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Sa῾dĀwĪ, NawĀl Al‐

By:
Fedwa Malti‐Douglas
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World What is This? Provides global coverage of the Muslim experience from the end of the eighteenth century through the twentieth century

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Sa῾dĀwĪ, NawĀl Al‐

(b. 1931), leading feminist of the Arab world. Al‐Sa῾dāwī evokes more passion and controversy than any other Arab writer, male or female, inside or outside of the Middle East. At various times, she has been subject to governmental harassment and arrest, or, conversely, the recipient of special protective measures. Her diverse career as a writer, feminist activist, and physician has brought her international fame as well as political adversity in her native country of Egypt.

Born in 1931 in the village of Kafr Ṭaḥlah in the Egyptian Delta, al‐Sa῾dāwī studied medicine in Cairo. As a physician she has practiced in the areas of public health, thoracic medicine, and psychiatry. In 1982, she founded the Arab Women's Solidarity Association (AWSA), with its official organ, Nūn, devoted to women's issues and feminist politics. She was appointed Egypt's minister of health in 1958, but was dismissed from that post in 1972 because of her frank writings on the sexuality of Arab women. In 1981, when the regime of President Anwar el‐Sadat imprisoned numerous intellectuals of different political persuasions, al‐Sa῾dāwī found herself sharing prison accommodations with both leftists and Islamists. More recently, her name has appeared on a death list drawn up by Islamic opposition groups. The assassination of the secularist Faraj Fawdah in 1992 sent shock waves through the Egyptian secular intellectual community and prompted government protection of intellectuals, al‐Sa῾dāwī among them. That same year, she lost a court case contesting the governmental closing of AWSA and the diversion of its funds to the Association of the Women of Islam. Nūn had been shut down a few months earlier, thus censoring an important source of feminist theory and criticism.

These political setbacks have not kept al‐Sa῾dāwī from indulging in her favorite activity: writing. The life of the pen has always had a greater attraction for the feminist physician than the life of the scalpel. Her extensive literary corpus covers a wide range of prose genres: novels, short stories, drama, travel and prison memoirs, and programmatic works. She wrote her first novel, Mudhakkirāt ṭiflah ismuhā Su῾ad (Memoirs of a Girl Called Su῾ād), at the age of thirteen. Her most recent novel, Al‐ḥubb fī zaman al‐nafṭ (Love in the Time of Oil, 1993), like all her writings, reflects her deep commitment to exposing gender inequality and the hardships endured by Arab women. Al‐Sa῾dāwī tackles difficult subjects with a frankness few Arab writers display, forcefully illuminating sexuality, gender roles, and male/female relations in Arab society in a straightforward, accessible prose. Much in her fiction revolves around the body, and powerful physical images permeate her writings.

Al‐Sa῾dāwī has gained an international readership and is perhaps the most visible of modern Arabic writers. The Hidden Face of Eve is a classic in the West. Her popularity in the West has meant that many of her works have been translated into several European languages, and her novels have received a number of international awards. Consequently, she has been accused by some of writing for a Western audience. But anyone familiar with al‐Sa῾dāwī's writings recognizes that they only make sense within an Arab‐Islamic cultural context. Her plots, her linguistic games, her literary allusions, her religious‐legal intertextual references are part and parcel of what makes Nawāl al‐Sa῾dāwī a powerful Arab—and Arabic—writer.

See also Feminism.

Bibliography

  • Malti‐Douglas, Fedwa. Woman's Body, Woman's Word: Gender and Discourse in Arabo‐Islamic Writing. Princeton, 1991. Discusses al‐Sa῾dāwī's fiction and sets it in the broader context of corporality and Arabo‐Islamic prose, classical and modern.
  • Malti‐Douglas, Fedwa. Men, Women, and God(s): Nawal El Sadawi Writes Arab Feminism. Berkeley, 1995. In‐depth analysis of al‐Sa῾dāwī's literary writings.
  • Sa῾dāwī, Nawāl al‐. The Hidden Face of Eve: Women in the Arab World. Translated by Sherif Hetata. London, 1980. Classic work on the status of women and Arab feminism; originally published in Arabic as Al‐Wajh al‐῾Ārī lil‐Mar'ah al‐῾Arabīyah.
  • Ṭarābīshī, Jurj. Woman against Her Sex: A Critique of Nawal el‐Saadawi. Translated by Basil Hatim and Elisabeth Orsini. London, 1988. Translation of a psychoanalytic work very critical of al‐Sa῾dāwī's positions, which appeared in Arabic under the title Unthā ḋidda al‐Unūthah. Al‐Sa῾dāwī appended a response to the English translation.
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