Nawal El Saadawi Essay - Critical Essays

Saadawi, Nawal El


Nawal El Saadawi 1931-

(Name also transliterated as Nawal al'Sadaawi, al-Nawal Sa'adawi, and al-Nawal Sa'dawi) Egyptian novelist, essayist, short-story and novella writer, nonfiction writer, memoirist, and playwright.

The following entry provides an overview of El Saadawi's career through 2003.

El Saadawi is hailed as one of the preeminent voices in Middle Eastern feminist literature and women's rights activism. In her writings she exposes the subservient role that women are expected to play in a patriarchal society and details the tortures, mutilations, and spirit-breaking rules and regulations that contribute to the oppression of women. El Saadawi attacks fundamentalist religious groups of all types, pointing out that these extreme groups are based on a distrust of women and blame women for the sins of mankind. In her works El Saadawi advocates for the separation of church and state, the termination of the practice of female circumcision, and the recognition of women's rights to control their own bodies and destinies.

Biographical Information

El Saadawi was born on October 27, 1931, north of Cairo, Egypt, to El Sayed, a local education director, and Zeinab, a homemaker. Although her family held progressive views and El Saadawi and her sisters were educated, she was forced to undergo a traditional clitoridectomy when she was six years old, a memory recounted in El wajh el ary lilma'ra el arabeya (1977; The Hidden Face of Eve. After secondary school she enrolled in the University of Cairo, where she was one of only a handful of female students seeking a degree as a medical doctor. She specialized in psychiatry and received her degree in 1955. That year she married a fellow physician, Ahmed Helmy, and had a daughter, but the marriage ended in divorce in 1956. In 1958 she began working for Egypt's Ministry of Health in Cairo and was eventually named the department's Director of Health Education, but after the publication of her nonfiction book El ma'ra wal ginse (1971; Women and Sex), she was summarily fired from her position. El Saadawi's writings became censored, and she was forced to publish from Lebanon. In 1978 the United Nations offered her a position in Ethiopia as director of its African Training and Research Center for Women, but in 1980 she resigned and returned to her homeland to concentrate on her writing career. In 1981 Anwar Sadat, the President of Egypt, rounded up political dissidents, both male and female, and imprisoned them for their beliefs. El Saadawi was one of the women held at Qanatir Women's Prison. Her incarceration was the basis for her memoir, Mozakerati fi signel nissa (1983; Memoirs from the Women's Prison). Her contact with a prisoner at Qanatir served as inspiration for an earlier work, a novel titled Emra'a enda noktat el sifr (1975; A Woman at Point Zero). Due to political persecution and threats on her life, El Saadawi left Egypt in 1993 and accepted a post at Duke University. Since that time she has held positions at many prestigious colleges and universities worldwide, including Duke, Cairo University, Harvard, Yale, Columbia, the Sorbonne, Georgetown, Florida State University, and the University of California, Berkeley. El Saadawi has since returned to Cairo, where she lives with her third husband, Sherif Hetata, a physician and the translator of many of her works. In 2001 a fundamentalist Islamic group sued to annul Hetata and El Saadawi's marriage on the grounds that her heresy was causing harm to his soul. The case was eventually dismissed, but it illustrates the continued antagonism toward El Saadawi and her writings.

