Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

The Exploitation of Women and Social Change in the Writing of Nawal El-Saadawi

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

The Exploitation of Women and Social Change in the Writing of Nawal El-Saadawi

Article excerpt


Nawal El-Saadawi, an Egyptian writer and physician, was born in rural Egypt on 1931. The consent of her mother to the violation her body (Khitan) in childhood and her personal experience as a girl, always inferior to her brother in her family, affected her personal development and her perception of Muslim tradition, Egyptian social conventions and the customs of Arab society at large. Saadawi writes about the discrimination in various planes: Discrimination of women, exploitation of the lower classes by the upper echelon, and religious control in the public--political arena. She is considered unique, since no writing of an Arab woman has taken on so many taboos.

As a revolutionary feminist writer, Saadawi is endowed with an indefatigable expression of power and a rare capacity to transmit and propagate her messages by means of varied literary pipelines: Novels, short stories, plays, travel books, memoirs, critical articles, medical articles, and theoretical and scientific essays.

She represents a new phenomenon in Arab women's literature, a highly educated professional woman who is also a brilliant writer, bringing the voice of the women's struggle for liberation to the Egyptian public. Her feminist agenda is a specific objective within a wider conception of comprehensive social liberty, exhibited in her view, expressed in many of her writings, that true liberation is impossible within a hierarchical, oppressive social system.

Saadawi fights against women's exploitation and gender discrimination everywhere, at home, in the family, in society, at the working place, and in the political arena, everywhere and at all times. In her view, a woman has the right to be an autonomous person both physically, emotionally, and economically. The man as the spouse, sharing her life with its joys and sorrows; can also be a colleague, a respected father, a beloved brother, or a cherished child. She can respect him, love him, and support him regardless of his apparent success or failure, his morality, or corruption. However, in her opinion, current social conventions and local tradition deny many women the development of these feelings, as well as the benefits of sharing and the comforts of support and understanding regardless of their skills, achievements, excellence, and successes. (2)

One can see Saadawi as an active social advocate thriving to convert the traditional patriarchal society into an open, non-oppressive, liberal society based on justice, freedom, and equality. She believes that women's oppression is the central factor for the backwardness of society in general and of women in particular. She openly promotes the idea that women need to rebel against traditionally derived values, and the social and political heritage oppressing them. She calls all women to fight for their rights, and actively pursue a change of the existing oppressive situation; women must seek and fight for self-realization and to join other social forces fighting to gain equality among all layers of society. (3)

Saadawi claims that one of the prominent faults of contemporary Arab society is the fact that it lacks scholastic, spiritual and political leadership that dares to question or criticize traditional values, especially values regarding women rights and status. Many people truly believe that their values came down from heaven, while in fact they are nothing but reflections of the feudal system and the conventions of the patriarchal society.

According to her views, the meekness often observed in behavior of Arab women, is not an inherited trait but rather an acquired behavioral pattern forced on them by society since early childhood. In many patriarchal societies, especially in rural areas, women are considered and treated as property, subjected to the needs, will and whims of the head of the household. They are not expected to develop their own gifts and skills, except for those appreciated by the master, the head of the family. …

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