Palace walk and feminism research paper sample

Feminism in Mahfouz’s Palace Walk, Nadine Gordimer’s None to Accompany Me and J. M. Cotzee’s Disgrace


Naguib Mahfouz, J. M. Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer are three African Nobel laureates who depicted feminism by showing their central women characters transgress tradition. If Amina, the protagonist of Palace Walk, transgressed tradition by going out on her own to the mosque for prayer, Lucy fought tradition by claiming her right not to take a part in the system of oppression and enters into an impossible relationship of her time by marrying a black man. Vera plays the role reversal by being the party who betrays her husband for another man, Ben and like Lucy, she later begins a relationship with a black man, thereby breaking the barrier that restrains a black man and a white woman from sharing a relationship. Sibongile, a black woman, empowers herself while fighting for the national empowerment and defies the traditional role by giving more importance to her public life than the personal one.


Naguib Mahfouz, J. M. Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer are African noble prize winning writers, who through their novels, namely, Palace Walk, Disgrace and None to Accompany Me, touched upon the issues of feminism and how the woman characters defy the traditional roles expected of them. All these novels have some similarities as well as differences in the depiction of feminism. These women share the similarity of seeking freedom from the understood behaviors prescribed by tradition, even if for a moment. The main difference between these four central characters is their present social condition. Amina hails from a conservative Muslim family. Married at the age of 14, she was to fulfill the role of not only a wife, but also the role of a mother to the son from her husband’s previous marriage. Her tradition demands her to stay at home and cloak herself fully in veil when out in public, because in her society, family honor and name depends on how a woman conducts herself (Mondal 1999). Lucy is a white lesbian making her living by selling flowers and looking after pets, mainly dogs, for people who have gone for a holiday (Boever 2011). Her current status does not tie her down to home as is the case with Amina. Gordimer’s Vera is a white independent woman making her living by working as a lawyer in Legal Foundation. Sibongile is a black woman who went into exile for taking a part in nationalism. Both Vera and Sibongile have devoted themselves to the cause of national empowerment of South Africa, and in that process their home front gets neglected, due to which they face the strain in their relationship with their partners (Sakamoto). This paper would discuss in detail the feminism portrayed in the novels; Palace Walk, Disgrace and None to Accompany Me.

Palace Walk is the first novel of the Cairo Trilogy authored by the Nobel Prize winning writer Naguib Mahfouz. The Cairo Trilogy, comprised of three novels, Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, and Sugar Street, depict the life story of the three generations of the Abd al-Jawad family (Oersen 2005, p. 29). Palace Walk delineates the lives of the first generation of the Abd al-Jawad family in WWI Cairo, which represents the restrictive traditional Egyptian patriarchal culture that allows men all the freedom of the world but confines women to the boundary of home. Al-Sayyid Ahmad, the patriarch of the family, plays the role of an authoritarian and controlling husband feared by his wife and children, but loved by his friends and customers for his wit, generosity, and graciousness. At home, he is known to be a strict disciplinarian who closely monitors and controls every movement of his wife, whereas outside he indulges in sexually gratifying experiences with other women like Jalila and Zanuba (El-Shall 2006, p. 35). His wife Amina, on the other hand, is submissive and obedient with no opinion of her own. Amina represents the character of a traditional Egyptian wife who shows unquestionable loyalty to her husband.
The traditional Egyptian culture during the period of the early 20th century was extremely restrictive, allowing very little freedom and rights to the women. The world of women was totally secluded from men. They were not allowed to go out alone or do anything without the permission of their husbands and were made to remain behind the veil. All their freedom and rights were truncated in the name of traditions and family honor. Al-Sayyid Ahmad’s family was the best example of the observance of the Egyptian tradition (El-Shall 2006, p. 38). Amina, a submissive and meek wife, has no freedom of her own. She almost lives in virtual seclusion from the outside world. She is not allowed to go out for any reason whatsoever. She is not allowed to pray at the mosque, and even if she steps outside the confines of her home, it is only with her husband who accompanies her when she visits her mother occasionally (Oersen 2005, p. 29). Her world centers on her husband and children. The only respite she gets from the monotonous routine of her life is through her occasional visit to the rooftop of the house.
Naguib Mahfouz was a traditional/conservative and reformist writer who not only depicted his characters in the garb of traditional gender norms, but also wanted to highlight women’s rights and their issues through his fiction (El-Shall 2006, p. 42). The story of Palace Walk was set at a time when after the end of the WWI, the Ottoman empires got divided between the allied victors. Egypt became a British protectorate. Egypt had nominal independence with its head of the state having no power. A series of rebellions took place in Egypt to liberate the country from the interference of the British imperial system (El-Shall 2006, p. 26). Around this time, the buzz of women’s liberation also enveloped the country, which soon would materialize into the first wave of feminist movement in 1923. Though Mahfouz did not make any direct mention of the Egyptian feminist movement or the rebellions in his novel, but it seems that he wanted to show how the air of changes touched the Al-Sayyid family too. Therefore, though Amina was portrayed as a character confined to her home and subservient to her husband, her character also exuded dignity and perseverance. Through her Mahfouz reflected the streaks of rebel that engulfed the women of Egypt at that time. Mahfouz depicted feminism in his novel by showing the obedient Amina taking the initiative to defy her husband’s rule. Taking the opportunity of her husband’s absence, Amina one day went out alone to visit the mosque for prayer. Though fully cloaked in a veil, Amina’s emergence on the street alone shows her willingness to transgress the perceived rules of proper behavior underlined by her husband and the Islamic society.
The streaks of feminism that question the repressive treatment of women would also be found in the words of another character of Palace Walk, Jalila, the female singer and prostitute. During the wedding of Aisha, Al-Sayyid’s elder daughter, Jalila taunts and ridicules the men for exercising overbearing control over their wives. She recalls her own father and her action of defying his authority and implicitly accuses the men for controlling their women in a similar manner: ” He was a man with a jealous sense of honor When I laughed on the top floor of our house, the hearts of men in the street would be troubled. The moment he heard my voice, he would rain blows upon me and call me the worst names. But what point was there in trying to discipline a girl who was so gifted in the arts of love, music and flirtation?” (El-Shall 2006, p. 54)

