Omolola A. Ladele*
For thousands of years most of the philosophers and thinkers, all of whom were men, have been so blinded, by their “patriarchal cataract” and class optics, that their sight and their insight could not penetrate the time significance of the myth of Adam and Eve. Eve took the first towards the tree of knowledge. She was therefore a dynamic force lifting Adam up to new heights for which she had paved the way. Yet she was the “sin” or the “fall” depicted in the Old Testament, from which Christianity and Islam inherited the myth which made Eve the origin of all sin.
Nawal El Saadawi (1997: 73)
Introduction: Gendering the Politics of Religion in El Saadawi’s Dramatic Oeuvre
Almost without respite in recent times, the world seems to be witnessing how religious orthodoxies are becoming more and more contentious and divisive. Such are the seismic transformations in many of these religions that are now becoming complexly politicized and self-contradictory. Now dangerously weaponized, religions no longer seem to be the opiate of the people; they no longer offer peace and succor. Rather, all over the world, religious-based violence, killings and bloodbaths are causing unprecedented schisms among peoples and nations. Religious militancy and extremisms see more and more societies becoming “splinterized” on religious issues and, all too often, these lead to oppressive and exploitative mistreatment of people of other faiths. Women, in particular, seem to bear the brunt of such extremisms. Such turns in the manipulation of religion by humanity necessarily compel a re-evaluation of the systems and principles that have resulted in these dangerous trends.
Indeed, several historical studies around the world, including the seminal anthropological study of Amadiume (2000), demonstrate that many religious myths often started with women and that, in those ancient times, the status of women in religion was an indication of their status in society. However, with the devolution of class-based societies and patriarchal families, society’s women gradually lost their rights and freedom. Thus, with the “fall” of women, and the subsequent dislocation of matriarchy, came a reordering of societies by patriarchal hegemonies and their exclusionary tendencies towards women. Nawal El Saadawi succinctly captures the misogynistic impact of these fundamental reversals in her polemic view depicted in the epigraph at the beginning of this essay.
In work after work, foremost Egyptian writer, novelist, polemicist and playwright, El Saadawi, vigorously contends with the issues of religions and their potentially exploitative assumptions, especially as they disempower Muslim women in the Arab world. Her contestations are profoundly intensified not only by the imperatives of the plurality of her cultural heritage but by the prohibitive oppressive structures of patriarchal religious hegemonies. Therefore, underlying El Saadawi’s imaginative matrix are subversive culturally and historically derived paradigms which challenge the oppressive and exploitative bases of many religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, among others. As shall be demonstrated from the two plays in this study, El Saadawi problematizes the nature of religion globally and, particularly, Islam’s theology of gender and its sexual politics which prohibitively derogate women.
Both in the mythopoeic world of the gods as well as in the more universally acknowledged religions of the world, El Saadawi is opposed to the exploitative use of religion, particularly in their abject form of extremist fundamentalism. Consistently, her works are dialectical in their interrogation of religious traditions and orthodoxies, as she seeks ways of re-inventing liberating religious dogmas.
Browsing through some of the titles of her works, it is immediately evident that El Saadawi is engaged in constestatory discourses as she brazenly ridicules the oppressive theology of Islam captured in such titles as: “The Thirteenth Rib of Adam” in The Hidden Face of Eve (1980), God Dies by the Nile (1985), The Fall of the Imam (1988), The Innocence of the Devil (1994) and God Resigns at the Summit Meeting. It is, therefore, little wonder that Al Azhar (the highest Islamic institution in Egypt and the whole Islamic world) accused her of “apostasy” and “heresy” on the grounds of these titles alone (Saadawi 145).
