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A Critical Assessment of El Saadawi’s Article “Woman and Islam”

Il Cairo, proteste del movimento femminile

Il Cairo, proteste del movimento femminile

di Ahmed Maoual [*] 

The onset of Arab feminism

A term equivalent to “feminism” in the Arab world dates back to 1909. It was when the Egyptian Malak Hifni Nasif, whose pseudonym was Bahitat al-Badiya (countryside researcher), published a series of articles advocating the improvement of women’s living conditions, entitled al-Nisaiyat [1]. The Arabic word nisai designates everything related to women.

According to Margot Badran, Arab feminism dates back to the 19th century, and it is divided into ‘visible’ and ‘invisible’. The latter is implicitly present in the ambient discourse in a way or another revealing awareness of women -as a social group- about their unfavorable living conditions that must be changed.

Arab feminism has gone through three phases: an early feminism, mainly based on Islam, between 1860 and 1920, a feminism rooted in nationalism which manifested itself in the development of public women’s movements between 1920 and 1969, and from 1970 to the present, a resurgence of both feminism and Islamic fundamentalism [2].

The 1860’s -1920’s witnessed the evolution of invisible feminism in the Arab world, in general, and Egypt, in particular. It first appeared among women from the bourgeois and aristocratic classes disseminating their poems and literary works in harems.  In this socio-historical context, such meetings enable women to not only socialize outside their family circle, but also exchange, discuss and praise other women’s writings.  Such acts are considered implicit feminism, which, in turn, is a sense of transgression of boundaries and taboos.

Later on, these women founded women’s clubs, newspapers and literary salons. Being aware of the subordination of women as a group, they fought through their writings for their peers to have a minimum of rights. By way of illustration, the Lebanese Zainab Fawwaz (1860-1914) triggered the right for education in Al-Rasail al-Zainabiyya (Zainab’s letters). Furthermore, the memoirs of the Egyptian Huda Shaarawi, considered the first Arab feminist, reveal that the debates in the lounges of the harems of Cairo, in 1890, already raised the questions of the veil, seclusion and segregation of the sexes. These women attributed such practices to simple traditional customs, according to their reading of sacred texts and their understanding of Islam as a religion of justice and equity. In this sense, these women contributed to the national debate of nahda (cultural renaissance) where many male reformists, like Rifaa Rafi el-Tahtawi (1801-1871) and Shaikh Mohammad Abdou (1849-1905), considered women’s right to education as one of the pillars of Arab cultural regeneration.

Explicit feminism was first identified with the memorable unveiling of two women In Cairo in 1923. In a train station, a crowd of women draped in long black veils applauded the unveiling of Huda Shaarawi (1879-1947) and Saiza Nabarawi (1897-1985) upon their return from an international feminist meeting held in Rome. This was a turning point in the Arab feminist movement as it marked the end of the long history of harem. The change started in Egypt (covering middle and upper class, too) before it reached Middle East in the 1930s, Sudan and the Maghreb between 1950 and 1960, and, finally, in the Arabian Peninsula (with the exception of Saudi Arabia) between 1970 and 1980.

Thus, Arab feminism entered its second phase between 1920 and 1969. It was manifested as an explicit discourse and an organized public movement. During this period, Arab feminism was moving away from the religious framework of invisible feminism, by being part of a discourse on rights, citizenship and nationalism. Meanwhile, the gathering of women moved from literary and philanthropic societies to nationalist and feminist organizations. Recent feminist analysis have made it possible to trace the contribution of women to anticolonial struggles, which has long been ignored by classic historiographical approaches.

In addition to this nationalist commitment, women were becoming increasingly organized and articulate in their feminist movement. Thus, in 1944, the Arab Feminist Conference, which brought together delegates from Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and Transjordan in Cairo, inaugurated the ideology of pan-Arab feminism by producing , among other things, fifty-one resolutions with a view to achieving gender equality, including the feminization of language, within pan-Arab unity. Shortly after, in 1945, the Arab Feminist Union was created.

However, if Arab feminism aspired to consolidate pan-Arab feminist consciousness, it also linked the fight of Arab women to the universal fight of women. Huda Shaarawi, for example, actively participated in numerous international feminist conferences. Furthermore, as president of the Egyptian delegation to the International Feminist Congress in Rome in 1923, she did not hesitate to ask Mussolini to grant the right to vote to Italian women, during her meeting with him at the end of the Congress. Similarly, as Roland Burke’s research shows [3]. One of the most powerful feminist voices at the United Nations, during the development of universal rights, was that of the Iraqi delegate, Bedia Afnan. Indeed, it is thanks to her that Article 3 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights requires that member states ensure equal rights between women and men. As a result, Arab women reached a number of rights, such as the right to education and the right to work.