Major Works

Although Women and Sex created a huge controversy in Egypt for its frank discussion of the sexuality of women, El Saadawi was unknown to most Western audiences until 1980, when The Hidden Face of Eve was translated into English. The essays in this collection describe female genital mutilation, chronicle the rules and regulations governing the lives of women, and tell of the difficulties and shame associated with being a woman in a repressive patriarchal society. These themes are repeated throughout El Saadawi's writings. In Emra'atan fi emra'ah (1968; Two Women in One), Bahiah, the protagonist, goes to attend university and begins to make choices for herself concerning love and her future. Her father is unhappy with her stance that she is free to make these decisions, so he sells her into marriage. She flees and is eventually imprisoned. El Saadawi's own imprisonment in 1981 is the basis for her autobiographical Memoirs from the Women's Prison. A Woman at Point Zero was inspired by meetings El Saadawi had with a female prisoner at Qanatir, a prostitute named Firdaus, in 1974. El Saadawi creates a story around Firdaus, who seeks to gain financial independence through prostitution. After she is labeled as dishonored, she decides to turn to a more traditional career. Although she rises quickly to the top echelon of female workers in her field, the realization that she has not regained respectability and that she is still selling her body—albeit in a different way—prompts complete disillusionment with society and causes her to return to her former life as a prostitute. The exploitation and subjugation of women is the focal point of Mawt el rajoh el waheed ala el ard (1976; God Dies by the Nile) and Ughniyat al-atfal al-da'iriyah (1978; The Circling Song). God Dies by the Nile centers on two sisters who are molested at a young age by the local magistrate. When the official finds that one of the sisters is pregnant, he murders an innocent man from the village and frames the girls' father for the murder. The Circling Song also portrays two siblings—this time Hamida and her twin brother, Hamido. Hamida is repeatedly molested by neighbors and extended family members. When she is found to be pregnant, her mother sends her away in secret, to protect her from repercussions that will surely follow. Her brother is sent by the men in the family to find her and kill her to regain the family honor. Her innocence and the fact that the pregnancy is the result of rape are not issues the men feel are worth contemplating; in their minds her condition is the result of the inferior morality of women. El gha'aeb (1965; Searching) focuses on a woman striving for love and self-actualization. Fouada is a high-level government employee whose personal quest is to make a positive impact in the world around her. She begins a romance, meeting her new man each week at a local restaurant. When he ceases to show up for dates and is unreachable by telephone, she grows despondent. She begins to feel that she has deluded herself and believes that she will never be able to make a significant mark in her career because women are not taken seriously in her professional world. The limitations of women's roles in a repressive society are further explored in Suqut al-Imam (1987; The Fall of the Imam) and Ganat wa iblis (1992; The Innocence of the Devil). The Innocence of the Devil has been viewed as a modern fable that draws heavily on allegory and magical realism to tell the story of Ganat, a woman who is institutionalized. The novel examines the dangers of religious fanaticism and asserts that women are often the most susceptible to abuse and suffering when religious laws become more stringent. Many of El Saadawi's recurring themes are brought together in The Fall of the Imam: abuse of power by male officials, rape, exploitation, and the unjust punishment of women for crimes committed by men. The story follows Bint Allah, a woman born out of wedlock whose father is the religious leader of the community. Throughout the novel he continually strives to have her killed and discredits her existence as a sin against God, refusing to acknowledge his paternity. El Saadawi has also written two autobiographies. A Daughter of Isis (1999) covers El Saadawi's childhood and describes her activist role in Egyptian feminism; Walking through Fire (2002) continues to outline her political battles to change the role of women in Middle Eastern society.

Critical Reception

Although El Saadawi enjoys predominantly favorable critical attention among Western reviewers, a handful of Middle Eastern and Islamic commentators contend that instead of simply exposing injustices, her negative depiction of religious laws, Middle Eastern culture, and Islamic men actually reinforces Western stereotypes. Some critics maintain that because El Saadawi consciously writes for Western audiences, her works accomplish little more than raising indignation and a political backlash that further represses the marginalized women whose condition she wishes to expose. Both Western and Eastern commentators applaud El Saadawi for attempting to expose the mistreatment of Middle Eastern women, but they differ in their assessment of the effectiveness of El Saadawi's writings and politically-charged activism in bringing about change. Feminists applaud El Saadawi's courage in writing texts that are considered revolutionary and politically subversive.

Principal Works

Mozakerat tabiba (novel) 1958; published as Memoirs of a Woman Doctor, 1988

Talamt el houb (short stories) 1958

Hanam kalil (short stories) 1959

Lahzat sidk (short stories) 1962

El gha'aeb (novel) 1965; published as Searching, 1989

Emra'atan fi emra'ah (novella) 1968; published as Two Women in One, 1986

El ma'ra wal ginse [Women and Sex,] (nonfiction) 1971

El khait wa ain' el hayat (short stories) 1972; published as She Has No Place in Paradise, 1987

Emra'a enda noktat el sifr (novel) 1975; published as A Woman at Point Zero, 1983

al-Mar'ah wa-al-sira al-nafsi (nonfiction) 1976

Mawt el rajoh el waheed ala el ard (novel) 1976; published as God Dies by the Nile, 1985

