Nawal El-Sadaawi: The Feminist Icon and Revolutionary of the Middle East
Celebration of Life
“What we require is not a formal return to tradition and religion, but a rereading, a reinterpretation, of our history that can illuminate the present and pave the way to a better future. For example, if we delve more deeply into ancient Egyptian and African civilizations we will discover the humanistic elements that were prevalent in many areas of life. Women enjoyed a high status and rights, which they later lost when class patriarchal society became the prevalent social system.”
These are revolutionary words of Egyptian feminist icon, physician, and activist Nawal El-Sadaawi, who passed away on Monday, March 22nd, 2021, at 89. She was a fierce advocate against Female Genital Mutilation, the patriarchy, and other systems of oppression. She is often called the “Simone De Beauvoir of the Arab World,” which I believe is a disservice to her legacy. As a passionate activist for the liberation of women in the Middle East and calling for the internationalization of feminism, to reduce her to a version of a western feminist thinker would undermine El-Sadaawi and her revolutionary work.
Nawal El-Sadaawi has published over 55 books, the most influential of which was writing in a prison cell with a pencil on a roll of toilet paper; called Memories From the Women’s Prison.
El-Sadaawi was imprisoned in 1981 because she protested against the practice of female genital mutilation. According to the World Health Organization, female genital mutilation “involves the partial or total removal of external female genitalia or another injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. The practice has no health benefits for girls and women. FGM can cause severe bleeding and problems urinating, and later cysts, infections, as well as complications in childbirth and increased risk of newborn deaths.”
She was forced to have a clitorectomy at six-years-old. Nawal El-Sadaawi was accused and imprisoned for conspiring with the Bulgarian government to overthrow the newly elected Sadat regime in Egypt. Regarding these accusations, she said that she “knew nothing about Bulgaria and sometimes even forgot where it was on the map.” She was released after Sadat’s assassination.
Her work’s actual controversy lies in her book called “The Hidden Face of Eve,” published in 1977. In this book, she argues that the true oppressor of women in the Middle East and Arab society is the patriarchy, and poverty works to oppress women, not Islam. She argued that Arab society puts too much of an emphasis on a woman’s body and virginity. In the “Hidden Face of Eve,” she wrote, “Arab society still considers that the fine membrane which covers the aperture of the external genital organs is the most cherished and most important part of a girl’s body, and is much more valuable than one of her eyes, or an arm, or a lower limb. An Arab family does not grieve as much at the loss of a girl’s eye as it does if she happens to lose her virginity. In fact, if the girl lost her life, it would be considered less of a catastrophe than if she lost her hymen.”
Forever a revolutionary, during the Arab Spring, she joined protestors in Tahrir Square in Cairo, calling for Mubarak’s deposition. El-Sadaawi remained a Marxist throughout her life, never divorcing imperialism’s forces upon analyzing the world around her.
The Immortal Words of El-Saadawi
The following are some of El-Sadaawi’s most impactful words, which are sure to inspire feminist thinking and resistance against the patriarchy in generations to come.
“For me, feminism includes everything.” “It is social justice, political justice, sexual justice. It is the link between medicine, literature, politics, economics, psychology, and history. Feminism is all that. You cannot understand the oppression of women without this.”
“I’m surrounded by young people, day and night. Thousands of them. The government is afraid of the young, and they won’t touch me because they know I have the power of the young people behind me.”
“They said, ‘You are a savage and dangerous woman.’ I am speaking the truth. And the truth is savage and dangerous.”
“Yet not for a single moment did I have any doubts about my integrity and honor as a woman. I knew that men had invented my profession and that men were in control of both our worlds, the one on earth, and heaven. Men force women to sell their bodies at a price, and that the lowest paid body is that of a wife. All women are prostitutes of one kind or another.”
“What we require is not a formal return to tradition and religion, but a rereading, a reinterpretation, of our history that can illuminate the present and pave the way to a better future. For example, if we delve more deeply into ancient Egyptian and African civilizations, we will discover the humanistic elements that were prevalent in many areas of life. Women enjoyed a high status and rights, which they later lost when class patriarchal society became the prevalent social system.”
“Here, the oppression of women is very subtle. If we take female circumcision, the excision of the clitoris is done physically in Egypt. But here, it is done psychologically and by education. So even if women have the clitoris, the clitoris was banned; it was removed by Freudian theory and mainstream culture.”
Rest In Peace, Dr. Nawal El-Sadaawi.