Miriam Cooke (review date spring 1986)


PHOTO/The Times Literary Supplement

Cooke, Miriam. Review of Two Women in One, by Nawal El Saadawi. World Literature Today 60, no. 2 (spring 1986): 356-57.

[In the following review, Cooke examines the oppression faced by Bahiah, the protagonist of Two Women in One.]

The theme of Nawal el-Saadawi’s at once powerful and programmatically feminist novel/text [Two Women in One] is contained in its dedication to young people, and particularly to young women. They must resist like roses, whose tender petals become “sharp protruding thorns [so that] they can survive among hungry bees.”

The reader meets Bahiah Shaheen as she is beginning to realize that her body, and the name it bears, contains two women: a docile, conforming medical student and a revolutionary artist. Whenever she hears someone say “Bahiah Shaheen,” she does not at once recognize the name as belonging to her but rather to her father, who “owned her just as he owned his underwear.” Ironically, Bahiah’s liberation is made possible through a man. At an art exhibition that she arranged without her father’s knowledge, she meets Saleem. Their ensuing relationship was the “only real thing in (her) life,” real because it was taboo. Involuntarily, she becomes politically engaged, and her father and uncle decide that she has had enough education. At a big family gathering “they sold her to a man for 300 Egyptian pounds.”

The wedding is surrounded by images of prison and death. Bahiah recognizes her parents’ and husband’s protection to be “the real danger: it was an assault on her reality, the usurpation of her will and of her very existence.” She runs away, but at the university her professor tries to take advantage of her confusion. Her rage signals a new level of awareness, and it is then that she is arrested.

Despite several passages of unmitigated ideology and frequent repetitions of descriptions and reflections, Two Women in One does try to expose the dynamics of a woman’s relationship to a patriarchal society. Whereas Firdaus, in el-Saadawi’s only other novel to be translated into English, A Woman at Point Zero (1975; see WLT 59:3, p. 483), comes to terms with what she has become—a prostitute who is ready to murder to assert herself against others’ desires—Bahiah remains a middle-class woman who is prevented from freeing herself of some of the assumptions of her social and intellectual milieus. The only escape is from one form of patriarchal tyranny—her father’s or husband’s protection—to another: the police. The middle-class woman seems to have fewer options than her working-class sister.

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