In a very lucid and incisive comment, El Saadawi postulates that it is precisely within the structures and paradigms of religions that the oppression of (Arab) women is entrenched. She, therefore, suggests that the liberation of women lies in:
[p]olitical organization and a patient, long-enduring struggle to become an effective political power which will force society to change and abolish the structures that keep women victims of the crudest, most cruel and sometimes sophisticated forms of oppression and exploitation. (El Saadawi 1997: 91)
It is, therefore, little wonder that Saadawi’s insights should concretize in her direct activism and liberatory struggles with other Arab women. In an article in which the critic demonstrates the connection between Saadawi’s ideological positions with the recent Cairo Tahrir Square Arab Springs Movement, Al-Khateeb shows that El Saadawi has fought on all fronts: the social, the legal, the religious, the political, the public and the horrifyingly taboo private front. Her life story is that of a crusade through(out) which she battles her own conventional, rural upbringing and the authoritative ideas that this upbringing left resonating in her mind (5). These personal experiences, in turn, impel various interpretations and reconstructions of histories for the writer and, as Valassopoulos suggests, although El Saadawi “constructs polemics against fundamentalist ideologies that create a restricted world and the inhumane conditions that rule the lives of many Arab women, she is also very subtle in her representations . . . .” (38)
Thus, through the contextualization of the backdrop of El Saadawi’s writings, it is evident that she belongs in the league of several other Arab women writers who, through subversive gestural strategies embedded in their writing, often write back to normative, masculinist literary traditions and cultural institutions. These Arab women writers generate a variety of counter-hegemonic discourses to contest the epistemological foundations of mainstream Arab literary poetics which have variously provoked problematic refutations.
Describing in broad strokes the North African theatre tradition, Box notes that North African women have been writing for the stage since 1960, when Assia Djebar’s war play, Rouge l’aube, was first produced. Their work constitutes a counter-canon, albeit one of many inconsistencies that, at times, complements and, at others, opposes the prevailing trends of North African theatre (Box 73). Indicating Saadawi’s complexly multiple locations as a writer, Amireh explains that Saadawi “addresses readers with the confidence of a physician, the passion of an activist, the credibility of an eye witness, and the pathos of an injured woman” (231).
Saadawi herself explicitly specifies her resistive engagements, asserting that:
One of the most difficult problems that confront a creative woman is the inevitable conflict that breaks out sooner or later between her and authority, between her and the system dominant in society, because this system is based on patriarchal class relations. (218)
In clearly unequivocal ideological terms, Saadawi very self-consciously pits herself not only against dominant patriarchal “authorities” in her country but also against the more conservative and complicit women of her generation. This very posture suggests that Saadawi draws on a conceptual paradigm that challenges the imperium of a hegemonic center.
Apparently, writing back to Tawfiq al Hakim’s play with the same title, Saadawi’s play, Isis, according to the authorial notes of The Dramatic Literature of Nawal El Saadawi, (translated and summarized by Bagnole) the playwright observes that most portraitures of the ancient goddess had become mundane—as in Al Hakim’s version.
Saadawi laments that in his version, Al-Hakim had “transformed Isis into a silent figure unable to participate in the debates among philosophers and writers. . . . He did not recognize Isis as the goddess of wisdom, reason and determination who was also known for her justice and goodness” (119). Saadawi’s depiction is, therefore, an effort at “recovery” of the quintessential principles of the goddess Isis. The feminine archetype of Isis is not merely a “personal muse” to the playwright; she appropriates Isis’ legendary place in popular Egyptian consciousness and radically invigorates the cultural symbol with regenerative power necessary to transform society.
Further identifying masculine/feminine differentiations—among other differences, in an early comparative study of these two playwrights, Amin demonstrates that “Egyptian playwrights, mostly men, have almost always catered to their predominantly male audience,” showing how masculine values have for long dominated male dramatists’ perceptions of the virtue and uniqueness of Isis. Amin also holds that “those values which assume that power are gendered as masculine have influenced the broad conception of what constitutes greatness, distinction and significance in aesthetic constructions [and] these values have typically placed man at the centre of power and marginalized the essential qualities of female power” (15).
