Photo Courtesy of The Guardian.

Eulogies to Nawal El Saadawi, Egyptian Feminist Activist and Scholar

Three NYUAD students reflect on Nawal El Saadawi’s legacy as a feminist scholar and activist, in Egypt and beyond.

Ellie Allan, Class of 2022
“Feminism is embedded in the culture and the struggle of women all over the world,” said Nawal El Sawaadi, Egyptian feminist, socialist, scholar and activist.
Nawal’s life is not a simple feat to write about. Her personal, national and global impact is immense. For feminists across the globe, her work and activism paved the way for change and influence. Her work has been read by people transnationally, exposing the institutional oppressive forces impacting the lives of both women and men.
Nawal dedicated her life to truth, exposing the reality of injustice and the systems which enable it. While working as a doctor in Egypt, Nawal witnessed and connected with women who suffered from both mental and physical complications due to the oppression they experienced under British imperialism, religious and cultural trauma and class divide. Nawal published over fifty books; her most notable writing includes Women and Sex (1969), Woman at Point Zero (1975) and Memoirs from the Women’s Prison (1984).
Nawal’s activism, writing and organization led to her imprisonment, during which she founded the Arab Women's Solidarity Association and continued writing with a cosmetic pencil after being denied stationary in prison. After leaving Egypt and moving to the U.S. in 1988, Nawal continued her activism and taught at several different colleges — including Harvard, Duke and Georgetown. Her activism centered on dismantling imperialism, racism, patriarchy and capitalism, as well as writings against female and male circumcision, religious abuse and the objectification of women.
Her activism tells us many things, but the clearest is that change is possible.
Andrew Riad, Class of 2022
Woman at Point Zero is one of my favorite books. Before writing this book, Nawal was removed from her position as the Director of Health Education because of her publication of Women and Sex. The story behind Firdaus in the novel captivates me the most: among the 21 in-depth psychological meetings with patients and prisoners at Qanatir prison, Firdaus stood out for Nawal. When Nawal was imprisoned for political reasons — by a government that doesn’t necessarily like to hear back talk — in 1981, she looked for Firdaus throughout the prison even though she knew she had been hanged for her crime. Something about this leaves me feeling so eerie, but also horrifically poetic and it explains Firdaus’ impact on Nawal. Nawal literally wrote the novel in a week. One week.
One of my favorite quotes by Nawal is: “We are historical, socialist, feminist,” and her subsequent elaboration on each aspect. She comments on “historical” because women exist historically in every society, “socialist” because she and her colleagues were against class divisions and “feminist” as to say that we are against patriarchy — “not men,” she once said in an interview. These are the principles I think about when I think of Nawal.
She was and is a pioneer, visionary and executor of change. Whether you like her or not, Nawal, for me, means representation. Nawal, for me, is my feminism. Nawal, for me, is the vision, the blueprint, the foundation on which feminism and other large structures that go against the grain of the patriarchal regime begin to plant seeds in the South-West Asia and North Africa — SWANA — region, and to create representation and mobility from within our regions. I do not need nor want nor care for any “Western” notion of anything when I can find it all within me and my culture — as I find these values in Nawal, and as she did in her predecessors.
Mariam Amer, Class of 2022
It is important not to look at Nawal El Saadawi as just a feminist scholar. She helped illegalize female genital mutilation, which saved the lives of many girls around Egypt. In addition to being a scholar, she was an activist who incited change in a country where change is not only unaccepted, but also punishable by death. Her detention in prison did not kill her activism. It fueled it.
Did her accomplishments lead to a positive perception of her among some Egyptians? I am extremely saddened to say: no. As I read about Nawal’s death on various Facebook posts, I cannot help but to look at the negative comments written by Egyptians. Does this, in any sense, illegitimize her astonishingly powerful life? Also no. Her legacy will live on forever. Her name will continue to be mentioned all over the world. Even if some Egyptians still refuse to open their minds and listen to Nawal, her followers and students will continue to ask these questions long after her death.
Nawal is physically dead, but she is also very much alive. She is alive in every other way possible. She is alive in every single parent who refuses to perform female genital mutilation on their daughter. She is alive in every Egyptian feminist, because without her accomplishments, feminism in Egypt would be virtually nonexistent. I would like to think that the recent feminist movement happening in Egypt is greatly influenced by the sacrifices she has made in order to give Egyptian women some of their rights.
Ellie Allan is Gender Columnist, Andrew Riad and Mariam Amer are contributing writers. Email them at
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