Why Nawal El Saadawi Is a Feminist Revolutionary Icon

“Feminism is not a Western invention. Feminism is not invented by American women, as many people think. No, feminism is embedded in culture and in the struggle of all women all over the world.” 

This quote pops into my head every time someone tries to discredit and shame Arab and Muslim women’s feminist activism as a “Westernized” act. 

The words come from Egyptian feminist and socialist icon Nawal El Saadawi, who sadly passed away at the age of 89 on Sunday in Cairo, Egypt. 

While her body may have left the earth, El Saadawi’s profile of courage, hope, and radical change will continue to live on and inspire generations of Arab and Muslim women worldwide. 

El Saadawi was a genius — academically and socially — who helped and saved many people’s lives as a physician while changing the Arab world for the better as an activist through writing and grassroots protesting. 

To me, an Egyptian American feminist and socialist, her legacy and impact have an imprint on my ideology and approach to human rights, especially within advocacy in the Arab world. She deserves to be honored as such. 

As one of my favorite Egyptian writers, Mona Eltahawy, tweeted, “Nawal El Saadawi is the #NawalElSaadawi of the world. She is not the Simone de Beauvoir of the Arab world. Do not call her that. We are not local versions of people from elsewhere.” 

To study the incredible life of El Saadawi is to admire it. She was, pardon my French, a fucking badass. 

Among her notable acts of courage was how she was jailed for political protests against oppressive regimes. She fought against patriarchy by calling out the West and the ultra-religious figures in the Arab world that attempted to oppress women further. How she advocated against female genital mutilation (something she had been a victim of) and was blunt in her advocacy to allow Arab and Muslim women to express their sexuality without a culture of shame, blame, and rape culture. How she defied submissive marriage culture in Egypt and got divorced multiple times. How she refused to profit significantly off her success in a radical stance against capitalism. 

She always reiterated to women that our rights were inherently our own. That our sexuality was ours to own. That our worth was in our power and not in the hands of others. 

“I believed women gained their rights by their own efforts. I did not believe that [Gamal Abdel] Nasser will bring liberation to us. Or [Anwar] Sadat or [Hosni] Mubarak or any other ruler,” Saadawi said. 

She always reiterated to women that our rights were inherently our own. That our sexuality was ours to own. That our worth was in our power and not in the hands of others. 

Former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat imprisoned El Saadawi as an “enemy of the state.” She once lived in exile because she feared for her life. Her story’s beauty is that as a former “enemy of the state,” she died in her homeland as a worldwide hero.

There’s a fundamental flaw in how many people approach history and historical figures. We often relegate the past as a remembrance. Yet, the truth is, the past is a reference to the future and will continue to be. 

We stand on the shoulders of the women before us. And there’s no better way to honor El Saadawi’s legacy than to continue using her work as a reference to build on intersectional feminist work. El Saadawi wasn’t shattering glass ceilings just to pick the shards up. Those glass shards are still on the ground and will continue to cut us, make us bleed, bring us pain, but our work to topple the patriarchy must go on. 

Today and every day, I honor Nawal El Saadawi and vow to do my part to build on the beautiful world she envisioned for Arab and Muslim women.