Disgrace and Feminism

J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace is set a time when South Africa was going through a period of transition after the end of Apartheid in 1994. The number of crimes and violence committed by the blacks increased significantly at this time. Due to the years of oppression, the hatred accumulated in the hearts of the blacks against the whites translated into a growing number of crimes. During the late 1990s, media reports documented a high number of sexual violence in the country. It was at this time that the rape of a freelance journalist Charlene Smith in 1999 created an international outrage, and Smith in the depiction of her rape incident claimed that ” rape is endemic” in the culture of South Africa and is a means to transmit AIDS and HIV to young women and children. Smith was criticized as being racist for her comments by none other than the South African president Thabo Mbeki, who claimed that certain rape statistics were ‘ fake’ and that there was “ a lot of misreporting about these things” (Graham 2003, p. 434). This lackadaisical attitude of the South African government’s towards rape victims and the denial to regard rape as a serious problem was disturbing.
Coetzee’s Disgrace deals with two rapes, one is the gang-rape of the novel’s protagonist Lucy by three black youths and another is the rape of the minor girl Melanie Isaac in the hands of Lucy’s father David Lurie. Lucy, a white lesbian girl, resides in the predominantly black Province of Eastern Cape in South Africa, and halfway through the novel, her father, who is a teacher, comes to live with her as he has resigned from his job due to a sexual harassment scandal. When Lucy and her father go out for a morning walk one day, they encounter three black youths who claiming that they need to make an emergency phone call receive an entry in their home. While Lucy is taken by the three men in turns, they locked her father in the lavatory. They not only raped Lucy, they robbed her house, killed all the dogs but one and tried to set David on fire.
In the aftermath of this terrible attack, a disagreement develops between the father and daughter. When the police show up, though David wants his daughter to narrate what has happened to her, Lucy does not want to talk about it. David tries to convince her, ” Lucy, my dearest, why don’t you want to tell? It was a crime. . . . You did not choose to be the object. You are an innocent party” (Coetzee 1999, p. 111). When David assumes that Lucy’s denial to lodge a report to the police might have to do something with what he has done and makes an implicit reference to his own trial in Cape Town on the ground sexual harassment, Lucy responds sharply, ” You want to know why I have not laid charge with the police. I will tell you, as long as you agree not to raise the subject again. The reason is that, as far as I am concerned, what happened to me is a purely private matter. In another time, in another place, it might be held to be a public matter. But in this place, at this time, it is not. It is my business, mine alone” (Coetzee 1999, p. 112).
Lucy’s rape highlights the history of racial injustice. Lucy’s rapists answered to ” a history of wrong” by raping Lucy (Boever 2011). This history of wrong refers to the exploitation committed by the white men against the black women. David Lurie, a white man, seduced and forced himself upon a minor girl, his student, Melanie in Cape Town, and the rape of Lucy was an act of retribution for the crime committed by her father. Lucy in her mind understands the gravity of the situation. Her refusal to report the crime represents her refusal to play a part in the history of oppression in which women are the worst victims (Graham 2003). Lucy is aware of the situation the rape victims face from different corners. How a rape victim, in order to prove that she has been raped, has to bear with the inquisitive eyes of the people present at the court and answer to the battery of questions that come from the defense attorney. She does not want to go through the ruthless trial process, which eyes women with suspicion at such incident like rape. She fights with her father when he puts pressure on her to lodge a report saying, ” Don’t shout at me, DavidThis is my life. I am the one who has to live here. What happened to me is my business, mine alone, not yours, and if there is one right I have it is the right not to be put on trial like this, not to have to justify myself – not to you, not to anyone else” (Coetzee 1999, p. 133). Not only she refuses to buckle under her father’s pressure, she also later marries a black man Petrus. Thus, Lucy challenges the social structure of that time and realizes the ” impossible” community of a black man and a white, lesbian woman tied in wedlock. Her action reflects the radical democratic future of South Africa in which human relationships would lie beyond the established framework of gender, color, race, class and sexuality (Boever 2011).
