The many lives of Nawal El Saadawi

El Sadaawi died on March 21, 2021. Her complex and evolving positions mean there is more than one version of her to commemorate.

Image via Melafestivalen-Oslo on Flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Everybody has to die, Firdaus. I will die, and you will die. The important thing is how to live until you die.

Woman At Point Zero

The recent death of Nawal El Saadawi’s has caused reverberations in Egypt, the Arab world, and beyond. A self-proclaimed “historical, socialist feminist,” El Saadawi lived a long and politically courageous life—a life in which she experienced imprisonment, job loss, censorship, and death threats, and over whose course, El Saadawi also erred and adopted arguably disappointing positions. It is a privilege to grapple with her legacy, to confront the contradictions and challenges raised by the issues she wrote about, issues that many of us in the Arab world wouldn’t have had the courage to think and speak about were it not for her work.

It is fitting that the news of El Saadawi’s death, and the subsequent flood of articles, posts, and tweets that were written in commemoration, were as controversial and complex as the life she lived. The ensuing discourse has touched on themes including how formative her work was, whether it still applies to the current moment, the effectiveness of individual struggle, and, most notably, how we can reconcile our need for political heroes with the fact that our intellectual role models may occasionally disappoint us. For some, she was a feminist icon who tackled ideas about sexuality that were taboo in the Arab world; for others, she was a socialist who fought for national liberation. For some, she was a revolutionary; for others, she was a counterrevolutionary. El Sadaawi’s multiple, complex, and changeable positions mean there is more than one version of her to commemorate, more than one legacy over which to fight.

For me, like for many others in Egypt and the Arab world, reading El Saadawi was a formative experience. It was like being offered a new lens with which to see the world. Her often bold, staunchly anti-capitalist, feminist writings and interviews provided an alternative worldview than the ones presented to us. I remember devouring her works and feeling like I’d found an advocate for Egyptian womanhood, a feeling that I know was shared by many. It was not only what El Saadawi said, it was also the fearlessness and braveness of how she said it.

It was, therefore, a jarring surprise when, many years later, El Saadawi seemed to become an apologist for Sisi’s Egypt. Despite joining the ranks of the revolutionaries in 2011, calling for constitutional amendments and the establishment of a union for Egyptian women, El Saadawi refused to denounce Egyptian President Abdelfattah Al-Sisi as a counterrevolutionary on several occasions, even going so far as defending him. In a 2015 Guardian interview, she said, “There is a world of difference between Mubarak and Sisi. He has got rid of the Muslim Brotherhood, and that never happened with Mubarak, or with Sadat before him.” She maintained the same position until at least 2018, when she accused a BBC presenter of bringing her on to instrumentalize her as an Egyptian “opposing view,” manipulating her as a means to push a Western agenda. In order to understand how Nawal El Saadawi, one of the most important third-world radical feminists of the past century, came to adopt such a position, we need to consider her positionality and the immense difficulty she encountered in speaking to divergent sets of audiences throughout her life. While trying to avoid being pigeonholed under several reductive categories, she was elevated to the dubious honor of being the “representative Arab feminist.”

Born in 1931, El Saadawi wrote more than fifty books tackling topics such as sexuality, female genital mutilation (FGM), and sex work, topics that propelled her name and books to recognition in Egypt, the Arab world, and beyond. She also held several stances that were considered “taboo,” such as calling for equal inheritance between men and women, defending homosexuality, and criticizing the veil.  However, through her writings, she also—in a less sensationalized way—tackled imperialism, capitalism, and class. According to her own accounts, El Saadawi was radicalized by her life experiences; her own experience of FGM at the age of six, witnessing her paternal peasant grandmother’s clashes with government officials, and facing colorism from her lighter-skinned maternal grandmother were among the experiences that she recounts as formative.

It’s not difficult to imagine why an outspoken female critic of Islam and authoritarian Middle Eastern regimes would gain visibility with Western audiences.  El Saadawi herself was well aware of how she could be used by Western commentators and audiences to propagate certain agendas, and in several of her works strove to de-sensationalize her writings and preempt her categorization as simply a critic of Islam, a “third-world dissident,” or a “resistance writer.” In a 2018 interview with The Cairo Review of Global Affairs, she said, “Female genital mutilation is only one of the topics I write about, and I wrote about many more, which were ignored by literary critics and the global media.” In much of her analysis, she held the position that Islamic fundamentalism could be used as a tool of oppression against women in Arab countries, while simultaneously attempting to reject Western critiques of Islam. “It is important,” she wrote in The Hidden Face of Eve, “that Arab women should not feel inferior to Western women, or think that the Arabic tradition and culture are more oppressive of women than Western culture.” In discussing her life, we need to be cognizant of narratives that reduce her legacy to being simply “a victim of Islam” or a “dissident of authoritarian regimes,” as these framings often serve to severely reduce her complex political thought and sanitize her radicalness.

To shelve her feminism under a generic, ahistorical brand of “feminism against Islam” or “feminism against authoritarian governments” would be to perform a grave disservice to her, in addition to completely removing her from the historical context which framed her beliefs. In fact, El Saadawi’s other political stances are often given less media coverage than her feminism relating to women’s sexuality in Egypt, despite how closely the two are tied.