From 1970, Arab feminism entered its third phase, characterized both by the deepening of feminism in certain countries such as Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, and the appearance for the first time of a feminist wave in other countries like Yemen. During this period, women fought to have more rights, either through their individual writings or through collective activities, like the Moroccan Fatima Mernissi and the Democratic League of Moroccan Women.

Nevertheless, the emergence of Islamic fundamentalism, which makes the veil and seclusion of women a divine duty, makes the fight of Arab women more complex: not only must they tackle universal feminist issues, such as inequality of rights between the sexes, but also face the delegitimization of Arab feminism under the pretext that it is a Western phenomenon that threatens religion. It is this kind of delegitimization that makes historical research in this area valuable by showing that Arab feminism is indeed a response to the conditions of subordination of women in the social environment. Several eminent women fought for this cause and have become an emblem for Arab feminism, such as Nawal El Saadawi, the focus of this paper. 

photo-2023-10-11-19-56-49Nawal El Saadawi: Biography

Nawal El saadawi (1931- 2021) was an Egyptian feminist writer, activist and a medical doctor. She mainly wrote about Women in Islam. Being a physician and psychiatrist, she excessively wrote about female genital mutilation in Egypt. And as an activist, she (co)founded Arab Women’s Solidarity Association and the Arab Association for Human Rights through which she fought for her cause and made her voice heard. Her opinions were controversial and triggered heated debate in the Arab world. She won several prizes, namely the North -South Prize (2004), the Inana International Prize (2005) and the Seàn MacBride Peace Prize (2012).

Being inspired by her career as a physician, she wrote her first novel Memoirs of a Woman Doctor in 1958. She wrote many novels, short stories and memoirs like Memoir from the Women’s Prison in 1986. Among her controversial non-fiction writings are Women and Sex,   God Dies by the Nile, the fall of the Imam, Woman at Point Zero [4], and The Hidden Face of Eve. Her publications were translated into many languages, among which French and English.   

El Saadawi and Feminsm

It is a common place belief that women in the Arab world are treated more inhumanely than in any other culture. In fact, most western thinkers attribute their condition of powerlessness and submission to the Islamic rules they are subjected to. Nawal El Saadawi, who opposes this point of view, claims, in her article “Woman and Islam”, that Islam is not responsible. To support her arguments, the author not only relies on the contribution of women to social life throughout the history of Arabs, but also shows how they enjoyed freedom and emancipation during the period of the prophet Mohamed.

Freederick Arthur Bridgman, Donne alla fontana

Freederick Arthur Bridgman, Donne alla fontana

Historical arguments

From the historical perspective, El Saadawi’s article is skillfully arranged. She begins by presenting the position of women in the pre-Islamic and then the Islamic eras. She shows that in the pre-Islamic period, also called Al Jahiliya [5], feminity was highly praised to the extent that the majority of peoples worshipped goddesses. Indeed, I would add that an overview of the ancient civilizations reveals the extent to which goddesses received a special importance and significance. By way of illustration, in the Mesopotamian civilization, the Babylonian goddess Ishtar is the oldest and most famous deity of love and war. Also, in ancient Egypt, the mighty goddess Isis was known as the mother of gods as she was believed to protect Pharaoh during and after life. For the Ancient Greeks, Aphrodite (known as Venus for the Romans) was the symbol of beauty, love and fertility.

Concerning the Arab civilization during the pre-islamic era, the most worshipped gods in Mecca were female divinities, namely: Al-Lat, Uzza, and Manat, as mentioned in the Qur’an

«Now, have you considered the idols of Lat and Uzza, and the third one, Manat, as well? Do you prefer to have sons while you attribute to Him daughter? Then, this is truly a biased distribution!» [6].  

In general, El Saadawi argues that all goddesses worshipped in ancient cultures before Islam were the symbol of fertility and fecundity; nevertheless, they did nothing to prevent the infanticides that were prevalent at that time. A paradoxical case in point is the burial of women alive because they symbolized shame and dishonor.

