Women Struggling for Freedom in the Face of Oppression Nefissa in the Innocence of the Devil by Nawal El Saadawi, Zabeth in A Bend in the River by V. S. Naipaul, The Mirabal sisters in A Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa, and Zaynab in Karnak Cafe by Naguib Mahfouz all struggled for freedom against their oppressive environments. Nefissa struggled in obtaining her freedom in Egypt where men told women how to behave. Zabeth struggled in her journey through the harsh physical environment of Africa to provide goods for her village.
The Mirabal sisters fought against the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic. Zaynab struggled with Egyptian society’s expectations and against the torture administered by the revolutionaries. Zaynab starts out successfully fighting for her freedom against the oppressive environment in Egypt, but the oppression seems to cause her to change. In the beginning, she was a “vivacious and pleasant” (Mahfouz 65) woman even though her family could only afford the “bare minimum of clothing she needed” (65). However, her mom was concerned with marrying Zaynab off to a rich man, like the wealthy chicken seller.
Zaynab rejects him because she is in love with Isma’il and she wants to continue her education. Her mother is angry and the chicken seller spreads a rumor about Zaynab and Isma’il’s relationship. However, “Zaynab’s will was strong enough to triumph” (66) and she “decided to act in a very conservative fashion” (66). She continues to see Isma’il. Even when Zaynab is asked to spend the night with the chicken seller and Zayn for some money, she refuses. She does not allow her values to be deterred by the family’s need for money or the oppression she faces from the chicken seller and her mother.
However, Zaynab does seem to struggle more in Egypt when the revolution starts. In the beginning, she is not concerned with getting arrested because they had no “case against her” (68). Zaynab tells the narrator “that their imprisonment had done nothing to alter or take away their [Egyptian people] core belief in its values. We had previously thought that we had all the power in the world, that feeling had been severely jolted by the time we’d emerged from prison. We’d lost most of our courage and along with it our self-confidence and belief in the workings of time… ” (69).
Also, Zaynab decides that it would be better for her to stop going to the Karnak cafe. Zaynab is slowly changing her behavior due to the consequences. Her attitude and behavior change even more when she serves her second prison term. She is accused of being a communist by Khaled and is “thrown into a cell and is subjected to the most humiliating forms of torture… ” (70). Also, she sees Ismail in prison being interrogated. Zaynab starts crying and cursing because of how “humiliated and hopeless he looked” (70). She meets Khaled once again and he tells her that Ismail has confessed to being a terrorist.
She yells and says, “The entire thing’s atrocious” (71). Khaled Safwan orders his men to rape Zaynab in front of him. She feels as if she has lost all her innocence even though Khalid claims that she has been proved innocent. She is forced to become an informer and the “people she was working for had absolute control of everything” (73). She is “utterly horrified by what I’d lost… ” (73). She decides to start behaving “like a dishonorable woman” (74). When the chicken seller and Zayn see her, they find “the path wide open” (75).
Zaynab does this because she feels that she must sacrifice herself for the revolution. Zaynab seems to have started out as strong woman, but slowly her environment oppresses her. In contrast, Zabeth does not allow her physically oppressive environment to change her. Zabeth seems to successfully fight against the oppressive physical environment in Africa until the end. Zabeth was a “marchande” (Naipaul 7), a retailer, who dwells in a fishing community. She was a good businesswoman because she knew her customer’s needs and the amount that they would be willing to pay.
Zabeth accomplished this without the knowledge of how to read or write. Zabeth’s lack of education did not stop her. She simply kept all her cash with her because she did not understand banks and memorized her long shopping list. Zabeth’s village was not that far, but “by land or water, it was a difficult journey, and took two days” (Naipaul 6). To get her goods to the steamer, she had to attach the dugouts to the moving steamer. It was dangerous and “almost every trip the steamer made there was a report of a dugout being overturned… and of people being drowned” (7).