El ensan (play) 1977

El wajh el ary lilma'ra el arabeya (nonfiction) 1977; published as The Hidden Face of Eve: Women in the Arab World, 1980

Ughniyat al-atfal al-da'iriyah (novel) 1978; published as The Circling Song, 1989

Mowt ma'ali el wazin (short stories) 1979; published as Death of an Ex-Minister, 1987

Mozakerati fi signel nissa (memoirs) 1983; published as Memoirs from the Women's Prison, 1986

Isis (play) 1986

Rihlati hawla al-alam (memoirs) 1986; published as My Travels around the World, 1992

Suqut al-Imam (novel) 1987; published as The Fall of the Imam, 1988

Ganat wa iblis (novel) 1992; published as The Innocence of the Devil, 1994

The Nawal El Saadawi Reader (collected essays) 1997

A Daughter of Isis: The Autobiography of Nawal El Saadawi (autobiography) 1999

Walking through Fire: A Life of Nawal El Saadawi (memoirs) 2002


Miriam Cooke (review date spring 1986)

SOURCE: Cooke, Miriam. Review of Two Women in One, by Nawal El Saadawi. World Literature Today 60, no. 2 (spring 1986): 356-57.

[In the following review, Cooke examines the oppression faced by Bahiah, the protagonist of Two Women in One.]

The theme of Nawal el-Saadawi's at once powerful and programmatically feminist novel/text [Two Women in One] is contained in its dedication to young people, and particularly to young women. They must resist like roses, whose tender petals become “sharp protruding thorns [so that] they can survive among hungry bees.”

The reader meets Bahiah Shaheen as she is beginning to realize that her body, and...

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Sara Terry (review date 5 September 1986)

SOURCE: Terry, Sara. “Journey into the Heart of a Radical Arab Woman.” Christian Science Monitor (5 September 1986): B5.

[In the following review of Two Women in One, Terry expresses doubt concerning the liberating aspects of Bahiah's sexual awakening, but believes that the novella offers an insightful look into the life of a young Arab woman.]

The fifth and most recent volume in the Seal Press series “Women in Translation” (which includes already-published volumes of work by Danish and Norwegian female authors) comes from Nawal el-Saadawi, an Egyptian feminist, political activist, and author whose previous works include The Hidden Face of Eve, a...

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Miriam Cooke (review date winter 1990)

SOURCE: Cooke, Miriam. Review of The Circling Song, by Nawal El Saadawi. World Literature Today 64, no. 1 (winter 1990): 187.

[In the following review of The Circling Song, Cooke notes El Saadawi's examination of gender roles and the oppressive power of men in the book.]

Nawal El Saadawi wrote the original Arabic version of The Circling Song in 1973, published it two years later in Beirut (she was on the Egyptian government's blacklist at the time), and has now had it translated anonymously and published in the United Kingdom and the United States. From the dedication to the closing section, which is a two-page verbatim repetition of the opening,...

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Louis Werner (essay date 25 June 1990)

SOURCE: Werner, Louis. “Arab Feminist Pens Powerful Prose.” Christian Science Monitor 82, no. 146 (25 June 1990): 14.

[In the following essay, Werner evaluates El Saadawi's She Has No Place in Paradise, The Fall of the Imam, and Death of an Ex-Minister, asserting that integral to these works is a recurring theme of power abuse and oppression, especially in male/female relationships.]

The Egyptian writer Nawal El Saadawi is a remarkable and courageous woman. Successfully balancing vocations in literature, social criticism, and medicine, she has broken a path that most of her countrywomen can only hope one day to follow.

And for taking...

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Lucasta Miller (review date 19 July 1991)

SOURCE: Miller, Lucasta. “Without Doubt.” New Statesman and Society 4, no. 160 (19 July 1991): 36.

[In the following review, Miller discusses El Saadawi's travelogue My Travels around the World, which she contends is a mixture of travel writing and autobiography designed to fight oppression.]

Doctor, writer, UN representative, and, for a time, political prisoner, Nawal el Saadawi has been a rebel with a cause since childhood. From the moment she stamped her foot and rejected a frilly white dress for a toy aeroplane, she was determined to escape the limited role assigned to the daughter of a traditional Egyptian family. Her new book [My Travels around the...