Expanding the frontiers of the author’s typical contestations, Fedwa Malti-Douglas points to the feminist standpoint underlying Saadawi’s “concern with an overarching patriarchy, whose roots are social, religious and political, which she combines with her treatment of gender and the body in a formula that is nothing short of feminist” (6-7). Thus, a constantly recurring thematization in Saadawi’s works is her quest to radically transform and democratize the exploitative and oppressive structures embedded in the socio-political and religious institutions of her immediate society which, invariably, lead to the under-privileging of women and several forms of injustices. To this end, a carefully spun brand of feminism is an important trajectory in Saadawi’s quest for justice for women.
Yet, the author’s feminism has generated a heated controversy concerning its place and relevance in Islam. Regarding this, Amireh observes that:
El Saadawi’s nonfictional writing differed from the prevailing Egyptian feminist discourse of the time in that it focused on poor women, emphasizing their oppression and exploitation. While this emphasis fell within the parameters of the general leftist intellectual discourse, it was subversive in the context of Egyptian feminism, which expressed the interests of middle and upper-class women and was articulated by members of these classes. . . . In other words, her polemical writing was as much a response to this feminist tradition as it was a critique of patriarchal society generally. (232)
Although Amireh refers specifically to her non-fictional works, the foregoing observation can also be corroborated in her fictional works as well as in her dramas which are, often, polemic critiques engendering a lot of controversies. Persisting, however, in her attempt to formulate a critical foundation for a new feminist epistemology; hence, Saadawi often centralizes highly individualized female protagonists, such as Firdaus in Woman at Point Zero (1983), Bahiah Shaheen in Two Women in One (1985), and Zakeya in God Dies by the Nile (1985).
Similarly, in the plays considered in this essay, the female characters, Isis and Bint Allah, are crucial in Saadawi’s aesthetic and thematic revolution. Consistently, Saadawi’s female characters seem to interrogate and attempt to disrupt the masculine-versus-feminine indexes which perpetuate the discriminations and exclusions against women.
Therefore, significantly pivotal to the critical standpoint of this essay are the two important issues of feminism and religion; they are both useful in contextualizing the complexities and paradoxes of the playwright’s positions, and illuminate the stage for understanding Saadawi’s two plays in this study.
Challenging the Invincibility of Divinities
In what may be regarded as the playwright’s credo, and referring specifically to her play God Resigns at the Summit Meeting (hereafter referred to as God Resigns), the author observes that:
The play exposes the contradictions and the patriarchal class and race discriminations embedded in the three monotheistic books: the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Qur’an. It shows how these books are political, dealing with power, money and sex. Double morality prevails in the three books: inferiority of women relative to men, dictatorship, racism, war, and killing the heretic or infidel. Most governments of the world use these divine books to oppress their people. Religion is a servant to the political system. It is used by powerful groups to justify injustice as a divine order. God resigns in the play when faced by his contradictions and injustices. (Saadawi 145)
In both plays discussed here, the author places in the full glare of the public limelight the interactions and relationships of the oppressive rule of divine oligarchy which impoverishes and debases humanity. But the precursor to this is the two-Act play, Isis.
The play opens with a self-congratulatory scene in which the sun god, Ra—owner of the sky and sun—with the help of his major cohort, Seth, are basking in their recent victory, having seized power from Nut, goddess of the sky. Embedded in the conversations taking place in this scene are highly suggestive and cumulative conflictual motifs central to the unfolding drama. Saadawi deliberately foregrounds the avariciousness and foibles of the gods in the full glare of the public eye which, in turn, foreshadow the subversive interpretations of the play. Importantly, the gods and goddesses are visible and tangible embodiments, easily bestriding the celestial and terrestrial cosmos and Saadawi’s stage. Thus, the playwright deftly sets them up for public scrutiny, using them also to frame other larger, socio-political discourses.
