BOOK REVIEW: A Daughter of Isis by Nawal El-Saadawi

BOOK: A Daughter of Isis

AUTHOR: Nawal El Saadawi

GENRE: Autobiography

ISBN: 9781848132313 Hb


PUBLISHER: Zed Books Ltd.



Nawal El Saadawi is known world over as a bold feminist, physician, revolutionist and re-known writer. She was born in Egypt in 1931 to a large Muslim family. A Daughter of Isis, her fourteenth book to be published talks of her story growing up.

Born in a family of six girls and three boys, Nawal El Saadawi introduces us to her young life. She expresses the deep love she has for her mother, Zaynab. Her mother, who among other things taught her how to read and write and rescued her when she was ten from an arranged early marriage, is a great inspiration in her life. Nawal mentions in the book that she went through female circumcision when she was a kid. “When I was six, the daya (midwife) came along holding a razor in her hands, pulled out my clitoris from between my thighs, and cut it off. She said it was the will of God and she had done his will.” From the tone in the text, the author doesn’t seem ecstatic about what happened to her. Nawal talks about her family. She tells us about growing up with relatives from both her maternal and paternal side. Nawal had eight siblings, her mother was married off while young and gave birth to her first child (Nawal’s brother who was dearly loved by the mothers and fathers side of the family) at fourteen. By the time she was 24, Nawal’s mother was carrying her sixth child. Through Nawal’s mother, we are shown how some girls start families at a very tender age in some  communities in Africa. A fourteen year old is a teenager who ought to be in school. Marrying off such a child is denying them a right to education. A chance to discover herself and work on her potential. Marrying while one is a teenager has more cons than pros. Nawal’s maternal grandmother who had six children, also got married while she was still young. “My grandmother Amna was fourty four but looked seventy, with her shrunken body, her wrinkled complexion drained of all its blood…” Nawal describes her grandmother, in chapter four.  One character I got from Amna was that she was a devout muslim. She was religious. The author notes that Amna always had her prayer beads.

The author talks of her circumsission again later in the book. Fifty six years later, she vividly remembers how in 1937, at the age of six her clitoris was cut off. The images of that fateful day were still clear. The deep wound in her body never healed. But the deeper wound was the one left in her spirit. For the longest time, Nawal failed to comprehend the justification of her circumcision.

Growing up in a traditional Egyptian family, the boy child was valued more than the girl child. The author points this out in several occasions. Boys were at liberty to do whatever they pleased.The boy child too had more freedom than the girl. Nawal could not understand why boys were permitted to do some things yet girls were not allowed to do the same. In one instance, the author tells of when she tried to uncover her belly. I used to pull down the straps from my shoulders, uncover my chest and my belly, but my aunt Nimat would raise her hand and slap me. Her sharp voice pierced my ear. Shame on you I would point to my brother and say Why him? And back would come the answer. He is a boy and you are a girl. This voice bored repeatedly to my ears from the day I was born. My mouth swallowed it with the seas water and I chocked. He is a boy and you are a girl.I could feel the bitter tang of salt burn my throat. It was a bitterness as though the blue of the sea had turned into crystals of pure salt, as though the sun was burning my skin. All the colors , the blue, the green, the golden, turned grey or black”. This made her unhappy.A form of anger began to grow in her. She didn’t get why her brother was allowed to bare his chest for all to see while she was told to hide hers. She was younger than her brother, her chest was flat like her brother’s yet she was told that hers was a stigma, a shame, that had to be hidden from people’s eyes. This angered her so much. It displeased her, she was irritated, but could not do anything about it, she learned to live with it.


What I Liked In the book;

(i). The author’s use of images in between the paragraphs. Yes, I love this (as childish as it may sound.) The pictures help one have a view of what the author is talking about, and it being an autobiography, it’s clearer for the reader wherever the author mentions her family.

(ii). While writing her own story, the author shows how some traditions are archaic, and perhaps should be done away with. While describing her circumcision, the author shows how wrong it feels when one has their clitoris cut. It was painful, and despite the daya and other older women feeling it was okay, Nawal was tormented as she lay in a pool of blood in the days that followed

(iii). There are a lot of issues which are done in an improper way but society overlooks that. The author noted that. Let’s take early marriages for example, were it not for Nawal’s mother, she probably could have been married off while she was still a teenager. Not getting married enabled her study till university. This was an accomplishment.

 (iv). Nawal had such an stimulating childhood. Despite some cultural challenges she faced, she made it big in Egypt and worldwide. Her story is priceless and encouraging.

The author greatly dwells on her life as a young teenage girl, and briefly talks of her adult life. She partly talks of her time at the university where she took medicine. Despite the cultural challenges, she managed to study till university. By the time she was seventeen, she says, all the girls in her maternal and paternal side of the family had been married off. She was at the Fouad Al-Awal university in Giza, The third largest city in Egypt. This was an achievement, considering how the traditional Egyptian society was set up back then. Though she loved poetry and literature, she took medicine at the university , for that’s what her parents wanted.

Nawal is a gem, a force to reckon with, an icon in the literary world and everything you need to see in empowering the girl child. I must say I was a little bit disappointed as in the book, she never talked much about her years in activism and the role she played in promoting feminism and equality (More reason to look for her other books). Her autobiography is rousing. This is a book one would read and keep it, just to see it on their shelves for it reminds us that even if the world is full of nasty characters, we still can conquer all that’s evil.

This autobiography majorly focuses on sexual discrimination, the perception society has of women in Egypt, and by extension the Arab world, resisting barbaric cultures, importance of education and schooling children; not just boys but both genders, social constraints and enlightenment of the society. Something I noted too is that she repeatedly mentions her mother in the book. Often times Nawal fondly talks of her mother, how caring and loving she was, and how she was a good wife to her father.I believe she is the most talked of person in the book after Nawal. Her mother was her source of inspiration, her back bone, she looked up to her for advice. She was her strength as she faced each new day. It’s a phenomenal book.



Nawal El Saadawi