The Sanitized Legacy of Nawal El-Saadawi

Egyptian feminist Nawal el-Saadawi has been the focus of hundreds of commemoration posts highlighting her combat for women’s rights after her passing on March 21. Her sanitized legacy overshadows the less celebratory aspects of her activism. An Islamophobe and supporter of the Rabaa Massacre, Saadawi is not being put under enough scrutiny. 

Throughout her career, Nawal el-Saadawi jealously protected anti-imperialist ideologies. This led her to support many resistance movements, among them the Iranian Revolution, based on the premise that national liberation was a necessary prerequisite to liberation for women. She minced no words in her attack on Islam, however, making her narrative, which she attempted to control by audience, quite paradoxical. Her allyship was therefore never about ‘Muslim solidarity’ but about sticking a middle finger to foreign dominance. She defended her stance on the Iranian Revolution (which was received with backlash by other feminists like Leila Ahmed, who said she was incapable of going an inch beyond the Arab-Muslim nationalism of Nasserists and Baathists) by reassuring listeners it would not be a return to “the prison of the veil.” 

Unlike most work produced in the Arabic language, Saadawi’s texts were quickly translated into English. The Fall of the Imam was published in Arabic in 1987 and in English in 1988, The Innocence of the Devil (originally Paradise and the Devil) appeared in Arabic in 1992 and in English in 1994, and her memoir A Daughter of ISIS (1999) was published in English almost simultaneously with the Arabic edition. The West took great interest in her literature and she made her American debut through the left-leaning Beacon Press in Boston that published The Hidden Face of Eve (originally The Naked Face of Arab Women) in 1982. 

Her books are viewed by mainstream print media and assigned in both graduate and undergraduate classes. A true celebrity in the States, her movements and affairs were consistently reported in prestigious newspapers. She is lauded for her unapologetic stances regarding female empowerment to the extent that her highly problematic views are swept under the rug (or conversely, made the star of the show so publishing houses make more money, because what gets more ratings than a damsel in distress trapped in some faraway Islamic state?). She called the pilgrimage to Mecca a “vestige of pagan practices” and declared it was a tragedy “that a poor working man will spend his life’s savings in order to travel to Saudi Arabia to stone the devil or kiss the Ka‘ba.” These uncharitable remarks are not few and far in between. 

While Saadawi criticized Western feminists for their focus on issues of sexuality and patriarchy in isolation from issues of class and colonialism, she also believed in progressivism and blamed tradition for the subjugation of women. In the process, she denigrated Islam and affirmed the stereotypes Anglo-Saxons held of the Muslim world. To not misrepresent Nawal, she did recognize the conniving ways of the American mainstream market and criticized how anti-Islamic content makes for a hot commodity. She made it clear that dictatorship, honor killing, and religious wars were not Muslim genes, in spite of Westerners working hard to crystallize this view. This unfortunately did not prevent her from holding and promoting Islamophobic sentiments of her own on several occasions, and all in the name of being a “free thinker.”

She was at best naïve and at worst unassumingly cynical to think she could be tactful with her messages. For how could she have not known that Americans would be uninterested in her socialism and anti-imperialism, or that her inflammatory commentary on Muslim societies would be cherrypicked? Her fame was the result of confirmation bias – it reassured those watching and reading that Islam was indeed the breeding ground for terror and toxicity, and reinforced the supposed moral ascendancy of the West and the artificial urgency to save Muslim women from Muslim men.

Nawal’s moralizing attitude about Western feminists is therefore null, considering her disliking for Islam or religion all-together ran perpendicular to her concern for the wellbeing of women. What is support for women if it does not include believing women? Based on her recommendation, a report was sent to the United Nations denying sexual harassment in Egyptian prisons because Saadawi was not fond of the idea of niqab-wearing prisoners being categorized as anything other than terrorists. Even if she did not intend it, her violent politics supported an essentialist bifurcation of ‘egalitarian West’ versus ‘oppressive Islam’. By rallying against hijab, she legitimizes not only centuries-old beliefs of colonial supremacy but also right-wing fascism and draconian Islamophobic policies that are an extension of them. 

Despite the fact that she judged religion as a whole as guilty of women’s oppression and rejected Western assumptions of Islam being uniquely hostile towards women, and saw high heels and makeup to be as misogynistic as a hijab and abaya, she gave Western feminists an abundance of material to blame and otherize ‘Muslim culture.’ A culture which in many if not most instances should not be called Muslim culture, but modern state Islam and the deterioration of social maneuverability that has resulted from it. The ‘theocracy’ of some modern Muslim states is a special post-colonial phenomenon that vastly differs from the conditions of pre-modern Islamic polities.

For feminists who have long lamented about the deprived status of Middle Eastern and North African women, Saadawi’s work will check boxes. And even though defenders like Irene Gendzier urged non-Arab women to think deeply about the context Nawal writes from, and to prevent themselves from pitying their partners in fighting patriarchy, there is nothing abstract about Nawal’s explicit attitude against Islam. There is no reason Muslims should not feel threatened by her thoughts becoming popularized and appropriated by New Age atheists.

Nawal considered her own reflections and others like them to be rooted in “creativity” and “truthfulness.” She wrote,

Some authors, especially Muslim women writers, are afraid of self-criticism, or of touching taboos, lest they be accused of writing for the West, or showing our dirty linen to our enemies.

Instead of expanding on how new state structures fit the needs of hegemonic elite cliques, Nawal reveals her resentment for Islamic standards of modesty. She does not acknowledge how modern gender oppression has in fact sprouted from jeopardizing tradition instead of embracing it. It is from here we see her campaign against the veil (which went beyond just forced veiling) and support for the coup in Egypt. 

Perhaps we should take Nawal’s advice on exposing spoiled laundry. Nawal el-Saadawi was not just someone who opposed female genital mutilation, lapidation, and child marriage, or someone victimized by a repressive regime. She was someone who adopted Orientalist slogans like “Unveil the Mind” for her Arab Women’s Solidarity Association, and saw face covering as a “dangerous type of backwardness.” Her definition of religious fundamentalism steers eerily close to France’s definition, and for that alone she is no radical hero.


About the Authors:

Sabrina Amrane is a staff writer for Traversing Tradition. She is a journalism and political sciences student. Her interests include Maghribi history, literature, and philosophy. You can follow her on Twitter here.

Mariam Ehab is the Secretary of Traversing Tradition. She is a pharmacy and biotech student living in Egypt. Her interests include literature, ethics and social theory. You can follow her on Twitter here.

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