On International Women’s Day, teachers at my British all-girls school would like to wheel out questions like ‘Do we still need feminism here when women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to drive?’ I think this was intended to inspire a certain national chauvinism among us: in Britain, we had completed what they hadn’t even started in Saudi Arabia.
As an Iraqi woman growing up in Britain, it felt like the only time women who came from my mother’s homeland warranted a mention was in relation to atrocities committed against them: ‘ISIS brides’, forced marriage, FGM, honour killings, public stoning, mass rape. The ‘humanitarian’ rhetoric which justified the destruction of Iraq in 2003—as with other imperial interventions in Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria—often referenced the plight of women in the region.
As a child, I internalised and participated in these narratives, and so did many Arab women around me. I came to view the Middle East as a uniquely barbaric zone; if you asked me at that time where I was from, I would have said America or Britain. My mixed identity offered me plausible deniability, as I bought into the old liberal lies that Western feminism was needed in the Arab world, and it would be sent to them by NGOs, by Western governments, or by armed force, should those governments will it.
Discovering the work of Nawal El Saadawi offered me a way out. Across the 50-plus works El Saadawi produced in her lifetime, she offered a way into postcolonial feminism through her accessible—though often acerbic—prose.
I had never come across these sorts of perspectives before – perspectives like those in The Hidden Face of Eve, where El Saadawi argues that the struggle for women’s liberation is inseparable from the struggle against capitalism and imperialism; that Western feminist movements are not necessarily the vanguard of progress they aspire to be, but can instead ‘participate in holding back the forces of freedom and progress in the countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America.’
In Memoirs of a Women’s Prison, written with an eyeliner pencil and toilet roll while she was incarcerated, El Saadawi discusses solidarity and collective power among female prisoners both inside and outside of jail. Her fictional work entertained as well as horrified – work like Woman at Point Zero, and Love in the Kingdom of Oil, where the confusion of the security services and a husband when a woman ‘takes leave’ from her role as a wife is witty and bitter.
In both books, El Saadawi blurs the line between dreams and reality. Men are interchangeable and universally exploitative, scenes are repeated almost word-for-word to make the deepest possible impact, and women’s assertions of labour and economic autonomy cause deep imbalance to patriarchal structures of power.
These were themes El Saadawi put into practice in her political militancy: in 1981, she founded the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association, an organisation she insistently labelled as ‘historical, socialist, and feminist’ throughout her life.
Though outspoken against practices such as clitoridectomy and child marriage, El Saadawi interpreted feminism as not purely limited to ‘women’s movements’ and their issues, which always ran the risk of bourgeois co-option. Instead, ‘feminism’ was a practice which made wider demands on the state, organised women at its core, and worked towards the abolition of the class system.
Throughout her life, El Saadawi played her role in mass movements to further the socialist cause, including being one of 1,500 people imprisoned by the Sadat regime for their opposition to the Camp David Agreements. She was a staunch supporter of the 2011 Arab uprisings and encouraged Arab women to find their organising space within the revolution, telling the BBC that ‘women gain their rights by their own efforts’.
These words have enduring relevance to contemporary feminist struggle. In recent weeks, spokespeople for organizations such as Reclaim These Streets rejected demands for the resignation of Cressida Dick for overseeing a protest in which women were beaten and forcibly dispersed by the police on the grounds that they did not want to see women lose their jobs.
In Egypt, El Saadawi resisted these state-led ‘feminist’ solutions and organisations invented by figures like Jihan Sadat and Susan Mubarak—the political wives of Anwar and Hosni—who saw the cause of advancing women’s interests in Egypt as a method of enhancing their visibility in corrupt autocracies. Part of El Saadawi’s legacy is to teach us to resist the girlboss-ification of feminist demands: collective problems must have collective solutions.
Speaking for myself, as someone from a diaspora and with limited Arabic skills, a primary reason for my own contact with El Saadawi’s work is her treatment as a media darling by the Western press. She is one of the most translated Arab writers of any gender, leading many people in the West to serve their political agendas through her: English-language editions of The Hidden Face of Eve do not include her chapters on ‘women’s work in the home’ and ‘women and socialism’, for example.
In this respect, her career was illustrative of a wider paradox in Arab feminism. While she remained a solid critic of Western imperialism, her virulent secularism—the type most frequently championed by Western liberal feminists—led her to support infringements on human and democratic rights, including support for France’s ban on all religious symbols and a soft endorsement of Egypt’s 2013 military coup.
But feminist work is legacy work, and Nawal El Saadawi knew this. That is why she described herself as a historical, socialist, feminist. She was committed to showing how the oppression of women was not locally or culturally rooted, but a global force exerted through the state, imperialism, and capitalism.
To best honour her today, feminists must retain that commitment to collective justice instead of seeking individual solutions or flagbearers for common struggle. Nawal El Saadawi’s work is preserved through our continued commitment to a feminism that is global in nature, and places liberation and self-determination for all colonised peoples at its core.