When there was trouble, Zabeth simply “slept in the verandah of a grocery or a bar” (8). Also, Zabeth had to travel in the dark which surprises Salim. Salim says, “The river and the forest were like presences, and much more powerful than you. You felt unprotected, an intruder” (8). However, Zabeth “traveled without fear… ” (9). She left the forest which had the “greatest security” (Naipaul 9) while other people were scared to go “outside his [their] territory” (9). Even when dealing with the officials at the bend of the river, “Zabeth took care then not to give away the entrance to her village. … she waited for the steamer and the barge and the lights to disappear. Then she and her women polled back up or drifted down to their secret channel… ” (8). Zabeth knows how to successfully travel to the river and obtain her goods even with all the difficulties she encounters from the physical journey and her lack of education.
Zabeth also does not seem to let the journey affect her and it may be her uniqueness that allowed her to successfully obtain her goods. Salim says, “… there was nothing in her appearance that spoke of her difficult journey… (8) and “she was formally dressed, wrapped in her cotton in the African style… ” (8). On the other hand, the women who helped her were “… thin, short, bald-looking, and in ragged working clothes… ” (8). Also, Salim says that”… she was not at all like the people of our region. They were small and slight and very black. Zabeth was a big woman with a coppery complexion… ” (9). In addition, Zabeth is a magician who wears ointments that have an unpleasant, fishy smell. This kept her safe from harassment. It seems that Zabeth’s uniqueness allows her to successfully complete her journey.
Zabeth is not the only character who is different from everyone around her, but so are the Mirabal sisters. The Mirabal sisters, Minerva, Patria, and Maria Teresa Mirabel were vocally active against the oppressive lo dictatorship. Minerva Mirabal was the most courageous sister. She was responsible for “planning a revolution, obtaining and hiding weapons… talking about assassination attempts, strategy, and tactics… ” (Llosa 138). Minerva even “dared to rebuff Trujillo by refusing to dance with him” (139) and even “slapped him” (139).
Apparently, these actions caused her father to lose his job as major and get sent to prison. However, she was not afraid and was even “arrested several times, and… she went on a hunger strike, withstood solitary confinement on bread and worm-infested water” (139). The sister’s family was “hounded, had their few goods confiscated, and then placed under house arrest” (139). That did not stop the sisters. When Minerva is denied a license because of her behavior towards Trujillo, “she went on tirelessly, encouraging everyone… ” (139).
The sisters did not stop even after Trujillo sent Minerva and Maria Teresa’s husbands to prison. When the Mirabal sisters come back from visiting the prison, the sisters and their driver are killed in an “alleged car accident” (137). Although they died, the sisters were successful because they inspired others to fight against the oppressive Trujillo dictatorship. Sometimes it is enough to have the courage to fight even when one is not successful, like Nefissa. Nefissa seems to struggle more than the other characters in obtaining her freedom as an independent woman.
When she was younger, she was easily scared and always attached to her mother. She never asked questions because she was told that she was “supposed to believe everything she heard without question” (El Saadawi 72). When she is raped, she does not struggle and keeps her eyes closed. She is obedient even when she is being physically violated. Nefissa’s dream is to become a dancer like her aunt and “to engrave her name… ” (183). Her aunt was not scared of anyone and she walked with “her head held upright, looking people straight in the eye” (177). In contrast, Nefissa seemed to fear everyone.
However, she does eventually learn to fight back. When Sheikh Masoud kicks her in the stomach, she hits him with a stone. When she gets in a car and the driver starts touching her, “her hand moved out and gripped it” (186). In the end, she seems to become her aunt because she sees herself wearing a black dress like her aunt’s dress. Nefissa seems to have gained some independence in Egyptian society, but it does not seem to be as much as she hoped. She still feels “sin after sin under her ribs… ” (193). Like Zaynab, the oppressive Egyptain society seems to win.
Overall, these women lived in oppressive environments that either inspired them to resist or encouraged them to stay silent. Zabeth and the Mirabal sisters seemed to be the most successful in fighting for their freedom against their oppressive environments, while Zaynab and Nefissa seemed to lose their hope and freedom. It is important to note that Zaynab and Nefissa did have their moments were they successfully fought against the oppressive Egyptian environment. However, sometimes an environment is too oppressive and the effect on the characters is monumental.