What Arab Feminism is NOT

Nour Assili
11 min readJun 13, 2021


Nawal El Saadawi, revolutionary feminist, pictured at her home in Cairo, Egypt, in 2015. Photograph: David Degner/Getty Images

Feminism in the Middle East and North Africa has become prevalent as scholars from both eastern and western countries are scrutinizing the new wave of bold outspoken Arab feminists. However, mainstream academia often overlooks the transnational perspective — that is, the factors that go beyond borders and deeply influence women in the so-called “third world”. We cannot analyze the experience of Arab women without recognizing the intersections of religion, ethnicity, gender, class and nationality. These elements are interconnected in the Arab world, as in many other developing countries. This paper seeks to elucidate how Arab Feminism has been received in the west in a context saturated by stereotypes and the implications of that on cultural exchange and the so-called feminist solidarity. In order to truly understand and support Arab feminists’ work, I will urge my audience to “historicize” and “contextualize” what they consume (Gurel) by doing so myself in my paper to forge a better understanding of Arab Feminism while challenging the colonialist and counter‐colonialist representations of Arab women.

In order to historicize Arab feminism, we need to understand both the native and colonial perspectives towards this movement in its early days. Arab feminist consciousness developed hand in hand with national consciousness in early 19th century. This makes many people think that Arab feminism emerged only as a reaction to Western imperialism and is thus an illegal import or alien to the Arab landscape. These inconsistent and decontextualized comparisons mainly stem from an orientalist mindset. Arab feminism is not just a showdown between Arab and Western values. In fact, early Arab feminists had successful entries into the public sphere and used different strategies ranging from writing, political activism, and the establishment of literary salons and associations. The birth of the movement was aided by the rise of Arab fiction writing and newspapers. No one can deny the influence of the iconic periodicals such as Silsilat al-Fukahat (Beirut 1884), Diwan al-Fukaha (Beirut 1885), Ar-Rawi (Alexandria 1888), Hadiqat al-Adab (Cairo 1888), and longer lasting periodicals such as Al-Hilal (Cairo 1892), Al-Mashriq (Beirut 1898), Ad-Diya (Cairo 1898), and Fatat el-Sharq (Cairo 1906) which are only a few examples of the press that popularized the publication of short and long stories (CIGH Exeter). It was in literature more than any other field that Arab women have forged their identity and voice. All these literary talents are an indigenous product of the Arab political and socioeconomic dynamics, not a mere reflection of Western culture. We rarely ever hear about these early feminists who immensely paved the way for later Arab feminists. Every time Arab feminism is scrutinized, it is described as the imitation of other movements in Europe or the United States of America. It is not fair to credit the West for inspiring Arab feminists and disregard the tremendous work done by early Arab feminism; Arab feminist writings done during the era of colonization is the more highlighted one in comparison.

Furthermore, the condition of women in North Africa was facing a paradox of western colonialism which, while subjugating people, claimed they liberated women. Meanwhile, Algerian female activists were raped and tortured by the French occupiers. This raises striking questions about the long-standing connections between feminism and imperialism. In fact, imperialist feminism and the white savior complex deeply altered the narrative of Arab feminism. One glaring example is the British colonial administrator Lord Cromer, who used the feminist card as a tool of colonialism when he was the British consul-general of Egypt; despite the fact that he was simultaneously a founding member of the Men’s League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage back in England (CIGH Exeter). Even after colonialism, the West did not stop employing the imperialistic rhetoric of the white men saving the poor “Third World Woman”. In 2002, Bush also utilized this rhetoric in order to launch the war against Afghanistan as he used the excuse of saving women from oppression in service of his war crimes. (Perin Gurel) Unfortunately, we do not denounce the crimes that the West committed towards Arab women nearly as much as we praise it as a model that Arab feminism should follow.

Our stories are rewritten from an old scripted first world narrative; the perspective often employed in these rewritings is one where Western feminism perceives feminism as an alien concept to the Arab political and socio-economic climate. This also stems from the idea that Islam is inherently at odds with feminism. It is not just Arab women who are victim of this reductionist narrative. It also touches every “other woman” — women of color, poor women, women of the Third World. (Gurel) Although there are many limitations to the terminology of “women of the Third World,” this paper uses it only to highlight the asymmetry of power between the Western and Arab feminists. This power dynamic is manifested in media and academia where the Arab world is portrayed as ahistorical and oppressive. “If she is a Muslim woman, she denounces Islam with indignation. If she is a woman of color, she denounces her “culture” as a thoroughly patriarchal oppressive, and static entity.” (Gurel) Even today, the idea of Arab women conjures up heavily enveloped women. When Muslim women speak, they are not heard and are rather seen as “pawns of Arab men” and supposedly groaning under the shackles of Islam. The recurring controversy around the French Education Minister who wanted to prevent mothers wearing the veil from volunteering on school trips illustrates the real hypocrisy of the West that continues till today. It is ironic that whilst removing a Western woman’s clothes would be considered sexual harassment, the French government dares to force Arab women to remove their veil, claiming that the veil is oppressive or dangerous. Protecting someone’s personal freedom of dressing as they wish, must be extended to everyone regardless of the political belief that the state might hold in association with such clothing.