El Saadawi forgets to mention that if a few women used to be treated on equal footing with men in the pre-Islam period, a great number of them were buried alive in the desert as babies for fear of dishonor and shame. To be more specific, there were few and independent women who were either wives or daughters of nobles, kings, and sultans.

Moving forward to the Islamic period, El Saadawi shows how women were set free and made independent with the arrival of Islam. By way of illustration, she gives the example of the prophet’s wives who played a great role in Islamic society, a role that culminated in advising the messenger of God, and rebuking men including caliphs of Islam as the case of Um Salma [7]. Yet, here again, El Saadawi does not provide us with a discussion of other Muslim women of the Islamic era besides the prophet’s wives, who played crucial roles in Islamic society. However, one cannot disagree with her when she asserts: «the prophet Muhammed was more emancipated with respect to women than men of his time, even most Muslim men nowadays»[8].

In fact, as reported by Abu Hurayra, the Prophet Mohammed said: «The most perfect man in his faith among the believers is the one whose behavior is most excellent; and the best of you are those who are the best to their wives» [9].

El Saadawi admits that the Prophet’s wives were the best example of women’s crucial contribution to the building of Islamic society. She supports her claim by referring to the role of the prophet’s wife Aicha in the following passage:

«Another very prominent woman was Aicha, the youngest wife of the prophet. Despite her young age, Aicha was a living example of how women stood firm on many issues in these days. She was well known for her strong will, versatile and incisive logic, and eloquence. She wielded a powerful intelligence which sometimes was even a match for the inspired and gifted prophet of Allah» [10]. 
Frontespizio Le Mille e una notte

Frontespizio Le Mille e una notte

In fact, Aicha was not the only woman who played such a crucial role in Islamic society at the rise of Islam. Khadija, the first wife of the prophet, had an important status, too, through trade and commercial activity.

El Saadawi argues that Islam declined immediately after the death of the prophet. This took place precisely during the reign of the Abassides, when the social position of women declined,  becoming as delicate as it used to be in the pre-Islamic era. The situation in that period is perfectly epitomized in the book of tales, A thousand and One Night. These tales of Indian origin were first translated into Persian to reach the occident thanks to the Arabic version. The story revolves around a character named Shahrayar, a sultan who rules his kingdom in India. In this book, the ruthlessness of men towards women is embodied in the Sultan’s killing of his female slaves ‘jawari’ after a one-night stand relation with them.

In a nutshell, El Saadawi succeeds in depicting the historical change in women status in the Arab Muslim world. In the Pre-Islamic era, women were considered a source of indignity and humiliation. At the rise of Islam, women were well treated providing evidence from the Prophet’s behavior towards his wives by involving them in social matters. After the Prophet’s death, the women’s role declined dramatically and were reduced to the state of slaves, singers and dancers.

Theological arguments

From a theological point of view, El Saadawi fails to provide substantial arguments to support her claim that both Christianity and Islam inherited the myth which made Eve the origin of all sin [11]. She argues that the Holy books (the Bible and Qur’an) representing Christianity and Islam are contradictory as far as this issue is concerned.

 To begin with, while the book of Genesis says: 

«When the woman saw that the first of the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her» [12]. 

According to the Bible, Eve is to blame for the fall. She was the first to be tempted by the serpent to eat from the tree of knowledge. She, then, enticed Adam to eat from it. This entails that Eve is the primary responsible for the so-called original sin.

On the other hand, Islam considers that people are born in a state of spiritual purity, but worldly pleasures drive them corrupt. In other words, sins are not inherent and, for that matter, Adam and Eve will not be punished for their sin, for God has forgiven them. This implies that all humans will be judged according to their deeds, for «man can have nothing but what he strives for» [13], and «who receives guidance, receives it for his own benefit: who goes astray does so to his own loss: no bearer of burdens can bear the burden of another» [14].

Furthermore, in the Qur’an, there is no mention of the serpent in the first place. God addresses Adam and Eve in dual form [Arabic language distinguishes between singular, dual and plural forms in both verbal and nominal inflections]. Consider the following verse

«So by deceit he [satan] brought about their fall: when  they tasted of the tree, their shame became manifest to them, and they began to sew together the leaves of the garden over their bodies, and their lord called unto them:  “did I not forbid you that tree and tell you that satan was an avowed enemy unto you?» [15]. 

