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Authors: Nawal el Saadawi

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Memoirs of a Woman Doctor

MEMOIRS OF A WOMAN DOCTOR

Nawal el-Saadawi
Translated by Catherine Cobham

Saqi Books

Author’s Note

I wrote
Memoirs of a Woman Doctor
thirty years ago when, as a young woman in my twenties, I had just graduated from the School of Medicine in Cairo. It expressed my feelings and experiences as a woman who was a doctor at work, but still performed the roles of a wife and a mother at home.

Memoirs
first appeared in serialized form in the Egyptian magazine
Ruz al-Yusuf
in 1957. It had a great impact in Egypt and in the Arab world. Some critics regarded it as a revolutionary feminist novel which revealed the double exploitation of Egyptian women — both their general, social oppression and their private oppression through the institution of marriage. But the book was also controversial.
Ruz al-Yusuf
deleted sections of the complete work from the serialized version on the demand of the government censor. I then tried to have the book published without deletions but publishers refused to print it without censoring it. As I was young and inexperienced and eager to see the book in print, I allowed it to be published with deletions.

Since that time, the novel has been frequently reprinted in both Cairo and Beirut. But it has never appeared in its entirety because I have lost the original manuscript.

Despite these limitations, I still consider
Memoirs,
incomplete as it is in the present edition, as a fair description of the moral and social position of women in that period. Some people believe that
Memoirs
is autobiographical, but although many of the heroine’s characteristics fit those of an Egyptian woman such as myself, active in the medical field in those years, the work is still fiction. It is one thing to write a novel, and another to write one’s autobiography.

At that time I had not read any feminist literature on women’s struggles or on women’s status in contemporary society — this only came later — but although I have subsequently written many novels and short stories which may be more sophisticated, I still consider
Memoirs
like a first daughter, full of youthful fervour and expressing a reality which is still relevant today. 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.

Nawal el-Saadawi
London, June 1987

1

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 cavity which had housed me before I was expelled into the wide world.

All I did know at that time was that I was a girl. I used to hear it from my mother all day long. ‘Girl!’ she would call, and all it meant to me was that I wasn’t a boy and I wasn’t like my brother.

My brother’s hair was cut short but otherwise left free and uncombed, while mine was allowed to grow longer and longer and my mother combed it twice a day and twisted it into plaits and imprisoned the ends of it in ribbons and rubber bands.

My brother woke up in the morning and left his bed just as it was, while I had to make my bed and his as well.

My brother went out into the street to play without asking my parents’ permission and came back whenever he liked, while I could only go out if and when they let me.

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.

My brother played, jumped around and turned somersaults, whereas if I ever sat down and allowed my skirt to ride as much as a centimetre up my thighs, my mother would pierce me with a glance like an animal immobilizing its prey and I would cover up those shameful parts of my body.

Shameful! Everything in me was shameful and I was a child of just nine years old.

I felt sorry for myself and locked myself in my room and cried. The first real tears I shed in my life weren’t because I’d done badly at school or broken something valuable but because I was a girl. I wept over my femininity even before I knew what it was. The moment I opened my eyes on life, a state of enmity already existed between me and my nature.

I jumped down the stairs three at a time so as to be in the street before I’d counted ten. My brother and some of the boys and girls who lived nearby were waiting for me to play cops and robbers. I’d asked my mother’s permission. I loved playing games and running as fast as I could. I felt an overwhelming happiness as I moved my head and arms and legs in the air or broke into a series of leaps and bounds, constrained only by the weight of my body which was dragged down earthwards time and again.

Why had God created me a girl and not a bird flying in the air like that pigeon? It seemed to me that God must prefer birds to girls. But my brother couldn’t fly and this consoled me a little. I realized that despite his great freedom he was as incapable as I was of flying. I began to search constantly for weak spots in males to console me for the powerlessness imposed on me by the fact of being female.

I was bounding ecstatically along when I felt a violent shudder running through my body. My head spun and I saw something red. I didn’t know what had happened to me. Fear gripped my heart and I left the game. I ran back to the house and locked myself in the bathroom to investigate the secret of this grave event in private.

I didn’t understand it at all. I thought I must have been struck down by a terrible illness. I went to ask my mother about it in fear and trembling and saw laughter and happiness written all over her face. I wondered in amazement how she could greet this affliction with such a broad smile. Noticing my surprise and confusion, she took me by the hand and led me to my room. Here she told me women’s bloody tale.

I took to my room for four days running. I couldn’t face my brother, my father or even the house-boy. I thought they must all have been told about the shameful thing that had happened to me: my mother would doubtless have revealed my new secret. I locked myself in, trying to come to terms with this phenomenon. Was this unclean procedure the only way for girls to reach maturity? Could a human being really live for several days at the mercy of involuntary muscular activity? God must really hate girls to have tarnished them with this curse. I felt that God had favoured boys in everything.

I got up from the bed, dragged myself over to the mirror and looked at the two little mounds sprouting on my chest. If only I could die! 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 femininity break out in?

I hated being female. I felt as if I was in chains — chains forged from my own blood tying me to the bed so that I couldn’t run and jump, chains produced by the cells of my own body, chains of shame and humiliation. I turned in on myself to cover up my miserable existence.

I no longer went out to run and play. The two mounds on my chest were growing bigger. They bounced gently as I walked. I was unhappy with my tall slender frame, folding my arms over my chest to hide it and looking sadly at my brother and his friends as they played.

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 body carrying deep inside it a ten-year-old child.

I saw the doorman’s eyes and teeth shining in his black face as he came up to me; I was sitting alone on his wooden bench letting my eyes follow the movements of my brother and his friends in the street. I felt the rough edge of his galabiya brushing my leg and breathed in the strange smell of his clothes. I edged away in disgust. As he came closer again, I tried to hide my fear by staring fixedly at my brother and his companions as they played, but I felt his coarse rough fingers stroking my leg and moving up under my clothes. I jumped up in alarm and raced away from him. This horrible man had noticed my womanhood as well! I ran all the way up to our flat and my mother asked what the matter was. But I couldn’t tell her anything, perhaps out of a feeling of fear or humiliation or a mixture of the two. Or perhaps because I thought she’d scold me and that would put an end to the special affection between us that made me tell her my secrets.

I no longer went out in the street, and I didn’t sit on the wooden bench any more. I fled from those strange creatures with harsh voices and moustaches, the creatures they called men. I created an imaginary private world for myself in which I was a goddess and men were stupid, helpless creatures at my beck and call. I sat on a high throne in this world of mine, arranging the dolls on chairs, making the boys sit on the floor and telling stories to myself. Alone with my imagination and my dolls, nobody ruffled the calm of my life, except my mother with her never-ending orders for me to do tasks around the flat or in the kitchen: the hateful, constricted world of women with its permanent reek of garlic and onions. I’d scarcely retreated into my own little world when my mother would drag me into the kitchen saying, ‘You’re going to be married one day. You must learn how to cook. You’re going to be married…’ Marriage! Marriage! That loathsome word which my mother mentioned every day until I hated the sound of it. I couldn’t hear it without having a mental picture of a man with a big see-through belly with a table of food inside it. In my mind the smell of the kitchen was linked with the smell of a husband and I hated the word husband just as I hated the smell of the food we cooked.

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