In Memoriam: Nawal el Saadawi, 1931-2021

Portrait by David Horst.

“It is very clear that neo-colonialism and religious fundamentalism are two faces of the same coin. You cannot exploit people without some sort of divine power or some sort of religion.”

Rereading this sentence from Nawal’s foreword to my edited collection, Shattering the Stereotypes: Muslim Women Speak Out, published by the wonderful Palestinian-American press Interlink Books in 2005, I was struck afresh at how clearly she saw the systemically intertwined roots of our world’s injustice, and how unapologetically and unequivocally she framed for us what she saw and knew to be true.

That bold spirit of hers, immortalized in over 50 books she published during her lifetime, and her unwavering commitment through her writing and her activism to debunk our rationalizations of religious and racialized economic and patriarchal ideologies, is what drew me to her as it did countless others across borders north and south. We met on a fateful evening in spring of 1998, when I drove my little red Suzuki car from Ossining NY, 25 miles south to where the Brecht Forum was then located in downtown NYC in Chelsea. That white shock of hair was like a secular halo around her brown, vibrant, mischievous face, her presence at once commanding and welcoming, her gaze as it looked at you, piercing and unforgiving, yet full of curiosity and humanity, her talk that night engaging, warm, full of humor and pulling all of her audience into its seductive embrace—yet deadly serious, and brilliantly scathing in its attack on all manner of pieties. Not least of these was her unmasking of Islamist right-wing movements in Arab and other Muslim countries, as having little to do with religion, and everything to do with power; both a consequence of, as well as handmaiden to, a postmodern neoliberalism that serves the needs of Empire. Her phrase for this historical conjuncture of forces, succinct and electrifying in its clarity, was “the global imperialist class patriarchal system.” As an immigrant from Pakistan, I was acutely aware and troubled by this confluence of factors that had and was continuing to create havoc in my country of birth, an unleashing of extremist Islamism aided and abetted by both the USA as well as Saudi Arabia at the expense of the rights of women and religious minorities back home. Unholy alliances, indeed.

We developed a long and enduring friendship based on, and extending the concept of feminist solidarity for which her organization, AWSA—Arab Women’s Solidarity Association—became a spark. She organized several annual conferences under its aegis in Cairo, at which she invited many of us from across the globe to attend and share our work, and thanks to which so many “dissident friendships” across race, class, gender and national borders were formed.

I was fortunate to get to spend time with her and her family in Cairo at one such conference, and to visit her again a few years ago just before her health took a turn for the worse. In 2000, as the Twin Towers collapsed, we shared our grief and worry of what that would mean for the world, and its impact on the causes we held dear. She was staying in Montclair, near my university campus, where I had managed to get her invited as a Distinguished Resident Writer for the year, as she was once again under attack by both religious and “secular” state authorities in Egypt for her ongoing principled critiques of state and society. At MSU, she taught her signature course, “Creativity and Dissidence”—she believed that these two qualities of thought and affect, were intricately interlinked, and indeed, she personified them in her life and work. I recall how, during a public talk at MSU, after she’d explained the custom of the hijab as predating Islam and thus not an Islamic injunction, an audience member became very agitated and insisted that she was wrong, that veiling of women was mandated by Allah himself. Instead of demonstrating defensiveness or anger at being thus challenged, she walked slowly over to where the audience member was sitting, bent down gently, like her character Firdaus from Woman at Point Zero, gentle but deadly—and asked softly, a question both sarcastic yet, improbably, also compassionate: “ my dear, did God speak directly into your ear?”. I’ve never forgotten the brilliant logic of that response, and the cool, calm and even kind manner of handling a potential firestorm. Maybe she created some dissident thoughts in her questioner that day?

While exchanges like the one above, may have led her critics to engage in simplistic critiques of her politics, as someone who was a self-hating native informant out to reify existing stereotypes of poor victimized oppressed Arab/Muslim women in the West, it is clear to those of us who loved and admired her that she did not fall into the camp of cheering on a liberal western feminist agenda of “saving brown women from brown men.” On the contrary, she exposed all of the unholy alliances between the power axes that, as she loved to say, demonstrated how everything was linked—that religious fundamentalism was aided and abetted by, and helped shore up, neoliberal capitalist patriarchy and imperialism. She put this in her own inimitable way when she said, “After travelling all over the world … I discovered that girls are brought up in a very similar way – we are all in the same boat. The patriarchal, religious, capitalist system is universal.” And in order to find redress, she was clear that no one would hand women their rights in a neocolonial patriarchal world, that the only way to get what is your rightful due, is to organize and fight for it.

