- The Female Suffering Body: Illness and Disability in Modern Arabic Literature by Abir Hamdar
Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2014. xiv + 166 pp., references, index. ISBN: 9780815633655. Hardcover, $29.95.
Abir Hamdar, in The Female Suffering Body: Illness and Disability in Modern Arabic Literature, undertakes a significant contribution to tracking the theme of the female suffering body in Arabic literature through the presentation of an impressive array of distinguished narratives, translated into English, by authors from Egypt and the Levant between 1950 and 2004. She clusters these narratives around three typologies, which are also three chapter titles in the book: “The Silent Subject” (24–64), “Mediating Voices” (65–96), and “Re-Writing the Suffering Body” (97–124).
The book’s content includes the acknowledgments, author note, introduction, the three main chapters noted above, conclusion, references, and index. The acknowledgments includes a long list of individuals whose knowledge of the subject matter or technical assistance undoubtedly contributed to the book’s strength.
The discourse theme is exhaustively explored in the introduction and provides a clear idea of the author’s position. The book’s aim is to recount the lack of depiction of women’s illness and disability per se in Arabic literature (1). To achieve that, Hamdar addresses three questions: (a) Why is there concealment of this phenomenon? (b) How is this obscurity carried out? and (c) How can the de-emphasis on women’s illness in Arabic narratives be articulated? (3). Another more defined set of [End Page 167] seven objectives that emanates from these three questions in order to investigate the lack of portrayal of the female suffering body is well-examined throughout the book (9). Despite a lack of female suffering bodies, Hamdar acknowledges that there is considerable portrayal of women’s bodies, with a focus on their sexuality and their political and social constructs.
In her attempt to grasp and examine the meaning of “illness” in Arabic literature, Hamdar delves into an exhaustive list of publications within several disciplines and categorizes them on a spectrum of the book’s cornerstone terms: “disease,” “illness,” “sickness,” and “malaise” (4). The disciplines range from the geographical, biological, social, cultural, medical, and anthropological, all the way to health as conceived by the World Health Organization; they include physical identity, physical problems, and disorders. Correspondingly, she draws on an impressively vast number of Western and Arab theoreticians and researchers to render these terms’ contextual meanings associated with the female body and to support her stance throughout the whole book.
Hamdar also explores the association between Islam and health. She states that seeking cures for illness, infertility, spirit possession, or blindness is gendered in that healing practices are performed by women who, in turn, encourage sick women to visit religious shrines and worship saints in pursuit of remedies and redemption (12, 13).1 Alongside this discourse of women being subjugated to women caretakers for healing, Hamdar cites studies showing that the intimate relationship between the practice of spirit possession and clinical illness has resulted in Arab female empowerment: it allows women to escape their restricted space at home, to enhance sisterhood with women experiencing illness, to vent their feelings of frustration and concern, and to control conception and even manipulate divorce.2 The lack of women’s reproduction would agitate the husband and the household, and bearing many children would bestow on women more power and freedom (13–15). Conceptually, women’s health is tied to that of their children and, by the same token, to their illness.
In chapter 1, “The Silent Subject,” Hamdar sketches female illness and disability in the narratives of Arab male authors from 1950 to 2000. While referring at the outset of this chapter to several male authors’ writings in this era, she focuses on selections from six—Mahmoud Taymur (26–30), Yusuf al-Siba’i (31–34), Ghassan Kanafani (37–43), Ziyad Qasim (43–48), Naguib Mahfouz (48–53), and Hanna Mina (53–57)—recounting the illnesses, disabilities, and malaise of these authors’ female characters. The sick female voice is marginalized in these works, and its images...