In Isis, Saadawi attains this end by essentially collapsing the conventional, subliminal spatial boundaries between the gods and humanity. Through the fusion of both worlds, the playwright brings the mythopoeic world of the gods into rudimentary existential consciousness. Thus, through the conflictual polarizations between the characters and the principles they embody, Saadawi seems to propose a deconstruction of the mysteries of religion.
Readers encounter a self-adulatory Ra, gleeful about the success of his recent military insurrection. Ra quickly establishes an “era of supreme men, the era of masculinity, an era of strong men rulers. Gone is the period of women and weak men” (19). This foreshadows, if not immediately establishes, the oppositional antagonisms between the gods, between divinity and humanity and between good and evil, thus progressively problematizing the role of religion in human affairs.
Involved—and further polarizing the dramatic conflicts in the play—is also the struggle for power between the sexes. Commenting on this, Bagnole suggests that the playwright presents the “male characters negotiating their authoritative status while revealing their psychological personalities, conquering egos, conniving spirits, greedy traits and conspiring attitudes against their own people” (233). In this way, the playwright equates the gods with human characters. Through this re-characterization, she ironically reveals their limitations. With deliberate precision, Saadawi seems to spin the generally known and accepted notion that patriarchy is a socio-cultural construct on another axis, as she interrogates the origin and maintenance of patriarchy in the divine fiat.
What quickly follows in the next two scenes is the treacherous killing of Osiris, the lawful heir to Geb, god of the earth, in order to install Seth as god of the earth, and the consequent self-imposed exile of the remnant family members in order to escape Ra’s rule of terror. Ra’s brutally tyrannical government is forcefully established at the expense of Seth’s more humane family members—Isis, Osiris, Nephthys and Horus. Initially, this seems to conflict with Seth’s psyche. Too quickly, however, Seth overcomes his personal dilemma and becomes sucked into the orbit of arrogant, dehumanized gods who, according to Ra, “do not walk among the people in the markets and are not visible by eye” (33). In this statement, Ra is completely oblivious of the embedded irony. Seth, on the other hand, is the first to begin to have misgivings and apprehend the contradictions of their euphoric conquest. He recalls, for instance, the training of his siblings by their mother in debate and argument, and how they have been taught that nothing was above reason and justice, including divinity (32). One of the paradoxes of the moment is the fact that the gods seem to have lost all power of rational thinking, and this loss is the very basis of their undoing. Since the irrationality of the gods plays out before all and sundry, it is easy for the people to recognize their weaknesses. In this manner, the playwright is able to challenge the orthodox claims of the true nature and power of the gods as well as the powers that are ascribed to them.
The conflicts about the nature and powers of the gods rapidly intensify, reaching a climactic crescendo by Act two. Ra’s high-handed misrule culminates in his own schizophrenic anxieties about his authority and absolute powers. For instance, through cumulative metaphorical structures in the play, Saadawi conveys the intense conflicts between good and evil. This, for instance, plays out in the treachery of “the black Ethiopian slave,” who dares to sleep with the favoured mistress of Ra’s harem. In this enactment, the playwright subtly implicates race and class issues. Ra orders the dismembering of the slave; he commands Seth to
Cut off from his body that piece of meat which caused him to imagine that he was a man who could dare to look at one of the god’s women. Remove it from his body with the knife to make him realize that he is merely a humiliated eunuch slave who does not have a place among men who is not a threat to the women of the slaves let alone those of the gods! (91)
Again, the irony is that Ra’s action is reflected in Seth, the god of the earth, totally contradicting the principles of feminine nurturance associated with the earth.
In a similar encounter with the re-incarnated Osiris, Seth orders that he be castrated and decapitated. Osiris, in the face of such morbid pain, does not moan or lower his head, thus, ultimately, signalling his defiance, superiority and triumph over evil.
Constantly, the playwright dramatically accentuates the tensions and elevates the contests between good and evil by juxtaposing the scenes. In the provocative conflicts that ensue, the dehumanized and impoverished people profoundly question the arrogance, greed and high-handedness of their gods and goddesses, and, eventually, take them to court demanding justice and fair treatment.
