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The Pioneering Anti-Colonial Feminism of Nawal El Saadawi (1931-2021)

El Saadawi in 2012. Courtesy Flickr, Creative Commons; photograph: Gigi Ibrahim

The late Egyptian author, activist and physician tirelessly exposed the intersections of patriarchy, religious fundamentalism, and Western neo-colonialism

‘If I don’t tell the truth, I don’t deserve to be called a writer,’ declared Nawal El Saadawi in an interview from 2008. The feminist author and activist, who passed away on 21 March at the age of eighty-nine, can lie at rest knowing that she lived up to that exacting standard, despite near constant pressure to compromise or back away from it.

Patriarchy, sexuality, nationalism, religious fundamentalisms, the status of women in Arab societies: El Saadawi wrote and spoke unflinchingly about all this and more, within a wider context of human emancipation. Being the object of the anger of the powerful – from former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat to fundamentalists in Saudi Arabia – would only have confirmed to her that she was on the right track. ‘Maybe people are angry with me, but I’m not angry with myself,’ El Saadawi said.

El Saadawi was born in 1931 in Kafr Tahla, a village north of Cairo, to an upper middle class household. Unusual for the time, her parents sent all nine of their children to school, girls included. However, they also abided by some traditions: El Saadawi suffered female genital mutilation (FGM) at the age of six, which she narrativised in her 1977 novel The Hidden Face of Eve. As a trained physician, she worked as a doctor for decades, all the while criticising the role of misinterpreted Islam and religious dogma in perpetuating the oppression of women in her society. Her first non-fiction work, Women and Sex (1969), was banned in Egypt for its anti-FGM stance; when its English translation came out in 1972, it cost her the position to which she had risen in the Egyptian health service: Director-General of Public Health.

El Saadawi’s first novel, Memoirs of a Woman Doctor (1958), drew from her own life. It features a girl who is constantly pressured to accept that her destiny is to serve men, as El Saadawi was (the first attempt to marry her off came at the age of ten). The novel’s bright protagonist is urged away from her studies and into the kitchen, until she ‘could not hear the word marriage without having a mental picture of a man with a big see-through belly with a table of food inside it.’ The simmering rage in El Saadawi’s writing, especially in Woman at Point Zero (1983), her most popular novel in the West, has drawn the label of ‘nihilistic’ from the Syrian writer Georges Tarabichi and described as ‘devastatingly pessimistic’ by the literary scholar Susan Arnt. But El Saadawi’s range is startling – her Love in the Kingdom of Oil (1992) and The Innocence of the Devil (1998) are semi-surrealist – and it is animated by a fierce hope that justice can and will prevail.

Under president Sadat, El Saadawi began a period of ‘self-exile’ from 1978 to 1980, working as UN adviser on women’s development in Africa and the Middle East. Already under the Egyptian government’s watch for her writings on women’s sexual health, she was welcomed back to Egypt in 1981 with detention for criticising Sadat’s government. In a twist of fate, she was held at Qanater Women’s Prison, nine years after she had first gone there as a practising psychiatrist and met the prisoner who would later inspire Woman at Point Zero. El Saadawi gives a vivid account of her experience of incarceration in Memoirs from the Womens Prison (1983), which she wrote, clandestinely, on a roll of toilet paper with an eyebrow pencil. Her real ‘crime’, of course, was revealing how patriarchy intersected with religious fundamentalisms in Egypt.

Her anti-theist pronouncements, however, have all too often been fixated on at the expense of her anti-colonial message. In fact, El Saadawi was vocal about the neo-colonial and capitalist scaffolding that, in her view, kept patriarchy and religious fundamentalisms alive and kicking. She frequently discussed how neo-colonialism – the securing of Western economic interests at the expense of the poor of the Global South – nurtured local patriarchal systems in Africa and the Arab world. She often bookended her self-identification as a feminist writer with: ‘I do not hate men’ – indeed, her third marriage to Sherif Hatata, an Egyptian doctor and writer who translated most of her works into English, lasted four decades – but that she was ‘against the patriarchal capitalist system that creates inequality and a permanent underclass.’ El Saadawi understood the oppression of women as an integral part of the political, economic and cultural systems in most of the world, ‘whether backward and feudal, or modern and industrial.’

Whether or not one agrees with El Saadawi’s analysis, history contains examples of such across Africa and Asia since independence from colonial rule. Her disapproval of the modernisation process carried out in the Arab world under the aegis of the West, with its frequent claim to ‘saving’ Muslim women, can be understood within this framework. El Saadawi saw firsthand that this allowed only a handful of upper or middle-class Arab women to be economically strong or socially prominent, leaving their sisters exactly where they are: in poverty. Her novels God Dies By the Nile (1985) and The Fall of the Imam (1987) reflect this, drawing attention to how many women uphold patriarchy out of fear, internalisation, or class loyalties.

As such, El Saadawi’s feminism was also a challenge to the West’s self-conception of being at the forefront of some sort of civilisational timeline in terms of women’s liberation. As tragic events like Sarah Everard’s murder in the UK has recently shown, this has no basis in reality: patriarchy unfolds everywhere in different ways. Decentring the West in people’s subjectivities – or ‘decolonising the mind’, as the Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o put it – was in El Saadawi’s thoughts. ‘I am an African from Egypt, not the Middle East. The Middle East is a term used relative to London,’ she would assert. She refused the notion that Eastern and Western are natural categories about some fundamental difference in the ‘essence’ of people, as peddled today by Islamists and white supremacists alike.

In 1992, El Saadawi’s name appeared on a death list in Saudi Arabia and she decided to leave Egypt again. Teaching at Duke University, North Carolina, she wrote two memoirs: A Daughter of Isis (1999) and Walking Through Fire (2002). Court cases troubled her throughout the last two decades of her life: first in 2001 for alleged apostasy, then in 2008 for her banned play, God Resigns at the Summit Meeting. It features a gathering of the prophets of the Abrahamic religions, great women from history, God, Satan, and Bill Clinton, resulting in the titular resignation. The by-then septuagenarian also joined the anti-Mubarak protesters in Tahrir Square during the 2011 Arab Spring.

Through both activism and literature, El Saadawi tirelessly revealed linkages between the oppression of women; religious fundamentalisms; and a neocolonial system that needs Global South economies to remain underdeveloped. Her views are not above criticism, but she was living proof of her belief that, as a writer, ‘you cannot be creative in a system that is unjust, unless you are a dissident.’

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