Here, it could be construed that both Adam and Eve are described on equal footing as far as disobedience to God is concerned.

photo-2023-10-14-02-21-13The status of Arab women in rural areas

Ultimately, El Saadawi raises some of the problems that Arab Muslim women suffer from. She shows that the problems of Arab women are mainly economic, and that there is little difference between the urban woman and the rural one as far as patriarchy and men’s oppression are concerned. In spite of this, she believes that the most exploited women are the peasants, especially those who belong to the countries referred to as third world.  The immediate example that comes to mind is her heroine Firdaus in Woman at Point zero [16]. The novel illustrates the social status of women in the Middle East, where they are exploited and subordinated to male supremacy in the same way as they were in the Arab dark ages of AlJahiliya.

El Saadawi raises a further serious issue women endure in some Arab countries: women’s circumcision. In almost all her novels, she emphasizes this issue that represents the apogee of women’s enslavement by society.

The phenomenon of controlling and reducing sexual pleasure by amputating women’s genitals is common in several native cultures around the globe. Yet, El Saadawi discusses and criticizes it since many Egyptian women from the rural areas are subject to this violent practice. To raise awareness about this issue, she makes some of the heroines in her novels victims of such a physical mutilation.


I think that El Saadawi’s article, despite some deficiencies as far as illustration and examples are concerned, is very objective. The author solely attempts to clarify the position of the Arab Muslim women throughout pre-Islamic and the Islamic history. Her aim is to demonstrate how Islam disowns any responsibility for the sufferings that Muslim women are subject to in Arab societies nowadays. Furthermore, she expresses her objective and bias-free ideas in a simple style and a clear polished language, which ensures a smooth transmission of her opinion and avoidance of ambiguity or misunderstanding. 

Dialoghi Mediterranei, n. 64, novembre 2023 
[*] Abstract
Lo status inferiore delle donne nel mondo arabo contemporaneo ha attirato sempre più l’interesse delle femministe a partire dalla seconda metà del secolo scorso. Nawal El Saadawi è tra le prime scrittrici e attiviste arabe che hanno lottato per migliorare le condizioni allarmanti delle donne arabe e per valutare la loro attuale situazione. Il presente scritto è organizzato in tre sezioni principali. Si traccia in principio uno schema generale della storia del femminismo nel mondo arabo, prima di far luce su Nawal El Saadawi come una delle pioniere del femminismo arabo. Successivamente  si discutono le sue argomentazioni dal punto di vista storico, religioso e, infine, sociale. 
[1] Margot Badran and Miriam Cooke (dir.), Opening the Gates, a Century of Arab Feminist Writing, London, Virago Press, 1990: xviii.
[2] Nawar Al-Hassan Golley, Reading Arab Women’s Autobiographies, Shahrazad Tells Her Story, Austin, University of Texas Press, 2003: 27-34.
[3] Roland Burke, «Why Women’s Rights Aren’t Just Western. The Forgotten History of Iraqi Feminism», The Diplomat, vol. 4 no 5, december/january 2005-2006: 46-47.
[4] Nawal El Saadawi, Woman at point zero, London: Zed books, 1983.
[5] The word Al Jahiliya is derived from the noun jahl, which means ignorance. So, this period is referred as such because it includes all the beliefs, the deeds and traditions before the arrival of Islam.
[6] The Holy Qur’an, 53. 19-22
[7] Nawal El Saadawi, «Woman and Islam , Women’s studies International Forum, Vol 5, 1982:197
[8] ivi:196
[9] Hadit reported by Al-Tirmidi.
[10] Nawal El Saadawi, “Woman and Islam”, Women’s studies International Forum, vol 5, 1982:196
[11] ivi: 193
[12] Holy Bible: Genesis 3:6
[13] Holy Qur’an, 53.39
[14] Holy Qur’an, 17.17
[15] HolyQur’an 7.22. The same version can be found in Holy Qur’an 2.35
[16] Nawal El Saadawi, Woman at point zero, op.cit 


Ahmed Maoual professor of Italian language and literature at the department of Italian studies at the University of Hassan II of Casablanca (Morocco).  He also taught at the Master programme in Translation and Culture at the University of Mohamed V in Rabat. He is specialized in comparative literature (Italian, Arabic and English). He graduated with a BA in English Literature before he pursued his postgraduate studies at Bologna University, where he obtained a Master and Doctorate degrees in Italian Literature.  His research interest focuses on the influence of Arabic literature on Italian literary writings.



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