Thus, for instance, it is in exile, in the village of Khibit on the shore of Lake al-Manzela, that Isis begins a resistance movement. She formulates a revolutionary ethos among the people as she vows to “transform the tears into burning fire,” insisting that “evil will not conquer goodness, Seth will not triumph over Isis and Osiris” (50). This is momentous in the revolutionary process and as they transform from powerless victims of their circumstances to agents of revolution. Isis is, thus, the sole initiator and motivator of the process of rebuilding a new ethos together with the people.
This is significant insofar as the playwright brings Isis out of the fossils of mythology and antiquity; that is, from where the hegemonic male order of the gods had consigned her. In this new imaginary, Isis becomes a relevant emblem in the processes of social transformation in contemporary times. As Plastow sees it, Isis is the central figure: wife, mother and active principle keeping the struggle for diversity, wisdom and compassion alive, against the patriarchal, monotheistic imposition of the pre-Allah/God/Jehovah figure of Ra (245). In exile, Isis and Maat, painfully but determinedly, resurrect and reconstruct the memories of Osiris and all the other humane gods and goddesses, and everything they stand for as deities. For instance, in spite of the prevailing despondence, Isis never gives up as typified in this brief conversation with Maat:
Maat: I do not hear anything. It is the sound of the wind.
Osiris died, Isis; the god of goodness has died; and Nut, goddess of the sky has died; and Maat, the goddess of justice has died. No one is left but Maat . . . me . . . a woman . . . simply a woman . . . I am here not a goddess anymore
Isis: I do not like to hear this desperate weak voice. You are still the goddess of justice. My mother Nut is still the goddess of the sky and Osiris is still the god of generosity and goodness . . . there is no power in the sky or on earth that can defeat us as long as we do not desire to be defeated. . . . (Isis 44)
Whereas Isis inspires the people, Seth is seen, on the contrary, deploying his stooges in destroying all the former icons of the deities to which he is opposed. Saadawi “oscillates” between the scenes; she juxtaposes the representations of evil as encapsulated in the formidable reign of Seth in contrast with the on-going reconstructions of heart and mind going on with Isis and her new family.
The conflicts in the play attain climactic proportions in the final scene of the play, in which there is a collision of the forces of good and evil in the people’s court of justice. The old priest starts the session announcing that:
Justice is that which is right above any power . . . and above any authority. . . . Any authority in the sky or on earth. . . . Nothing will be our judge in this square except logic, justice reason and allegation and proof. Judgment at the end is yours . . . yours, the people’s. The public is the possessor of true authority. (111)
Significantly, it is at the point of animated reason and justice for man and divinity that the playwright completely demystifies the invincibility of the gods. While the gods seem to lose their invincibility, the generality of the people appear to rationally apprehend their ability to transcend their vulnerability as they redefine their realities and initiate the processes of evolving for themselves a humane, socio-political ethos that can engender a more equitable coexistence for all. The triumph of this final scene lies in the ability to bring the gods into the people’s court for public trial, which is, perhaps, theatrically accomplished in the duel between Horus, Osiris’ son, and Seth.
At the end of it all, “the people surround Isis and Horus and sing together in melodious music and dance” (117). And, perhaps, there is a need to further explore the distinctive potential of song in this play. All the same, significantly linking the past with the future in the personalities of Isis and her love child—Horus, in this final celebration, the playwright points to the need for purposive reintegration with the past. It must also be understood that the playwright’s vision is not a fortuitous romantic or nostalgic exhumation of the past. Rather, it is a Janus-faced attempt to imaginatively incarnate and revive authentic cultural symbols (in particular, the feminine principles of Isis) that were once positive for society’s well-being.
