Remembering Nawal el-Saadawi: A feminist icon

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Remembering Nawal el-Saadawi: A feminist icon

Sunday, 20 June 2021 | AK Ramakrishnan

Remembering Nawal el-Saadawi: A feminist icon

Dr Saadawi's famous book The Hidden Face of Eve provided a broad conceptual template in which Arab women's issues and Arab women's identity itself could be discussed in a much more systematic manner. Until such work, much of the feminist discussions in the Arab world were centred on issues within each national boundary

In January 2011, in the Tahrir Square in Egypt, an important event in the history of contemporary social movements was unfolding. Nawal el-Saadawi was there to participate in the movement against the Mubarak dictatorship demanding democratic transition. She stood with the younger generation in their struggle. She was surrounded by students and young women and they hailed her as a guiding force. Nawal el-Saadawi was a quintessential political being who traversed the path of resistance against dictatorship and against the ills of contemporary capitalism. She left this world on March 21, 2021, at the age of 89.

Her name is one that has lived with me in my adult life and I was lucky enough to teach about her contributions in my classes in various universities. Her influence on the issues concerning the Arab world has been an important part of our own understanding of the region from a bottom-up approach. We are remembering her as one who stood in the forefront of the feminist movements of the global south. She has been a feminist activist and organiser, a physician and a psychiatrist, a public intellectual, a human rights defender, a world-famous novelist and writer who was deeply concerned with a variety of issues that we are currently grappling with. She described herself as a feminist with a strong emphasis on a feminist perspective of both life and work. She also described herself as a socialist; the usual comment that she makes is that “I stand for structural transformation”. She has contributed immensely to making Arab women’s writing popular across the world.

Egypt has a significant history of women’s writing, a new wave of which was started in the 1960s with the publication of Latifa al-Zayyat’s famous novel The Open Door. Nawal el-Saadawi ignited new enthusiasm in the field of women’s writing through her novels like Woman at Point Zero, which narrated the life story of Firdaus, a sex worker jailed for murder.

By telling Firdaus’s story, Nawal el-Saadawi was able to generate discussions on issues such as sex work, a topic that couldn’t be a matter of public deliberation until then. Because of the power of her writing, taboo themes that kept women’s suffering under the carpet got some prominence in women’s writing in the Arab world, Egypt in particular. She also led the way for other feminist writers, creative writers in particular, to expand their domains of interest. Nawal el-Saadawi’s and other feminist writers’ works not only dealt with the life stories of ordinary people in Egypt but also critically exposed the economic, social and cultural effects of the neo-liberal transformation of Egypt from the days of Anwar al-Sadat’s “open door policy” of economic liberalisation.

Nawal el-Saadawi belonged to a long tradition of Egyptian feminist movements and activism led by Aisha al-Taymuriyya in the 19th century or Huda Sha’arawi and Dr Doria Shafiq in the 20th century. It was in the context of modernist reforms of Muhammad Ali and the emergence of Islamic modernism under the leadership of Muhammad Abduh in the 19th century that a new thinking about women’s modern education was emerging. Women leaders like Aisha al-Taymurriya stressed on women’s rights to education. Early 20th century saw the emergence of significant feminist activism and the founding of Egyptian Feminist Union (EFU) in 1923 under the leadership of Huda Sha’arawi. Major feminist demands were educational and legal reforms in favour of women. In the 1940s and 1950s, feminist organisations like Bint al-Nil were formed under the leadership of Dr Doria Shafiq. Such organisations raised issues of political rights and women’s voting rights, a demand that was met by the government in 1956.

Dr Nawal el-Saadawi’s activism followed the above traditions of feminist movements with newer emphases and agendas. She took the leadership in establishing the feminist organisation Arab Women’s Solidarity Association (AWSA) in 1982. Nawal el-Saadawi tried to situate Egyptian feminism in the broader realm of the Arab feminism. The Arab world and wider global south became the canvas for her activities and thinking. Dr Saadawi’s famous book The Hidden Face of Eve provided a broad conceptual template in which Arab women’s issues and Arab women’s identity itself could be discussed in a much more systematic manner. Until such work, much of the feminist discussions in the Arab world were centred on issues within each national boundary.

Discussions on Arab women’s issues in a connected manner across the Arab world were envisaged by Nawal el-Saadawi so that they could take pride in their collective history of struggle and act strategically in a combined manner.

The Hidden Face of Eve became a classic work not only in the Arab feminism but also in international feminism and it still retains its value as a significant testimony to feminist understanding from the global south. One of her early works, Al-Mar’ah wa’l-Jins (Woman and Sex) was extremely significant because she opened up a large terrain of discussions on subjects which required attention from a woman’s point of view. Her experience in women’s activism and feminism in the Arab world and her experience as a doctor and her childhood trauma of undergoing female genital mutation (FGM), all contributed to her comment to write on “uncomfortable” issues. Such writings contributed to giving courage to many women activists and writers to come up and speak about the unspeakable of those times. She gave voices to many people who could not articulate their suffering and she provided the language to many feminists to put forward their concerns in a politically conscious manner. Her novels and autobiographical writings showed us the beauty and the travails of Egyptian rural life as well as the pains of growing up in the transformational context of Egyptian economy and politics. Whether it was Sadat’s regime or Mubarak’s regime, Dr Nawal el-Saadawi has always stood in opposition to them. She resisted many of their policies and because of her criticism of several government policies and the very nature of dictatorship in Egypt, she was put in jail for some time and suffered all kinds of pressure and attacks at several junctures. She was also an ardent critic of the religious right in Egypt. The Egyptian state on the one hand and the right-wing religious elements on the other hand made it difficult for her to do her feminist work. But she fought them and survived.

I am witness to the precarious nature of her life in Egypt in the 1990s. I had fixed an interview with Nawal el-Saadawi in early 1993 during my stay in Cairo, researching on Egyptian feminism. But when the date of meeting was near, I came to learn from the newspaper that there is a death threat to Dr Saadawi. She had to flee from her Cairo apartment to the United States. She started teaching at Duke University in the US. Thus I missed my interview with her in Cairo. She came back to Egypt in 1996. In 2011, she was there in Tahrir Square participating in the Arab uprising. I am sure that her legacy will inspire coming generations to fight for justice.

(Professor AK Ramakrishnan teaches at the Centre for West Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)

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