I’m a Young Arab Feminist Thanks to Nawal el Saadawi

I’m a Young Arab Feminist Thanks to Nawal el Saadawi

04.19.21
Portrait of Nawal el Saadawi in her home on September 30, 2015 in Cairo, Egypt. Nawal el Saadawi is an Egyptian writer known for her feminist, revolutionary books. (Photo by David Degner/Getty Images)
04.19.21

Growing up in a relatively conservative Arab Muslim society in Tunisia, I began to notice the difference in treatment between boys and girls, at a young age. Even before puberty, I noticed this strange “segregation” between boys and girls, who didn’t play together anymore. With their bodies showing the first signs of “femininity”, most girls weren’t allowed to wear revealing clothes (like shorts) when out in the street, or around some male members of the family, whereas boys didn’t have all these restrictions. Back then, I couldn’t understand this difference in the treatment between girls and boys. Although I didn’t know the concept of “feminism,” I felt that something was wrong and that all this was unfair.

I grew up in an open-minded family, and Tunisia is considered a pioneering Arab country for gender equality because of a series of laws called the Code of Personal Status passed in 1956 that guaranteed many rights for women. Although women are backed up by strong legislation, however, there always has been a gap with the Tunisian mindset. 

When I became a tween, the gap between the two genders got bigger and so did my frustration. Menstruation was considered dirty, shameful and girls around me avoided talking about it,in front of boys and would do their best to hide it, when it was “that time of the month.” I didn’t like the way things were going and had too many questions in my head. So, I went on the net to get the answers and found many of them. The most recurring word was feminism and I went on Arab websites to understand it. Most of these websites gave a pejorative image of this movement, describing it as a Western conspiracy against the Arab world. Among those who support this “devilish” movement, I found the name of Dr. Nawal el Saadawi, a feminist Egyptian psychiatrist and author. She was demonized, and criticized. 

The criticism had the opposite effect on me: it made me curious to know more about her. Who was this woman who is hated by both politicians, religious men and even women?

I continued my research and found that she had written dozens of books, on feminism and women’s rights. I listened to one of her interviews. While she was saying things that weren’t socially accepted and some of them were even considered profanities, I admired this woman who wasn’t scared to express her opinions. 

The next thing I did was rush to my mother to ask to buy one of her books. Turned out my mom was a fan of el Saadawi herself. She handed me “Memoirs from the Women’s Prison,” published in 1984, which was the first book I devoured, and made me read more of her work. Another one which most marked me, was her first book “Women and Sex,” about the widespread phenomenon of female genital mutilation, published in 1969. Her first book was banned from Egypt for nearly two decades till 1972 and cost el Saadawi her job as director of public health at the Ministry of Health. The feminist wrote about her own experience with FGM in another book, “The Hidden Face of Eve: Women in the Arab World.”

As I got older, I read about Western feminism, especially American feminism. While I also admired the work Western feminists have done through history, I didn’t feel connected to them, as much as I did with el Saadawi. The Egyptian feminist was a non-white woman like me, spoke my language, and addressed challenges that speak to me, as a young Arab woman. El Saadawi gave a global perspective of feminism, since she argued that feminism isn’t a Western invention, or isn’t solely reserved for American women. For her, “feminism is embedded in the culture, and in the struggles of all women all over the world.” Her vision of intersectionality of gender, race, class and also colonialism, shaped my identity as a young Arab feminist. She also normalized women’s sexual desire and pleasure, which have always been taboo subjects. By talking openly about them, el Saadawi freed me from society’s chains and made me deal in a positive way, with my body and sexuality. In senior high school, during Arab literature class, my teacher who was known for being progressive, made comments about the Egyptian feminist’s advocacy, implying it was based on whining and constant crying. I couldn’t help but defend el Saadawi fiercely, quoting her books, and mentioning the causes she fought for. The experience showed me how Arab feminists get silenced even by the most progressive men.

“They said, ‘You are a savage and dangerous woman.’ I am speaking the truth. And the truth is savage and dangerous.”

This is what Nawal el Saadawi will be remembered for. A woman who always spoke the truth, even when everyone was against her. The Egyptian feminist who was the representative model for young Arab girls, inspired me to start writing about feminism, to give Arab feminists more visibility and recognition from the world. Nawal el Saadawi paved the way for many generations, including mine.  Even after her death at the age of 89, on March 21st, her resilience, courage to say the truth, and her challenging intellect, are the heritage she left for me, as a young Arab feminist. 

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