Remembering Nawal El Saadawi: incendiary, relentless feminism

Described as the “Simone de Beauvoir of the Arab World”, Nawal El Saadawi, who died last week at the age of 89, never wanted to be silenced.

Nawal El Saadawi has died at 89 years old. During her fierce career as an activist, writer and doctor, she communicated her thoughts with uncensored passion and dedication.

Second of nine children, Saadawi quickly understood that, despite her parents’ encouragement to pursue education and further studies, she would always be behind her brothers just because of her gender.

The constrictive human and sexual rights of women compared to the relative sexual freedom given to men from birth was made traumatically obvious at the age of six. Saaadawi was forced from her bed to be circumcised, an unnerving experience which she surgically described in her 1977 work The Hidden Face of Eve.

What she found most distressing at the time, and even later when recalling the episode, was her mother’s smiling complicity, blindly respecting and perpetuating the patriarchal and capitalist dynamics that were also making her a victim of the Egyptian society of the time.

It was probably also because of this experience that she then graduated in 1955 from medical school and started helping Egyptian women who had gone through similarly horrific experiences.

Saadawi was always perceptive and highly aware of the psychological and social pressures faced by her patients and was not afraid to use these experiences as strong examples for her incendiary thoughts about feminism and female sexuality.

Her 1972 book Women and Sex, where for the first time she highlighted the capitalist society’s absolute focus on the male gaze and pleasure, led her to be fired from her position in the Ministry of Health.

This did not stop her from continuing to voice her opinions. In fact, she was detained and jailed for two months in 1981. While in jail, Saadawi continued to write and reported her experience in Memoirs from the Women’s Prison, using a roll of toilet paper and a cosmetic pencil as her weapons of activism.

Remarried three times, she was never afraid to clinically depict the alienating and restricting nature of married life in her novels.

It is clear that Nawal El Saadawi was never afraid to spark controversy and question the status quo. She is still able to do so, even after her death.

In a commeorative Tweet, Al Jazeera’s Arabic described her as a ‘controversial novelist’ that ‘attacked religions, demanded the legalisation of prostitution and questioned the Quran’; the tone is very different from the Al Jazeera English’s account, which paradoxically depicts her as a positive feminist icon, striving for female empowerment and equality.

Despite the many changes that the Arab World has witnessed since the start of Nawal El Saadawi’s activism, the writer and doctor does still hold an ambivalent place in Arab pop culture, sparking further debate that’ll likely continue with Gen Z and beyond.

This article was originally written by Tom Crestani. ‘Hi, I’m Tom and I’m currently studying Arabic and Classics at the University of Oxford. Having lived in Jordan for a year, I now find British weather intolerably humid. Apart from devolving my time learning obscure idioms, you can normally find me reading about literary analysis, intersectional feminism and the Queer world. Oh, I am also Italian and (unironically) coeliac, hence I barely eat any pasta’. View Tom’s LinkedIn for more.


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