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Kenneth Payne (essay date winter 1992)

SOURCE: Payne, Kenneth. “A Woman at Point Zero: Nawal El Saadawi's Feminist Picaresque.” Southern Humanities Review 26, no. 1 (winter 1992): 11-18.

[In the following essay, Payne investigates the rogue aspects of Firdaus's actions in A Woman at Point Zero and establishes that her behavior is not merely an act of rebellion but an effect of her dissatisfaction with an oppressive society.]

Nawal el Saadawi's A Woman at Point Zero was conceived in the autumn of 1974 at Qanatir Women's Prison, where the author began a series of meetings with a female prisoner who was awaiting execution for having murdered a man. The prisoner was Firdaus, and A...

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Nawal El Saadawi and Angela Johnson (interview date March 1992)

SOURCE: El Saadawi, Nawal, and Angela Johnson. “Speaking at Point Zero: [off our backs] Talks with Nawal El Saadawi.” off our backs 22, no. 3 (March 1992): 1, 6-7.

[In the following interview, El Saadawi shares her views on the political aspects of female liberation, discusses women's political oppression in Egypt, and outlines the impetus behind her writings.]

At the recent National Organization for Women (NOW) 25th Anniversary Conference [off our backs] collective member Angela Johnson interviewed Egyptian writer and activist Nawal El-Saadawi.

[Johnson]: What did you think of the conference?


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Evelyne Accad (review date spring 1992)

SOURCE: Accad, Evelyne. Review of Searching, by Nawal El Saadawi. World Literature Today 66, no. 2 (spring 1992): 396.

[In the following review, Accad presents an enthusiastically positive assessment of Searching, stating that in this novel, El Saadawi explores women's self-actualization and independence in a repressive, male-dominated atmosphere.]

The well-known Egyptian novelist, physician, and psychiatrist Nawal El Saadawi, whose many achievements were made in spite of the bias she encountered within her society and who has already amazed us with her courage and her relentless struggle against the harmful stereotypes of women in the Arab world, has...

(The entire section is 676 words.)

Nawal El Saadawi and George Lerner (interview date April 1992)

SOURCE: El Saadawi, Nawal, and George Lerner. “Nawal El Saadawi: ‘To Us, Women's Liberation Is the Unveiling of the Mind’.” Progressive 56, no. 4 (April 1992): 32-5.

[In the following interview, El Saadawi expresses her opinion on the strides toward equality that women have made in the Middle East, discusses the political climate in Egypt, and excoriates American interference in Middle Eastern politics, finding that American involvement adds to increased fundamentalism and therefore more oppression of women.]

Nawal el-Saadawi, the author of more than two dozen books, is a champion of the women's liberation movement in Egypt. A physician by training, El-Saadawi,...

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Ramzi M. Salti (review date spring 1993)

SOURCE: Salti, Ramzi M. Review of Ganat wa iblis (The Innocence of the Devil), by Nawal El Saadawi. World Literature Today 67, no. 2 (spring 1993): 437-38.

[In the following review, Salti examines the ways El Saadawi reconfigures oppressive religious ideologies in The Innocence of the Devil.]

Nawal El Saadawi's latest novel, Jannât wa-Iblîs [The Innocence of the Devil], differs from her previous works in that it emphasizes a subject matter that had thus far been circumvented in her novels. For the first time in her thirty-four years of literary production, the author of such relatively “secular” works as Al-ghâ'ib (1976; Eng....

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M. D. Allen (review date summer 1995)

SOURCE: Allen, M. D. Review of The Innocence of the Devil, by Nawal El Saadawi. World Literature Today 69, no. 3 (summer 1995): 637-38.

[In the following review, Allen finds The Innocence of the Devil fraught with omens and negative imagery in which the text becomes mired.]

“I knew,” reflects Firdaus in Woman at Point Zero, the best known of Nawal El Saadawi's novels, “that men were in control of both our worlds, the one on earth and the one in heaven.” The Innocence of the Devil makes the same point, going on to claim that male control of women in this world is facilitated by a patriarchal theology that subordinates them sub...

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Nawal El Saadawi and Pat Lancaster (interview date December 1997)

SOURCE: El Saadawi, Nawal, and Pat Lancaster. “Unveiling the Mind.” Middle East, no. 273 (December 1997): 40-41.

[In the following interview, El Saadawi relates her opinion on politics and the controlling elements of fundamentalist religious movements.]

