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Memorialising Complexity: The Many Lives of Nawal El Saadawi

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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, Nawal El Sadaawi 

The recent death of Nawal El Saadawi’s has reverberated through 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 the course of which, El Saadawi also erred and adopted arguably disappointing positions. It is a privilege to grapple with her legacy, to be brought to confront the contradictions and challenges raised by the issues she wrote about, issues that many of us in the Arab world would not 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 for 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 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 immensely 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 honour 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), sex work; topics that propelled 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’s 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 amongst the experiences that she recounts as formative. 

It is 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 pre-empt 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.”  Over several decades of analysis she held the position that Islamic fundemantalism 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 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,” she writes in The Hidden Face of Eve.  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, not recognizing 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, but for her vehement opposition to the Camp David Agreement with Israel, and for her vocal critiques of his ambition to re-align Egypt with the interests of the US, and his opening up of Egypt to international financial institutions (though she bore 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 – historical details crucial to contextualising 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 equivalances of also hated feminist identity politics, calling Hillary Clinton and Margaret Thatcher “patriarchal women.” Nor did she not limit herself to criticising the Egyptian government. As a staunch critic of imperialism, 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 other of her strongly-held opinions such as her support of the Palestinian struggle, and her support 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 discusses  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, 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 for the inquiry for the international war crimes tribunal, causing her to face further censorship from Sadat’s successor, and ally of the US, 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 labelled a heretic, and facing multiple lawsuits and endless media slander. She left Egypt briefly in 1993, to spend time teaching in the US. 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 neo-colonialism were the driving forces  behind women’s oppression. She returned to Egypt three years later, and in the late 90s, and the 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 answered, “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 formed the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association, with the mandate of uniting women in the Arab world, an organization that was banned by Mubarak.  In this instance, the tensions of her position 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 also seemed to relish an individualistic framing of her life, even as the content of her work emphasises the overriding importance of resistance and activism. We might wonder, then, if we should try to understand her apology for Sisi as another instance of the fraught positionality that came 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, the product of 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 she provided. To mourn Nawal El Saadawi is to consider the immense responsibilities and contradictions embodied in the figure of the celebrated radical intellectual.