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An ode to the legacy of Nawal el-Saadawi

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“I have triumphed over both life and death, for I no longer want to live and I no longer fear death.”

These were the final words posted on social media by Nawal el-Saadawi who passed away on Sunday, March 21st, 2021.
For a controversial figure who has dedicated her life to liberate female desire from the shackles imposed by patriarchy, in her old age she was liberated from the shackles of her desire. She passed away on the day the Egyptian Senate approved a law that increases the imprisonment for perpetrators of FGM.

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Saadawi was a physician, a writer, an FGM survivor, an activist, an intellectual and above all a staunch feminist. Her unyielding attitude, unorthodox views, and unapologetic feminism granted her global recognition. She won numerous international awards, and secured her undisputed position as Egypt’s leading feminist.

Her views also landed her in prison during Al Sadat’s presidency, and jeopardized her citizenship.

Her books were banned, she was charged with atheism and blasphemy and topping it off, she secured her position on the lists of Islamic jihadists. The death threats never deterred her from her mission: rather it unleashed the feminine rage that lurked behind her calm appearance.

Her most prominent and widely acclaimed books included: “Woman and Sex”; “The Hidden Face of Eve”; and “A daughter of Isis.” Many more shatter taboos and bravely tackle contentious issues that are usually muted in the Arab world. Her voice was authentic and spoke for the millions of silenced and oppressed women. Her courage was unequivocal, and I respected her immensely.

Yet, I disagreed with Saadawi on some issues. She pioneered and championed radical gender equality. She wanted men and women to be equal on every level, which I agree with to some extent.

However, I believe that equality that erases the difference between masculine and feminine is both unattainable and unhealthy.

This manifests itself in her views of the veil. When she was questioned about the veil she answered that she is against anything that objectifies a woman’s body.

A woman should dress like a man. Wearing a veil and wearing revealing clothes both objectify women and reduce them to their bodies. I fully understand the logic that was behind her statement, yet I disagree with its veracity.

For, if we say that a woman’s body is the same as a man’s and should be treated equally, then why wouldn’t a woman go to work the next day after giving birth? Why do most nude paintings feature women rather than men? The complementarity of men and women reside in their difference, not in their uniformity.

Despite my reservations, when Saadawi’s death was announced by her children I couldn’t overcome my feeling of sadness. I mourned the insurmountable loss of an unparalleled feminist icon who fiercely fought for female empowerment. I was also infuriated by the sordid attacks and gloating in her death by Salafis and Muslim Brotherhood supporters. The attacks were so vile and repulsive that several Muslim scholars, including Abbas Shoman the Former Head of Al Azhar, issued statements condemning the attacks and denouncing them as unIslamic.

But in reality, Saadawi didn’t just triumph over her fear of death during her life; she triumphed in her death over the patriarchy that she dedicated her life to topple. Saadawi, the FGM survivor was vindicated by the new law that was passed by the senate that could prevent other girls from being maimed in the name of chastity.

Saadawi, the freedom fighter who stood against the established patriarchy, who wanted children to take their mother’s name because she believed mothers’ weren’t given their due respect, died on Mother’s day and enshrined as a matriarch. She was the embodiment of the unbridled feminine force in this realm and her death transported her to become an emblem of matriarchy in the eternal realm of ideas. This piece isn’t to defend Nawal el-Saadawi. This piece is an ode to her legacy. In the words of the greatest Egyptian feminist “The female is the origin.”

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