The two female protagonists of the novel are Vera Stark and Sibongile Maqoma. Vera Stark is a white woman working as a lawyer. She fights on behalf of the black Africans to reclaim the land that has been confiscated by the government. Vera is unlike what the traditional system wants a woman to be. She is an independent woman who leaves her husband to get into a relationship with Ben and then leaves him to enter a relationship with a black African Rapulana. In traditional society in which women are oppressed, it is men who are unfaithful to their spouses. They like to spend their time outside pursuing issues that they consider important, whereas their women are left to take care of home and children. However, Vera plays the role reversal in which she devotes herself to the public interest and national cause, ignoring her home and leaving Ben crave for her time. Thus, she affronts the traditional system that ties women down to their home, leaving everything else aside (Duffaud 1994). Like Lucy of Coetzee’s Disgrace, by forming a relationship with a black man, she realizes the impossible relationship between a black man and white woman, and thus, points to the future of South Africa dominated by the black majority with no racial divide.
The post-apartheid era has brought changes in the power relations between men and women. In the whole process of abolishing the old regime and welcoming the new one, women are provided with a lot of options in terms of both political and personal lives (Sakamoto). Sibongile Maqoma is a black African woman who went into exile for playing a part in nationalism, but upon her return from her exile, she slowly emerges as an important political figure. Both Vera and Sibongile were deeply committed to the cause of national liberation, and through that process, they also learnt to liberate themselves from the shackles of tradition that bind women down from progression. They both represent the free women of the future South Africa capable of living lives on their own terms.


Naguib Mahfouz’s Palace Walk, set in the background of Egyptian Independence Movement, explores the lives of the early 20th century Egyptian women who were controlled by their overbearing husbands. Amina plays the central character in this novel through whom Mahfouz depicts how the craving for changes that was in the air of Egypt at that time touched upon this meek and submissive wife too. She, in her desire for freedom, defied the rule of her authoritarian husband even if for a single day by paying a visit to the mosque alone on her own. Coetzee’s Disgrace, set in the background when South Africa was undergoing a period of transition after the end of Apartheid, brings out how a woman, Lucy, becomes the target of retribution for a crime committed by her father. She desires for owning the right to evade the trial process and not to justify herself in front all at the court. Nadine Gordimer’s None to Accompany Me is set in a time period between the release of Nelson Mandela and the first non-racial election in South Africa. The two women protagonists Vera and Sibongile, committed to the cause of national empowerment, defy the tradition that ties women down to home in the name of family and children. They attach more importance to their public life, compromising with the expectations kept of them at the personal front.
These central woman characters’ view of feminism and freedom varies from one another. For Amina, The protagonist of Palace Walk, freedom means getting a window of opportunity to go outside on her own without her husband accompanying her. Subdued and controlled by her husband Al-Sayyid, she seeks for a moment of relief from the virtual seclusion that her husband has thrown her into from the outside world. For Coetzee’s Lucy, freedom means having her own right not to be put on a trial in which she has to justify herself in order to prove her rape. For the two female protagonists of Nadine Gordimer’s novel, freedom means breaking out of the traditional roles prescribed for women and contributing to the greater cause of national empowerment of South Africa.

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