EGYPT: Sex and a feminist novelist
The apartment door bears no man's name, which is unusual in Cairo, but it's a fitting snub at convention for feminist author Sahar El-Mougy, who lives and writes outside society's strictures. Her independent lifestyle -- women here are whispered about and prayed for if they live alone -- defies the patriarchal order beyond her flat and inspires emancipation on the pages of her novels and short stories.
El-Moguy, 45, is a rising Arab feminist voice, articulating the conflict between western liberal values and Middle East gender identities. Her two novels and two short-story collections have gained wide acclaim, especially since the recent publication of "Noon," a story that explores the challenges and paradoxes facing independent Egyptian women navigating a nation rooted in traditional customs and a growing strand of conservative Islam.
"These women don't have enough space in society; however, they seem very influential," said El-Mougy, who works as assistant professor of English poetry at Cairo University. "Their mere presence sets a model for my girls in their 20s who live in a society that suffers from a frightening spread of salafi [Islam]. These women lecture, write and deal with other sectors in the society."
The protagonist in "Noon" is Sarah, a divorced woman in her late 30s who lives alone, hangs out with men and women alike, derives fulfillment from academic research, fights male dominance over her intellect, and more controversially, enjoys extramarital sex. For El-Mougy, Sarah represents a widening class of women struggling to carve out a space for themselves.
Besides Sarah, "Noon" depicts two other nonconformist middle-class women. One endures family oppression; the other turns to sex and drugs for escape.
"Each and every character in 'Noon' is a mixture of people I know in reality and other fictional components," said El-Moguy, adding that Sarah embodies her own personality and dilemmas.
“These women’s characters are not bound by traditional models; they are capable of creating a parallel society through their friendships. In this alternative society, they get to discover new horizons of knowledge," said El-Mougy.
However, Muslim society seems incapable of tolerating women with such profiles, added El-Mougy. "The society perceives them as rebellious and aversive to social laws," she said.
"The main challenge that these women face is how to find a partner. These women have reached a level of consciousness that no men have reached,” said El-Moguy. “In our society, men are schizophrenic; they want to establish themselves and succeed but want women to be inferior and weaker. They usually get attracted to this model of independent women but they are not willing to pay the price of this independence."
El-Moguy spoke out of personal experience. As her husband could not tolerate her independence and intellectual growth, El-Mougy chose to divorce. El-Mougy admits that her first novel, “Daria,” which came out in 1999, is inspired by her own marriage experience. The book's protagonist is a married woman whose domineering husband looked down upon her intellect and sought to crush her talent for poetry.
"That was a moment in my real life that I lived with all its details,” recounted El-Mougy. “I was getting out of a pressuring marital life that was going to kill every potential; I was scared and racked by a guilt trip because leaving my kids to their father was part of the price I paid to gain my freedom."
But it is not only about lifting the male grip over women’s minds. In fact, El-Mougy’s literature seeks to liberate women’s minds as well as bodies. The depiction of women who have relations outside marriage stands as the most incendiary tip in El-Mougy’s few works. Challenging the most deeply entrenched social norms, El-Mougy affirms that women’s emancipation cannot be completed without sexual freedom.
"You have freed the brain, how come you don't free the body? How and when did we have that separation between the brain and the body?" she asks.
Since it was released last summer, "Noon," whose title in Egyptian is a hieroglyphic that refers to the ancient myth that the universe emanated from a dark ocean, has sold thousands of copies. But El Mougy’s critics don't share her feminist zeal; they accuse her of being a high-class intellectual who peddles not reality, but cheap sex.
—Noha El-Hennawy in Cairo
Photos: Cover of Sahar El-Mougy's novel "Noon"; novelist El-Mougy; (courtesy of El-Mougy)
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