An Egyptian philosopher friend advised me to watch The Three Faces of Eve (1957) as a guide to the abysmal status of women here in Egypt, and boy, did I discover a thing or two watching this black and white classic on multiple personality syndrome. Not just about the kind of twin tracks modern-day Egypt and ultra-conservative America are on, but a whole lot about the plight of women throughout the ages and some of the misguided attempts to correct the balance of the sexes.
The central character is the repressed housewife Eve White (Joanne Woodward), who is not too happily married to a heavy-handed, miserly, suspicious, and frankly very dull man, Ralph White (David Wayne). She is stuck at home all day taking care of her cutesy little girl Bonnie (Terry Ann Ross). Later, you discover that Eve was raised too harshly, constantly punished even when she didn’t do anything wrong and made to feel guilty for no reason, so not surprisingly she ‘evolves’ a living, breathing alter ego aptly named Eve Black, a temptress who does not feel guilty about anything. Although Ralph won’t believe Eve is genuinely ill he does get aroused by the second Eve at one point, only to slap her when he realises he cannot have her all to himself, then promptly divorcing her.
This is all very recognisable if you live here, the contradictory demands placed on women by society—men specifically—to be the angelic wife and the mother and the belly dancer all at the same time, with all the psychological consequences to boot. The question is, what not to do about it?
You watch feminist thinkers on TV here and you get the distinct impression they suffer from split personalities themselves, making claims about themselves and the rest of the world that are clearly untrue. One claimed that Spain was able to solve its supposedly horrid street children problem by women giving their surnames to children born outside of wedlock, as if street kids over here are exclusively the product of illicit relationships and not broken homes, poverty, inequality, and urban sprawl.
I checked with a Spanish journalist friend, quite a distinguished one in fact, and she told me that the street children problem in Spain is in no way like it is in developing countries; the legendary case being Brazil. More importantly, the ‘traditional’ practice in Spain concerning family names—and this was long before the democratic transition—was to take both names, from father and from mother, with some freedom over the ordering (father, mother, first or second).
The Egyptian feminist in question also claimed that in the US boys could also be given their mother’s names. From personal knowledge, that only applies to cases of divorce with the kid choosing for him or herself whose family name to take. It’s not some social measure developed to solve a social problem, but a matter of personal preference.
In the US, you can change your whole name, first and last, and in the process accidentally marry a girl that turns out to be your sister or aunt, a problem that exists in the West in general because of adoption, which is the whole reason why adoption isn’t allowed in Islam to begin with. Moreover, none of these practices in the West have anything to do with women’s rights, since they ‘long’ predate the women’s rights movement.
Take another look at The Three Faces of Eve. The grouchy husband Ralph dumps little Bonnie with Eve’s parents—not his own—while she’s undergoing treatment. In the closing scene you have the cured Eve, now called Jane (sporting a northern accent for some reason), with her new hubby and in custody of Bonnie. But this is the 1950s. Men had the right to beat their wives but custody and child rearing was parcelled off to the women and her relations. Sounds like men wanted to free themselves of any responsibilities so they could start over with someone new and more enjoyable, their own flesh and blood be damned.
This also discounts yet another claim made by that feminist: that women and the feminine were always worshipped in the past, until male-dominated societies took over. True up to a point. There were always goddesses, but specifically fertility goddesses and usually ones served by prostitution cults, servicing men who were heading off to the battlefield. (There’s a bar room scene in which Eve Black gets manhandled by a soldier who expects ‘something’ for the drinks he’s bought her). Elizabeth Dodson Gray’s Patriarchy as a Conceptual Trap (1982), a feminist herself, adds that the earth mother goddess worshipped in the stone age was always ‘faceless,’ hardly a flattering compliment and certainly not the way a woman would portray another woman.
Deifying women and oppressing them are quite literally two sides of the same coin since it’s the sexually alluring side of women that receives all the accolades, while decent girls are locked up at home and put up with it. No wonder women suffer from split personality more than men, the logical result of a male-dominated, two-faced society.
It’s inexcusable, and a problem that must be fixed, but you don’t go about fixing a problem with another problem. That’s like trying to solve the problems posed by taxis with the microbus then trying to solve the microbus problem with the tuk-tuk and then the tuk-tuk problem with other modes of semi-licensed, unqualified, and frankly uncomfortable and increasingly dangerous means of transportation. In the process the bigger problems are only postponed and it becomes harder and harder to resolve them with time.
The root problem is congestion, not taxis as such, and so you should take a preventive approach by insuring the existence of proper roads and bridges, proper public transportation (with regular maintenance and spare parts), other population centres (with some administrative and economic decentralisation) and strict rules concerning working hours (shops open at night to pay less and make more). That’s why, again, in Islam adoption is prohibited and there are restrictions on changing names to avoid bloodlines mixing while sharing the burden when it comes to custody depending on the age and gender of the child.
We definitely do need is a ‘third’ face of Eve, a persona that isn’t white or black, someone who can decide to fall in love and choose who to spend the rest of her life with, but without actually ‘doing’ anything beforehand. (To be honest Eve Black doesn’t ‘do’ anything herself, toying around with men’s desires instead). That being said, we could do without the morthern accent, as if southerners are the only people who force baby girls to kiss their dead grandmothers—what finally caused the mental split in the movie. You could not imagine anything like that happening here, could you, south or north?
Emad El-Din Aysha received his PhD in International Studies from the University of Sheffield in the UK and taught, from 2001, at the American University in Cairo. From 2003 he has worked in English-language journalism in Egypt, first at The Egyptian Gazette and now as a staff writer with Egypt Oil and Gas