Why did Mahfouz's women take such unusual shape, posing as simple characters, drifting in the tides of life, without any control over their destiny? Samir Mandi, Ph.D student in literature, discussed the topic yesterday in the centennial discussion at Kotob Khan bookstore in Maadi, among a small crowd of Mahfouz lovers.
The discussion started with the question mark on why this topic wasn't as properly researched, or nearly as much as other aspects of Mahfouz literature such as the topic of God and the quest for the truth. It may be because the whole question of feminism was rarely a concern or centerpiece in his writing, though he held women in great regard. Mandi had an interesting analysis of Mahfouz's view of women that fits well, in his perspective, with Mahfouz overall ethical and value system.
According to Mandi's analysis, Mahfouz's bias to judge a woman to be ethical or immoral stemmed not from his evaluation of how she uses her body, whether a dancer, whore or whatever else she could be doing, but rather by how he judges her brain and motives.
Mandi gave many examples of such duality in Mahfouz work, recalling the controversial women characters in works such as Hamida in Midaq Alley, who is a very ambitious woman, with nothing in focus but her own desire for money and power, formulated through the detestable image Mahfouz draws of a woman who dishonors herself, sleeping around in a selfish attempt to reach her own goals. Yet, another whore of Mahfouz’s stories, Nafissa, who equally sells her body for money, is regarded as a martyr; deciding to go out and sell her own body in order to allow her family to live and her siblings to get education.
The judgment Mahfouz offered to each of these characters of his earlier novels came at a time when his view of the world was mostly in black-and-white forms; individuals are required to do what they aught to do and stick to high moral values or else they risk his rage and social hell. This high ethical standard had nearly nothing to do with the usual social judgment of such characters, forcing the reader to make new conclusions about the dark or otherwise bright ending based on the new Mahfouzian perspective. We are forced to sympathize with Nafissa and to throw all our rage on Hamida. Another similar character is Fulla in Al-Karnak, whom he purifies despite selling her body.
Such condition recalld to speakers mind with surprise the recent judgement by the Salafist leader, Abdel-Monim El-Shahat, of Mahfouz's literature, describing it as “inciting promiscuity, prostitution and atheism.” In the light of the earlier analysis, Mahfouz's literature would appear, on the contrary, to be a strict call for ethics, standing on the side of morals, though describing them at a much deeper level.
Mahfouz had other forms in which he clothed his women, a famous one is that of the honorable mother who gives everything to offer her children a suitable life. This mother most evident in the Trilogy, Love and the Veil, and also The Beginning and
The End, is a self-giving woman who stands stiff against the tides of fate to protect her children and do everything she can. In a strange way, she’s the man-like woman who takes over the family responsibility. The amicable woman portrayed here is another moral character dressed differently, but overall once more, strictly obeying the ethical rules to end up away from hell.
The discussion of women in Mahfouz’s writing took a different turn when it was noted that Mahfouz never allowed his female characters to show their full femininity, keeping their conversations and reactions respectable, hardly ever delving into the depths of their minds and hearts. This is particularly obvious in comparison to authors who approached woman characters head on, such as Ibrahim Aslan or Ihsan Abdel-Quddus — whose women showed whole selves, intelligence, madness and seductiveness included. Such women were far from Mahfouz’s world, which never spoke in a female voice, told women’s stories or explored the intricate complexities of the female psyche, but always looked at women from the outside, letting society and fate drive them.