Whereas, in Isis, the playwright presents her contestations in a theatrical manner, in God Resigns, she compels a more intellectual and visceral engagement with, and corporeal interrogation of, religion, power and authority. In this play, all the major prophets of the world’s religions are dissatisfied with the magisterial reign of God—the supreme-being who, it appears, has become insensitive and inaccessible to the people. All of the notable prophets of the world’s religions—Moses, for the Jews, Jesus Christ, the Messiah, for the Christians, Muhammad, for the Muslims, Abraham, Father of all the prophets—as well as other influential, world-class political figures and rulers such as Golda Meir, Margaret Thatcher, Benjamin Netanyahu and Bill Clinton converge with all manner of accusations leveled against God. Saadawi is quite explicit in her inclusion of all these political leaders in the discussion. She demonstrates that religion complicates other socio-political discourses.
Only Satan, in spite of his usual cunning duplicity, comes with his resignation letter. Finally, by the end of scene one, Master Radwan ushers them all into the opulent presence of the Almighty God.
What transpires from that point on in the play are intense, very complicated intellectual debates that are indeed arguments that reveal the atrocities committed in the name of male-centered hegemonic religions all over the world. For instance, Prophet Abraham argues:
Prophet Abraham: My conscience is stricken and I fear to die before having let out what torments me. . . . You ordered me to abandon my beloved wife and her son, Ishmael, in the desert to die of thirst and hunger and be devoured by hyenas. . . Do you not witness what is happening in your world? Are you not troubled by all the blood being shed in your name, in the name of your Promised Land? (God Resigns 146-47)
In the final analysis, and as seen in the previous play in this study, there is a court trial of the Almighty God. All the prophets/emissaries of God, including Abraham, accuse God, calling attention to his own prejudices and bias against women which cause untold hardship for them. At any rate, most religious books and scripts have been interpreted through time and space by culturally masculinist perceptions. Constantly assuming the voice of Bint Allah, the playwright, seems to subvert the rigidly held views about religion. For instance, Bint Allah queries the relationship between the cutting of the foreskin and the promise of land, she asks pointedly: “what is the relation between land and cutting the part of the body?” (152). One after the other, all the prophets air their views about the wrongdoings of God. Jesus Christ, for instance, admits his own failures arguing limply that: “Society forced this behavior on me; it is patriarchal and honors only the father. It has no respect for women. I tried to defend them, but I failed. The men would violate a woman’s body and call her a whore. They would stone her to death” (158). By means of such admissions, Saadawi forcefully argues that the roles and position of women were inspired and prescribed according to the values of the patriarchal and class societies prevalent at that time (73).
Having listened to all the submissions, and on a note of finality, “The Most High God” admits that he had “favored men at the expense of women and made the men dominate over women, which was unjust” (196). Interestingly, he takes responsibility for his (in)actions and resigns his position as “a single eternal everlasting god.”
Although a known supporter of Islam, Saadawi rigorously contends that religion, as illustrated in these two plays, can easily become a grand narrative, an exploitative ideology of the rich to oppress the poor. Also, as seen in these dramas, the playwright is interested in a critical appraisal of the epistemological foundations of religion in an attempt to renegotiate a humane and humanizing faith. Thus, Saadawi appears to call for a dialectical position that recognizes the specificities of historical and cultural contexts and how these impact religious consciousness. This is consistent with her theology, which is not a fortuitous atheism or a mere reversal of the principles of faith in a superior being. Rather, her belief is that the numbing opiate of religion should be exorcized in order to totally deconstruct the mysteries of religion often used to coerce people into submission. Through the two plays studied in this essay, the playwright inspires a need to reclaim from the orthodox hegemonies of history, religion and cultural institutions a new imaginary for the transformation of society and the empowerment of women.
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*Omolola A. Ladele is currently a Senior Lecturer in the Department of English, Lagos State University, Ojoo, Lagos, where she teaches several graduate and undergraduate level courses including: African literature, Women and Gender Studies, Feminist literature, Literary theory. She has presented papers at international and local conferences which have also appeared in peer-reviewed local and international journals.
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