Two Women in One – Nawal el-Saadawi (1975 trans. Osman Nusairi and Jana Gough, 1985) 124 pages
Nawal el-Saadawi is a ridiculously impressive individual; if you ever want to feel like a total underachiever, just read her wiki page. A big part of her work is as a campaigner for women’s rights, and this is very much the theme of Two Women in One.
The novella concerns Bahiah Shaheen, who is studying to be a doctor.
“She stood with her right foot on the edge of the marble table and her left foot on the floor, a posture unbecoming for a woman – but then in society’s eyes she was not yet a woman since she was only eighteen. In those days, girls dresses made it impossible to stand like that. Their skirts wound tightly around the thighs and narrowed at the knees, so that their legs remained bound together whether they were sitting, standing or walking, producing an unnatural movement.”
Bahiah doesn’t walk like other women, she strides. She isn’t interested in men. She isn’t interested in her studies. She struggles to connect with her family. She often thinks of herself as split in two: the outwardly obedient daughter and student, the inwardly restless and rebellious young woman.
Bahiah likes art and drawing, and she meets a young man Saleem at an exhibition. He begins to open her eyes to life beyond her home and studies and her internal reflections start to result in external actions.
“Bahiah Shaheen’s mind was not her own. But she had another mind. She could feel it in her head, a swelling thing that filled her skull, impishly and secretly telling her that all these things were worthless and that she wanted something else, something different, unknown but definite, specific yet undefined, something she could draw with the tip of her pen on the blank sheet of paper like an individual black line, But when she looked at it, it became a long line stretching far and wide as the horizon with no beginning and no end.”
This is what el-Saadawi captures so well in Two Women in One: not knowing what you want, except you want something different. Another writer would have Bahiah’s awakening coinciding with a sexual awakening with Saleem, or a driven ambition to be an artist. But el-Saadawi doesn’t fall into those clichés, although Bahiah experiences sexual pleasure and is motivated by her art. Rather Bahiah has that late adolescent feeling of restlessness and disconnect, without knowing enough about yourself or life to know what you want to fight for.
For Bahiah, this adolescent awakening has significant ramifications, because she lives in a society that circumscribes women’s choices and activities and under a government that clamps down forcibly on any dissent.
“Ever since she first became aware of life, she had wondered why all the things she loved were taboo.”
Two Women in One is simply plotted and told, but it is a story that asks big questions about the freedom of the individual, the role of women, societal responsibility and the price paid for living authentically.
“Bahiah now understood the tragedy. She knew why human beings hide their real desires: because they are strong enough to be destructive; and since people do not want to be destroyed, they opt for a passive life with no real desires.”