El Saadawi is a product of a generation of third-world intellectuals inspired by the resistance movements of the 20th century. During the regime of Anwar Sadat, she professed to feeling “alienated from my homeland.” Sadat’s neoliberal “open door policy” in the seventies was the impetus that drove her to write about capitalism’s exploitation of women and to insist on several occasions that socialism was necessary for women’s liberation. In her writings, she coined the term “patriarchal class society,” pointing to the political and economic factors that contribute to women’s oppression. Indeed, she saw women’s oppression as a result of social and material conditions rather than a given natural state. When she was subsequently imprisoned by Sadat’s regime in 1981, it was not for her views on sexuality, as some commentators erroneously argue. Instead, it was for her vehement opposition to and critiques of the Camp David agreement with Israel, Sadat’s ambition to realign Egypt with the interests of the US, and his opening up of Egypt to international financial institutions. (She would bear other consequences for her views on sexuality, including losing her job in the Ministry of Health after publishing Woman and Sex in 1972). Her release from prison came three months later, after Sadat’s assassination—a historical detail crucial to contextualizing her fight for women’s rights.

El Saadawi also never shied away from her Africanness, stating, “I stopped hiding my dark skin very early in my life, since I discovered Egypt is in Africa, not in the so-called Middle East. In fact, I never use the term Middle East.” She was dismissive of the false equivalences of and hated feminist identity politics, calling Hillary Clinton and Margaret Thatcher “patriarchal women.”

El Saadawi did not limit herself to criticizing the Egyptian government. She was also a staunch critic of imperialism, and her analyses were clear on the role played by colonialism in the subjugation of Egyptian and Arab women. In several English- and Arabic-language interviews, she completely rejected the notion that Egyptian or Arab cultures are inferior to those of the West. In fact, she often held the position that women’s liberation in the third world has to be tied to national liberation, a view which seeped into others of her strongly held opinions, such as her support of the Palestinian struggle and of the Marxist government in South Yemen.

In The Hidden Face of Eve, a text which focuses on patriarchal societies in the Arab world, she discussed working women’s involvement in the fight against the British occupation of Egypt while also framing the 1978 Iranian Revolution as an anti-imperialist victory over the West and critiquing its opponents (the US and Sadat). An internationalist, she vehemently opposed the Iraq War, supported the miners’ strike of 1984–85 in Britain, and campaigned against the First Gulf War, even participating in the 1992 Commission of Inquiry for the International War Crimes Tribunal, which caused her to face further censorship from Sadat successor and US ally Hosni Mubarak.

While trying to stay loyal to and seek solidarity with Egyptian and Arab women and progressives, El Saadawi also faced ostracization from the more conservative circles of Egyptian and Arab society, often finding herself labeled a heretic and facing multiple lawsuits and endless media slander. She left Egypt briefly in 1993 to spend time teaching in the US. Though marginalized and ostracized by society in Egypt, El Saadawi was simultaneously welcomed internationally and by feminists in the global south. Despite pressure from her new audience to turn on Islam, she maintained that patriarchy, colonialism, and neocolonialism were the driving forces behind women’s oppression. She returned to Egypt three years later, and in the late 1990s and early 2000s her house became a space for organizing in the years leading up to the January 2011 revolution. By that point, her main target of critique was what she called “religious fanaticism.” In 2010, she even proclaimed she was getting more radical with age.

That El Saadawi was aware of her potential usefulness to Western observers and commentators on Arab and Egyptian politics didn’t make her susceptible to these framings. Nevertheless, El Saadawi was sometimes seen to accept and even welcome narratives that exceptionalized her and positioned her as a representative of Arab feminism, often giving interviews in which she presented her life in a “rags to riches” framing: the doctor from rural Egypt who came to speak for Arab women. In a 2015 Guardian interview, in answer to a question of whether it is hard to be a divorced woman in Egypt, she said, “If you are an ordinary woman, it is. But I’m very extraordinary. People expect everything of me.” This dichotomy of collective radicalism and individual pride also surfaced in her writing, particularly in Memoirs from a Women’s Prison, which El Saadawi reportedly wrote during her time in jail using an eye pencil and toilet paper. In describing her time in prison, she often paints a picture of the other inmates as overly dogmatic, either in their Marxism or in their Islamic fundamentalism. However, while in prison, El Saadawi also sought to unite women in the Arab world by forming the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association, an organization that was banned by Mubarak. In this instance, the tensions of her positionality appear most clearly: a socialist feminist, but an exceptional one; both a liberator of Arab women and a victim of despotic regimes. In buying into this narrative, she seemed to relish an individualistic framing of her life, even as the content of her work emphasizes the overriding importance of resistance and activism. We may wonder, then, if we should try to understand her apology for Sisi as another instance of the fraught positionality that comes with being a third-world intellectual on a global stage.

It is possible that El Saadawi found herself caught between two identities, one that she embodied in Egypt, and one that she found herself representing outside of her homeland. It is also possible that El Saadawi’s worldview, like those of many other intellectuals, shrank in line with the defeat of left opposition and resistance forces, not only in Egypt but globally. It is also possible that she viewed Sisi, outwardly secular, as much more tolerable than the Muslim Brotherhood, given her lifelong battle with religious fundamentalists. Maybe it’s an amalgamation of these factors, a formula we can never hope to know.

How, then, can we justly remember and commemorate El Saadawi’s many complex political identities? What lessons can we draw from her life to learn about the immensely difficult task of the third-world intellectual? Are these questions we should even attempt to answer? Our multiple griefs at her passing remind us of the problem of making our political and intellectual heroes into icons, condensing the messiness of their historic positions into consistent and incontestable legacies. We see, then, how mourning Nawal El Saadawi is in and of itself a political act. To mourn Nawal El Saadawi is to think about the avenues she opened up to us, the vocabularies of emancipation with which she provided us. To mourn Nawal El Saadawi is to consider the immense responsibilities and contradictions that come with being a celebrated radical intellectual.

Further Reading