On the morning of the day I was to interview Nawal El Saadawi I heard her speaking in a discussion programme on BBC Radio 4. There was growing international concern about Saddam Hussein's decision to bar Americans from all UN weapons inspections. The possible ramifications of his decision were high on the agenda of the discussion panel, which also included former British foreign secretary Douglas Hurd, who held...

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Nicki Hitchcott (review date December 2000)

SOURCE: Hitchcott, Nicki. Review of A Daughter of Isis, by Nawal El Saadawi. Journal of Modern African Studies 38, no. 4 (December 2000): 722-23.

[In the following review, Hitchcott compliments the wealth of information about El Saadawi's life and family contained in A Daughter of Isis.]

In her fictional writings, Nawal El Saadawi emphasises the need for women to become the subjects of their own stories, to speak in their own words and thus to create their own meanings out of their lives. Now, in her autobiography [A Daughter of Isis], Saadawi begins to construct herself as subject of her own fascinating story. Recognised throughout the world as an Arab...

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Nabila Jaber (review date winter 2001)

SOURCE: Jaber, Nabila. Review of A Daughter of Isis, by Nawal El Saadawi. Arab Studies Quarterly 23, no. 1 (winter 2001): 81-4.

[In the following review, Jaber recommends A Daughter of Isis to readers, stating that the autobiography is expertly written and thought-provoking on issues of gender relations and racism.]

Seeking a temporary respite from death threats back home and agonizing over living a status of exile in North Carolina, the author takes up the project of writing her autobiography as a way to make sense of her existence. Now over 60 years old Saadawi engages in the process of self-reflection while consciously challenges her representation of...

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Earl G. Ingersoll (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Ingersoll, Earl G. “Nawal El Saadawi's The Fall of the Imam and the Possibility of a Feminine Writing.” International Fiction Review 28, nos. 1-2 (2001): 23-31.

[In the following essay, Ingersoll probes the style of The Fall of the Imam and maintains that through the use of fantasy, multiple points of view, and non-linear plot techniques, El Saadawi focuses on patriarchal societies and religions while controverting the masculine narrative structures used in most novels and replacing the form with a more feminine discourse.]

The writing of Nawal El Saadawi1 reminds readers that not all “democracies” of what we used to be...

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Marilyn Booth (review date January 2003)

SOURCE: Booth, Marilyn. “Dramatic Monologue.” Women's Review of Books 20, no. 4 (January 2003): 11-12.

[In the following review of Walking through Fire, Booth acknowledges the pivotal role that El Saadawi played in Middle Eastern feminism, but wishes that the author would have elaborated on other feminists in the regime and explained the impact of the various organizations she has founded or worked with.]

In 1956, baby daughter in her arms, Nawal El Saadawi traveled from Cairo to her father's village, Kafr Tahla in the Nile Delta. Newly graduated from Cairo University Medical School, she welcomed a change of air and took a post running the government-built...

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Ilona Lo Iacono (review date February/March 2003)

SOURCE: Lo Iacono, Ilona. “Ilona Lo Iacono on a Portrait of the Writer as a Young Woman.” Arena Magazine 63 (February/March 2003): 54-5.

[In the following review, Lo Iacono provides an overview of Walking through Fire and highlights El Saadawi's religious and gender-specific political views.]

This second volume of Egyptian feminist and writer Nawal El Saadawi's autobiography begins in North Carolina in 1993 and moves backwards in time and place, examining the events which led her to leave her home country in fear of her life in 1992. Known for her novels, short stories and writings on women, El Saadawi has a reputation as a passionate activist whose writing...

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Further Reading


Amireh, Amal. “Framing Nawal El Saadawi: Arab Feminism in a Transnational World.” Signs 26, no. 1 (autumn 2000): 215-49.

Analyzes the differences between the aims of El Saadawi's writing and Western interpretation of her works, asserting that Western opinions of Arabs are clouded by stereotypes and unfamiliarity.

Darraj, Susan Mauddi. “‘We All Want the Same Things Basically’: Feminism in Arab Women's Literature.” Women and Language 26, no. 1 (spring 2003): 79-82.

Examines women's issues within a global context, detailing the different agendas and definitions of feminism among various Middle...

(The entire section is 402 words.)