Originally published in Ms. Magazine here on April 4, 2021
We remember Nawal El Saadawi, the renowned Egyptian feminist, physician, writer and activist, as our charismatic and outspoken mentor, from her arrival in Seattle in 1994 to teach at the University of Washington.
We remember her as we witness mainstream obituaries relying upon an imperialist feminist narrative that selectively highlights her childhood clitoridectomy and her fight against women’s oppression in the Arab world. Yet we knew her for her intersectional feminism driven by a critique of what she called “capitalist patriarchy” and imperialist domination, particularly in the wake of the U.S.-led Gulf War.
In the U.S. and Europe, Saadawi’s feminist activism and literary works are often reduced to a stance against “Arab culture” or “religion” (i.e. Islam). Yet she exposed issues such as honor killings as products—not of an isolated Arab culture abstracted from history, as colonialist and imperialist discourse would like us to believe, but rather as products of the intersections of global politics, international capitalism, militarism, patriarchy and class. Over and over, she would remind us, “You can’t separate them.”
Along these lines, Nawal El Saadawi quarreled with women from Western societies who travel to countries such as Sudan and “see” only clitoridectomy, but never notice the economic exploitation by multinational corporations.
El Saadawi was of that generation of third world Marxists who lived her anti-consumption values—she had three simple shirts that she wore in rotation, and she sometimes chided us for wearing jewelry and makeup, the latter which she called the “Western veil.” Her point was to expose the contradiction between the U.S.’s racist obsession with the Muslim “veil” [hijab] on the one hand and the widespread objectification of women’s bodies in the U.S. on the other. She often said these were “two sides of the same coin.”
Encouraged by El Saadawi’s energetic guidance, we founded the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association North America (AWSA NA) as an NGO and a chapter of the AWSA she founded in Egypt in 1982. Through our involvement in AWSA, Nawal opened up international feminist worlds to us, inspiring many young Arab American feminists of the 1990s to grow our political consciousness and our confidence.
With her support, we learned how to intervene in international feminist conferences such as the 1994 U.N. Population and Development Conference in Cairo. One AWSA NA member, Renda Dabit, presented Nawal’s speech there since Nawal was under attack for her stance against the Gulf War and could not attend.
Interestingly, feminists emanating from the West often sensationalized Egyptian government attacks against El Saadawi as if they were solely based upon her insistence on “women’s rights.” AWSA’s intervention at the 1994 UNPD conference ultimately affirmed a radical decolonial reproductive justice perspective that confronted the entire framing of the crisis of “population and development” promoted by imperialist development projects—blaming poor women for poverty and asserting that too many Arab and African women are having babies. Rather, El Saadawi argued, global capitalism and the imperialist framing of “population and development” is a form of violence against poor women.
Another AWSA group presented at the 1995 U.N. Women’s Conference in Beijing. There, AWSA members read and distributed a critique of the imperialist feminist use of the idea of “Arab women’s oppression” to justify U.S.-led wars and the impact of these wars on women. In Seattle, Saadawi spoke at one of our first events, a benefit from the victims of the Israeli massacre of Hebron (1994).
We also formed a coalition, supported by Nawal El Saadawi and Angela Davis, between Arab and African American women. At one of our events, Saadawi and Davis reminisced on their meeting in 1982 in California and Davis’s subsequent visit to Cairo to meet with AWSA members. Saadawi addressed what she called “the globalization phenomenon”—the illusion that we lived in three worlds rather than one world dominated by one international system. Davis discussed the importance of coalition building, the emergence of “women of color” and “third world” feminisms, and the transforming role of women of color in the political and academic arenas. The hall was electrified, as we collectively felt a part of that transformative movement and moment.
— Nandini C Sen (@NandiniCSen) March 23, 2021
To be sure, a vibrant history of Arab feminist activism and coalition building in the U.S. preceded this period. We took inspiration from the Union of Palestinian Women Associations in North America (1980s) and Palestinian women’s organizing and resistance during the first Intifada (1987-91). We drew strength from stories of the Feminist Arab American Network (1983), and the inclusion of Arab American feminists in early third world feminist coalitions within social movements and at the National Women Studies Association conferences.
