Egyptian feminist author, physician, and women’s rights advocate Nawal el Saadawi is one of the staples of feminism in the Middle East. She specifically fought for gender equality and women’s rights in religious and social structures through writing, with a focus on female genital mutilation. She was born in the small village of Kafr Tahla in Egypt and grew up in what she describes as a relatively liberal family.
Saadawi’s parents always encouraged their daughter to express herself. After studying at Cairo University, Columbia University, and Shams University, she became a physician as well as the director-general of the health education department in the health ministry.
Her writing all started when she discovered all of the physical and psychological problems endured by women as a result of their oppression. She published her first book in 1958, Memoirs of a Woman Doctor, a semi-autobiographical that explores the challenges of women in Egypt, specifically her own as a female doctor.
She describes writing as “a weapon with which to fight the system, which draws authority from the autocratic power exercised by the ruler of the state and that of the father or the husband in the family,” as stated in her 1999 autobiography, A Daughter of Isis.
“The written word for me became an act of rebellion against injustice exercised in the name of religion, morals, or love.”
Saadawi’s writings, as well as her other life work, always echoed the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, with a strong emphasis on Gender Equality. She dedicated her life to fighting for feminist ideals and equality between genders, with her writings promoting better rights and living conditions for women and raising awareness of their struggles and challenges.
However, she was later expelled from her position because of her 1969 book, Women and Sex, condemned by religious and political authorities. The content and ideas articulated in the book, exploring the interplay between gender, sexuality, and societal norms, led to disapproval and her subsequent removal. In this same book, she criticizes women's circumcision through non-fiction by sharing her own story as a victim of genital mutilation as early as when she was 6 years old, as well as other topics such as the oppression and exploitation of women and the intersection of sexuality and power in the context of social structures.
Some argue this book went to the extremes, to the point of making it more harmful than good for the fate of women, claiming that Saadawi does not try to fight the oppressive system itself but rather the fact of being a woman. In a 1988 book titled Woman Against Her Sex by Georges Tarabishi, the author criticizes Saadwai’s work, accusing her of elitism and a lack of solidarity towards other women.
Her most influential book has been her 1977 book, The Hidden Face of Eve in which she addresses patriarchy and poverty rather than Islam as the direct causes of the oppression of women in Arab societies. She uses personal experiences and sociopolitical analysis to explore various forms of discrimination, subjugation, and abuse women go through because of gender dynamics in Egyptian society.
Even though the book highlights positive aspects of the Middle Eastern region as a response to Western feminism’s negative perspective of the Arab world, it also underlines the incompatibility of the codes and traditions of the society she lived in with a just and peaceful Islam.
While she was born into a Muslim family, she always expressed skepticism in her work towards certain interpretations and practices within Islam that she saw as contributing to the oppression of women. Her outspoken criticism of religion also sparked a lot of controversy. The author expressed her ideas very bluntly about the injustice and violence women suffer from, including in their sexual lives. She covered prostitution, genital mutilation, sexual abuse, and a variety of other struggles.
Nawal el Saadawi died at the age of 89 in 2021. She is still remembered as one of the first and most important feminists, at a time when women were extremely limited in opportunities and in a country where the authority left no freedom of expression or space for any criticism. She even got imprisoned by the government in the Cairo prison with 14 other women in 1981 and became part of the death list of a fundamentalist group in 1992 due to the controversy over her criticism of traditions, religion, and politics.
El Saadawi never fails to make it clear that “the personal is political.” Whether it is through her constant fights against the system and her autocratic government or through the ideas she shared and made public to make the lives of the next generation of women more serene, she mostly based her reflections on her observations and experiences. The subjects she fought were directly linked to her own life and struggles as a woman in Egypt.