this practice through the medium of literature. Recent studies in medical humanities concerning female genital mutilation draw attention to the nexus between gender and power in an attempt to challenge institutionalized oppression against women reflected through such coercive practices.
It is important to look into the significance of various traditions and beliefs underlying the harmful practice of female genital mutilation. Omaima Al-Gibaly in her research based on the investigation of the factors responsible for an unprecedented rise in female genital mutilation in Egypt states, “for many mothers and healthcare providers, adherence to community customs and traditions was the most important motive to practice FGM/C. Also, the social construction of girls’ well-being and bodily beauty makes FGM/C a perceived necessity which lays the ground for stigmatization against uncut girls. Finally, the language around FGM/C is being reframed by many healthcare providers as a cosmetic surgery” (1). The overwhelming pressure of abiding by social norms and expectations leads to the deep entrenchment of this practice in the social fabric of Egypt. Moreover, the social ostracization and stigmatisation of women, who do not undergo this procedure foils any resistance against the act of female genital mutilation. Hence, it is imperative to initiate discussions informed by the fields of medicine and humanities to discursively engage with socio-political dynamics involved in upholding such practices. Medical humanities employs impactful narrative style and techniques in order to foreground the experiences of women affected by female genital mutilation. “Using mediums such as literature, storytelling, and visual arts, medical humanities scholarship humanizes the experiences of survivors, challenging stereotypes and fostering empathy and understanding” (Al-Krenawi & Graham, n.p.). This practice of humanizing the victims’ stories generates empathy among people and motivates them to question stereotypes and formulate policies to bring about a social change.
The Institution of Motherhood
El Saadawi states in her book how motherhood has become an oppressive social institution pivoted on reproductive labour. Due to enormous pressure of social expectations women are compelled to ignore material conditions and embrace motherhood against their will. “Society raises up motherhood to the heavens and yet at the same time forgets to provide the facilities and means necessary for women to bring up their children. Most mothers suffer hunger, deprivation and state of exhaustion which renders them unfit to nourish their babies or even look at them” (El-Saadawi xiii). Adrienne Rich in her book Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (1976) discusses ways in which motherhood has been institutionalized. She argues that this institution is very different from the experience of motherhood itself. It ensures that “all women shall remain under male control” (1). Describing her own experience regarding motherhood, she elucidates, “I only knew that to have a child was to assume adult womanhood to the full, to prove myself, to be like other women” (1). The female body has been both territory and machine, virgin wilderness to be exploited and assembly-line turning out life. We need to imagine a world in which every woman is the presiding genius of her own body. In such a world women will truly create new life, bringing forth not only children (if and as we choose) but the visions, and the thinking, necessary to sustain, console, and alter human existence-a new relationship to the universe. (Rich 3)
Rich emphasizes the dire need for re-thinking and re-claiming the bodily rights of women as they have been eclipsed due ideological oppression executed by social, religious and political structures. Medical humanities through the entwinement of medicine and humanities enables us to foster a generative space conducive to enunciate narratives based on the politicization of the female body. Such revisionist stories and narratives serve a dual purpose. First, they successfully stir conversations about the bodies of women as political instruments. Second, they create consciousness among women about the reclamation of their bodily autonomy.
Female Body as an Inscriptive surface
El-Saadawi portrays a society where notions of honor and dishonor are associated with the female body. As a result, women are mercilessly killed and beheaded just to protect the honour of the family. This draws our attention to how the female body becomes a site for exercising different forms of power such as political, social and discursive. In fact, the female body becomes an inscriptive surface where different socially-constructed narratives are inscribed. “Arab society still considers that the fine membrane which covers the aperture of the external genital organs is the most cherished and most important part of a girl’s body, and is much more valuable than the one of her eyes, or an arm, or a lower limb. An Arab family does not grieve as much as the loss of a girl’s eye as it does if she happens to lose her virginity” (El-Saadawi 26). In this society, the loss of hymen is considered to be a graver tragedy than losing one’s life. Michel Foucault’s ideas on power and body as presented in his 1975 publication Discipline and Punish are seminal to our analysis of Nawal El-Saadawi’s The Hidden Face of Eve.
In Discipline and Punish, Foucault discusses the formation of docile bodies by social institutions through various surveillance strategies. The regulation of the female body and sexuality by the government is “a policy of coercions that act upon the body, a calculated manipulation of its elements, its gestures, its behavior” (Foucault 138). They are ‘disciplined bodies’ as Foucault puts it and they have “entered a machinery of power that explores it, breaks it down and rearranges it” (Foucault 138). The attempt to stop women from flexing their intellectual and critical muscles manifests their subjection to the state machinery, where the state produces a “political anatomy” (Foucault 138) i.e. a passive, docile subject.