The same year we formed AWSA, Food for Our Grandmothers, the first collection of Arab American and Arab Canadian feminist writers (edited by Joe Kadi, 1994) gave voice to our complex stories, positioning us at the intersections of anti-imperialist Arab feminist perspectives and those of radical U.S. women of color.
With El Saadawi’s passion and inspiring energy, the formation of AWSA North American in the mid-1990’s opened up new possibilities for Arab American feminists. Some of us launched CYBER-AWSA, an email list through which Arab feminists across the U.S. organized political actions, integrated feminist perspectives into broader Arab liberation movements in the U.S., and debated and discussed politics together. Some of us launched a chapter in San Francisco and joined the Women of Color Resource Center’s delegation to the World Conference on Racism in Durban, South Africa in 2001. AWSA SF became an affiliate of the movement INCITE!, and integrated decolonial, anti-imperialist Arab feminist perspectives into projects like the Color of Violence anthology.
But we also came to learn that Nawal’s intersectionality was limited, that her conception of feminism was not expansive enough, especially for our generation. In the mid 1990s in San Francisco, Nadine remembers becoming politicized about homophobia when a group of Arab/Arab American feminists protested Saadawi outside of a building where she was going to speak. They were there to hold Saadawi accountable for her homophobic viewpoint that discussions about gender-non-conforming sexuality are irrelevant and should remain silent.
By the turn of the 21st century, El Saadawi was also increasingly expressing her position against religion, Islam and the hijab in offensive terms, publicly shaming the Muslim women wearing hijab who sat in her lectures for “participating in women’s oppression.”
On this point, her position was ironically similar to that of imperialist feminists who dominate Muslim women by dictating the terms of their liberation. El Saadawi’s disregard of queer and trans people’s experiences and struggles for liberation, coupled with her treatment of women who wear hijab, contributed to harm and exclusion. It also led some of us to part ways with her in order to form alternatives that could encompass the breadth of our political vision and our accountability to all forms of gender justice and anti-racism.
As Arab American feminists remember her in social media, many posts acknowledge her transformative role in uplifting Arab socialist feminism and tahrir al-ma’rah [the liberation of women] in the Arab world, but also point to her perpetuation of homophobia and Islamophobia. Nawal taught us many things, empowered us in many ways, but she also taught us that there are no faultless heroes—just warriors committed to casting off oppressive structures of this world with limitations and sometimes investments in the oppression of others.
Reflecting back on our memories of El Saadawi, we understand her stances, in part, as products of her context and her generation. El Saadawi came of age during the rise of third world liberation movements across the globe. In the Arab region, secular-nationalism and socialism—including the exclusion of religion and Islam, queer people, and queer liberation—were the primary frameworks people relied upon to resist Western imperialism. Her critique of religion and her resistance to integrating queer and trans justice into her concept of liberation was widespread among her generation.
As Arab feminists in the U.S., we have been faced with the challenge of crafting a more nuanced position, an intersectional transnational decolonial feminist vision that insists on challenging pervasive Islamophobia and racist views against women and gender non-conforming people who identify with Islam.
We also recognize that exclusionary religious politics are practiced by many groups—Muslim, Christian, Jewish and so on—as well as by rigid secularists who are hostile to people whose lives are shaped by their relationship to religion, spirituality, and the divine. For us, intersectional transnational feminism is non-exclusionary and seeks to dismantle all forms of oppression and discrimination, while building alternatives based upon the values of collective love, access to resources, and dignity for all.
Looking back, we are grateful that Nawal El Saadawi provided us with a framework for challenging capitalist patriarchy and the impact of U.S. global domination on women in the Arab world, and that she empowered us to build a widespread transnational Arab feminist movement. Yet she also left us to struggle over how to celebrate a feminist legend whose commitment to social justice was incomplete. And that too was an important lesson from our mentor.