“I have had a dream since I was a child. A very mad dream, but very simple – to change the world,” she once said, adding, “That dream is still alive.”

This is the dream of what she coined as “g/local” justice—a recognition that justice at the local level cannot come about in a world economic system where injustice is built in to the fabric of its ideology. It is a dream that she continued to believe in with all of her passion and integrity till the end—and it made her a vital and exciting force to contend with, a feminist with a true transnational vision of solidarity that she enlisted in her vision and mission for progressive change, to help turn her dream into reality.

A tantalizing force of nature was our Nawal, at once humble and imperious, gentle and fierce, curious and inviting, yet uncompromising on core issues like her dream of justice for all; a social justice warrior who refused to back down from whatever cost the pursuit of such a dream and goal might exact in her personal life.

As her third husband and English language translator, the late Sherif Hettata once said to me in response to my question, “how is it being married to a woman like Nawal”—

It’s like climbing a mountain. Its tough going and requires a lot of stamina and dedication—but once you reach the summit—well, the view is quite simply, breathtaking.

It was to pay homage to that unique and incomparable view that Nawal gifted us with, that I decided to organize a tribute in remembrance of her on Sunday March 28th, on the zoom platform, with some of her close friends and colleagues in attendance from around the world. Many of these inspiring and brilliant academics, scholars, and activists I have had the good fortune to meet and get to know over the years, thanks to the transnational network of progressive feminist solidarities she nurtured. It was a moving set of remembrances and tributes to listen to that afternoon, and I am glad her son and daughter, Atef Hettata and Mona Helmi, were able to listen in from Cairo. I would like to think Nawal was there with us in soul and spirit, reminding us of not only what we owe her, but what we owe ourselves and our shared world.

Below is a list of those in attendance who offered remarks personal, political, and poetic; I also invite you to watch the recording of the livestreamed event and share the sense of profound loss, but also of celebration of the incomparable Nawal.

Rest in Power, dear friend, mentor, inspiration. We are grateful for your dream, and your enduring legacy.

Memorial Tribute to Nawal el Saadawi

Organized by Fawzia Afzal-Khan

Program for March 28th: 12-1:45 pm EST.

Fawzia reads the poem “When Great Trees Fall” by Maya Angelou, welcomes everyone. Makes introductory remarks and shares a brief interview clip of Nawal on Radio Tahrir: Voices of Arab America on WBAI, hosted by Barbara Nimri Aziz.

4-5 minute eulogies in following order, accompanied by a slide show of photographs:

Souhair Soukkary: Old Friend of Nawal’s, and Professor, Languages Dept, La Guardia Community College

Leila Ahmed: Victor S. Thomas Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School

Salah Diab: Founder/Owner of Egyptian newspaper, Al Masry Al Youm

Evelyne Accad: Professor Emerita, University of Illinois, novelist

Margot Badran: Historian of Women and Gender in Muslim societies, SeniorFellow at Woodrow Wilson Center

Miriam Cooke: Braxton Craven Professor of Arab Cultures at Duke University

Robin Morgan: feminist activist, author of Sisterhood is Global and Founder of the Sisterhood is Global Institute

Zillah Eisenstein: Emerita Professor of Politics at Ithaca College, anti-racist feminist scholar

Vijay Prashad: historian, journalist, commentator, Marxist intellectual; executive director of Tricontinental: Institute of Social Research

Robert J.C. Young: Julius Silver Professor of English and Comparative Literature at New York University

Omnia Amin: Professor of Literature, Zayed University, UAE

Adele Newson-Horst: Professor of English, Coordinator of Womens and Gender Studies, Morgan State University

The commemoration  concludes with a Sufi poem, “Spell” (by Bulleh Shah), sung in honor of Nawal (Fawzia)

Fawzia Afzal-Khan is University Distinguished Scholar at Montclair State University in NJ. Her latest book is Siren Song:Understanding Pakistan Though it’s Women Singers. She can be reached at:  fak0912@yahoo.com

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