El-Saadawi depicts how religion is used by the powerful as a weapon to oppress the powerless particularly women. “I have come to see more and more clearly that religion is most often used in our day as an instrument in the hands of economic and political forces, as an institution utilized by those who rule to keep down those who are ruled” (4). Religious persecution and exploitation are used as methods by the political forces to serve their own agendas and to keep their power consolidated. This exploitation involves interpreting religion in a way that justifies existing power structures. It is imperative to question such institutionalization of oppression in the name of religion that smothers individual agency and autonomy of common masses especially women.
In “History of Sexuality” Foucault contends that state weilds disciplinary power to create a community of individuals, who are docile and are not equipped to challenge its sovereignty. Disciplinary power is in fact a surveillance strategy that is primarily used to regulate the behavior of prisoners however, in the modern age it is employed by social institutions as a tactic used for normalizing and taming its subjects.
The judges of normality are present everywhere. We are in the society [. . .] where each individual, wherever he may find himself, subjects to it his body, his gestures, his behavior, his aptitudes, his achievements. The carceral network [. . .] has been the greatest support, in modern society, of the normalizing power. . The carceral texture of society assures both the real capture of the body and its perpetual observation. (Foucault, “Discipline and Punish” 1645).
The Hidden Face of Eve delineates the disciplining of women that takes place through formal education. Education becomes a medium of keeping their minds and bodies chained. “The education that a female child receives in Arab society is a series of continuous warnings about things that are supposed to be harmful, forbidden, shameful or outlawed by religion” (13). Therefore, disciplining of subjects serves as a method of exerting power. The social and sexual conduct of individuals is monitored through a range of surveillance strategies. It is important to note that disciplinary power goes beyond corporeal disciplining as it principally focuses on gaining control over the minds of its intended subjects. “The child therefore is trained to suppress her own desires, to empty herself of authentic, original wants and wishes linked to her own self, and to fill the vacuum that results with the desires of others. Education of female children is therefore transformed into a slow process of annihilation, a gradual throttling of her personality and mind, leaving intact only the outside shell, the body, a lifeless mould of muscle and bone and blood that moves like a wound up rubber doll” (ElSaadawi 13). Individuals tend to be the subjects of a social institution or a discourse by disseminating the knowledge created by it and aligning themselves with its authority. However, the irony of the situation is that individuals/subjects become the propagators of a discourse even if they disapprove the epistemological value of that discourse. This sociopolitical apparatus is a manifestation of panopticism. This mechanism of surveillance postulated by Foucault illustrates how subjects while living in a repressively controlled society interiorize the strategies of their own subjugation.
The emergence of capitalism as a consumer-oriented system prefigures the commodification of masses and their sexuality. In “The History of Sexuality” Foucault argues that the entire “stew over sexuality is motivated by one basic concern: to ensure population, to reproduce labor capacity, to perpetuate the form of social relations: in short, to constitute sexuality that is economically useful and politically conservative” (Foucault 1659). El Saadawi argues that capitalism promotes exploitation and objectification of women's bodies for profit that ultimately reinforces gender disparity. She contends that women’s bodily rights or sexual rights claim to be emancipatory for women but in reality they tend to perpetuate oppression against women by presenting women as commodified objects. “Superficial process of modernization, whether in the East or in the West, will never lead to true equality between women and men in the economic, social, political and sexual aspects of life. Sexual rights as practiced in many Western societies do not lead to the emancipation for women, but to an accentuated oppression where women are transformed into commercialized bodies and a source of increasing capitalist profits” (El-Saadawi ix). Thus, the oppression of women is accentuated by the intersection of patriarchy and capitalism.
The female body has been historically controlled and disciplined. It is evident through the mapping of different forms of political and social control onto the female body. Women for the longest time have been denied the rights of abortion, reproductive liberty and selfdetermination of sexual identity. Such regulation of the female body signifies the relationship between female identity and power relations. Moreover, it also draws our attention to the blurring of boundaries between private and public spheres of women’s lives. Drawing upon diverse disciplines such as humanities, medicine, law, psychology and sociology, medical humanities engenders a space for cross-disciplinary conversations and collaboration. Female body politics overlaps with medical humanities in complex and multifaceted ways. This intersection foregrounds the significance of bringing together diversity of narratives and ethical considerations into healthcare systems. Building upon the experiences of women, whose bodies were deemed as political instruments, feminist medical humanities leads to generate more human-centric and equitable perspectives with regard to gender politics.
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