Dr Nawal El Saadawi, 1991. Photo: Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo / Alamy

Nawal El Saadawi was a fearless voice for Arab women

Dr Nawal El Saadawi, who inspired generations of female activists, died in March aged 89. Associate Professor Karima Laachir reflects on the legacy of the Egyptian novelist, activist and towering icon of women’s rights.

From the early 1970s onwards, Dr Nawal El Saadawi electrified feminist scholarship in Egypt and the Arabic-speaking region. Her writings on gender-based violence, sexuality, power and their intertwinement with authoritarianism, inspired generations of feminist activists, along with others, such as creative artists and trade unionists. From challenging patriarchal forces, to articulating a progressive social vision of gender equality, El Saadawi was driven by a passionate belief that democracy could not flourish in the absence of equitable social relations. Her political activism and writing incited the wrath of governments, religious authorities, and hard-line groups alike, but El Saadawi was a fearless voice, a woman who ‘spoke the unspeakable’ and stood for her principles until her death. She articulated a feminist language inspired by Arab critical thought and emanating from Arab social and political realities.    

As a physician who worked in rural areas in Egypt in the 1960s, she bore witness to the brutal psychological and physical effects of many cultural and social practices linked to sexuality and the patriarchal control of women’s bodies. She was herself subject to genital mutilation at the age of six, which turned her into a staunch advocate for the end of the practice in her home country. Such experiences shaped her understanding of women’s bodies as spaces for contestation, and, as a result, she worked tirelessly for the rights of women, particularly those of underprivileged backgrounds. Her relentless campaigning led to the passing of the 2008 law banning female genital mutilation in Egypt. In 1982, El Saadawi founded the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association to promote Arab women’s active participation in social and political life; and in 1983 she co-founded the Arab Association for Human Rights to defend citizens against excesses and abuses of authoritarian regimes.    

El Saadawi was a fearless voice, a woman who ‘spoke the unspeakable’ and stood for her principles until her death.

Her pioneering non-fiction books Women and Sex (1972) — widely acclaimed as a foundational text for second-wave feminism — and The Hidden Face of Eve: Women in the Arab World (1977) critically contextualised various forms of violence to which women in Egypt and the Arabic-speaking region, more broadly, are subjected. These texts evoked strong reactions from political and theological authorities and led to her dismissal from her government job as Director of the Ministry of Public Health. Through some of her most famous novels, Woman at Point Zero (1973) and God Dies by the Nile (1976), El Saadawi took to fiction to carry on with her mission of what she called “unveiling the mind”.  El Saadawi was jailed for one year under the government of Anwar Sadat in 1981 for her dissent and opposition to his one party regime. She was considered ‘dangerous’ and her books were often banned but they nonetheless reached global audiences and were translated into more than 30 languages.   

El Saadawi briefly fled Egypt in the 1990s, following death threats from some religious extremists. At the time she took up visiting professorships at European and North American universities. However, she never dialled down her criticism of political regimes in the Middle East, even as she turned her critical attention to new imperialist forces in the West. El Saadawi fiercely resisted any attempt to co-opt her as the voice of Arab women or to use her work to represent Arab culture as inherently ‘backward’ and ‘misogynist’ or in ‘need of saving’.    

In her essay Dissidence and Culture (1995), she states: “We Egyptian women are considered ignorant of our culture. We have to be guided by American experts. They mediate our experience for us and then sell back to us their image of ourselves. The veil is forced on Egyptian women by religious-political groups. It is no different culturally from the postmodern veil made of cosmetics and hair dyes that is forced on western women by the media and beauty commercials.” El Saadawi insisted that veiling and nakedness were both oppressive of women’s bodies, a belief that has drawn the ire of some fellow feminists.     

El Saadawi left us with a warning against the global rise of extremist ideology in all its guises. She joined the crowds — like many of the older leftist intellectuals and activists — in Cairo’s Tahrir Square during the 2011 uprisings that saw the ousting of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s authoritarian president of 30 years. She never ceased fighting for an egalitarian and free society, showing a courage and integrity that will live on through generations in Egypt and the Arabic-speaking world.    

Dr Nawal El Saadawi, Egyptian feminist writer, physician, psychiatrist, and political activist, born 27 October 1931, died 21 March 2021.   

Associate Professor Karima Laachir is Director of the ANU Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies.