- The Female Suffering Body: Illness and Disability in Modern Arabic Literature by Abir Hamdar
In the introduction to The Female Suffering Body the reader learns that “the sick female body still remains largely outside the Arabic literary imaginary” (2) and that there has been little Arab theorizing of the intersections of gender and health (11). What, then, is one to make of a literary study of ill and disabled female bodies? In spite of these two major limitations, Abir Hamdar has produced a richly detailed and engaging analysis of an assortment of short stories and novels published by fifteen authors since 1950. By situating each story in its particular social and cultural milieu, she historicizes the patterns of literal and symbolic representation of the ill female body and reconstructs “an aesthetic genealogy of representations of female physical illness and disability in Arabic literature from 1950 to the present” (125).
This clearly written and accessible book is organized into an introduction, three body chapters, and a conclusion. Chapter 1 treats representative works by six male authors—Naguib Mahfouz, Mahmoud Taymur, Yusuf al-Sibaʾi, Ghassan Kanafani, Ziyad Qasim, and Hanna Mina—who published between 1950 and 2000. Hamdar notes that female characters of any type were rarely central in men’s writings of the period, so it is not surprising that ill and disabled women figure as largely unnamed and voiceless characters whose illnesses remain vaguely understood. Disabled men, on the contrary, figure often and prominently in men’s writings. Hamdar skillfully brings these women to the fore, arguing that representations of their bodies fall into three broad categories: “the ‘fallen’ woman, the embodiment of the nation in crisis, and the ideal woman/wife” (90).
Chapter 2 treats works by six female authors—Huyam Nuwaylati, Colette Khoury, Hanan al-Shaykh, Alia Mamdouh, Salwa Bakr, and Miral al-Tahawy—who also published between 1950 and 2000. Many of the disabled female characters in these works are as marginalized as those in the men’s works. However, the patterns of representation differ. In [End Page 96] women’s writings the illnesses afflict a certain type of person, namely, mothers, or are of a certain type, for instance blindness, infertility, or accidental injury. This pattern accords with contemporary Arab public health discourses at that time about women’s illnesses, which also focused on blindness and infertility. Female diseases were constructed as specifically female, afflicting the eyes and the womb, which constitutes a crucial insight about Arab women’s social marginality and invisibility, where “female blindness becomes symptomatic of a prior male gendered and social blindness” (69).
Chapter 3 features one work authored by a man (Hassan Daoud) and two works authored by women (Betool Khedairi and Haifaʾ Bitar) that were all published between 2000 and 2014, a period marked by heightened violence. The central character of Daoud’s Makyaj Khafif (2003) is Fadia Nassar, a woman disfigured in a bomb blast in Lebanon. Khedairi’s Ghayib (2004) features two ill/disabled female characters living in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The face of the narrator, Dalal, has been scarred, and Ilham has breast cancer. The main character of Bitar’s Imraʾa min Hadha al-ʿAsr (2010) is a twice-divorced cancer patient named Maryam. In stark contrast to the silence and marginality of disabled women in the previously examined works, the protagonists in these texts explore their own sexualities or are awakened to them in part through the gazes of male partners and peers. As Hamdar succinctly notes, “The female suffering body finally completes its journey from a silent, indeed absent, subject to a fully articulated and embodied agent” (97).
In the concluding chapter Hamdar historicizes the trend identified in the earlier chapters. Hamdar attributes the development of disabled women’s subjectivities in twenty-first-century literature to such political and social changes as increased education and employment opportunities for women and shifts in Arab nationalist movements of the 1970s and 1980s from a monolithic Pan-Arabism to a celebration of local Arab identities. The confluence...