The narrative surrounding the veil has long been misconstrued by media. For instance, the documentary Feminism Inshallah claims to be an indispensable resource for Women’s Studies yet fails to accomplish its mission miserably. When recalling the birth of the movement, this documentary is heavily focused on moments of veil removal. First, they show the Egyptian Huda Sharawi, who could be considered the first Arab feminist. However, instead of telling the story of her activism, they just show her in 1923, returning from a feminist congress in Europe, lifting her veil as she gets off a train while a crowd of women start cheering and applauding. Then they show the Tunisian Manubia Wartani removing her veil as well without even mentioning any of her work. It also adds footage of the previous Tunisian president Bourguiba removing the veil of a woman in public and calls it “a miserable bit of cloth”. Not only does this documentary reduce the emancipation of Arab women to one aspect, but it is also full of misrepresentation. How can you talk about the veil without even adding testimonials of any veiled women in the film? And how are white rich women from Northern Tunisia celebrating their privilege representative of what regular working-class Tunisian women truly face? We cannot boast about our victories without sharing the brutal reality of Tunisian women in rural regions. Till this day, they face physical and economic violence; illiteracy is high, and they have been completely absent from politics and media. Of course, these issues were not reflected in the documentary as it oversimplifies and misrepresents the fight of Arab women.

So why does the veil never escape the Western eyes? In Islam, not only is the veil the woman’s personal choice but it is also a way of freeing herself from a man’s and a society’s judgmental gaze. However, what these Western representations of Arab culture miss is that Islam, like any religion, must be conceptualized within the relevant political, social, and economic context in which it unfolds. (Golley, pg. 522) We cannot understand Islam’s influence on a woman’s life unless we analyze the ways religious symbols and references are manipulated by individuals and institutions to advance certain beliefs that are completely foreign to Islam. The West fails to realize that Islam has guaranteed women’s rights since its inception; egalitarian ethics are the essence of the religion. In the Qur’an, women and men are equals in actions, duties, and responsibilities. The first Muslim woman was Khadija, Mohammed’s first wife. Without her influence, Islam might not have emerged as successfully as it did. However, compared to other religions, the original message of Islam has been more and more hindered by the hegemonic interpretation of Islamic jurisprudence, a product of existing layers of patriarchy over several centuries. Sexist interpretations of Islam are more likely to elicit agreement among less educated and rural parts of the Arab world. These attempts to absolve religion of responsibility for Arab women’s subordination also disregard that it is allowed in Islam to challenge the text of the Quran and Hadith through the practice of of ijtihād (reasoning) in Islamic Studies to bridge the gap between the holy text and modern life. Islam is non-monolithic; it is continuously challenged and in flux. As a Muslim, I engage in and wrestle with theoretical issues in my religion every single day. I am aware of the flaws of my religion, but I am also hopeful it can be ameliorated by offering progressive reinterpretations of Islamic scriptures. Moreover, Islam is not the only religion that has male-centered interpretations and overall influence of the patriarchal society and culture. In fact, sexism is in every culture and is echoed by different institutions in society such as laws, politics and, of course, religion. Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism also have many theological interpretations that revolve around men. However, people can’t help but bring their biases when they interpret Muslim women’s experiences. So, when Muslim texts are viewed through the orientalist lens of the reader, the outcome is obvious. There are many overt and covert sexism in the sacred texts of other religions, but Muslim women receive more prejudicial and discriminatory attitudes from the West than women who adopt other religions.

This seems to be a good time to talk about Arab Feminism especially with western media mourning the loss of Nawel El Saadewi who was constantly caught in the power dynamics that govern all relations between the first and third worlds. Nawal El Saadewi is an author, physician and champion of equal rights. She was also known in the West for campaigning against against female genital mutilation, which she had endured at age 6. She was jailed by Anwar Sadat for her activism against the Egyptian government. She died in March 21st 2021 at the age of 89. Her work was among the most translated Arabic work in the world.

This paper takes Nawal El Saadawi as a case and examines both academic and nonacademic writing by and about her. For instance, the reception of her book The Hidden Face of Eve illustrates the way Arab work can be lost as it crosses borders. When reviewing Nawal’s book, most articles credit Nawal for bringing clitoridectomy to the attention of the international community. Although The Hidden Face of Eve sheds light on other issues relating to third-world women such as education, health, and employment, it is clitoridectomy that it singles out and highlights. (Amireh, pg 220) After attending the UN sponsored Copenhagen conference on 1980, Nawal expressed her disappointment in the attendees’ ignorance of third-women’s concerns and their focus on issues of sexuality and religion in isolation from class and colonialism. She resents the use of female circumcision to emphasize the differences between Arab and Western women and declares that “all women are circumcised, if not physically then psychologically and educationally”. She expressed these concerns in the British Edition of The Hidden Face of Eve where she argues that Western feminists’ focus on female circumcision diverts attention from “effective action” to a “a feeling of superior humanity” (Saadawi) In her preface, she also supports the Iranian revolution in an anti-imperialistic blow to the West where she celebrates Islam and defends it against its critics. She effectively anticipated the way her Western audience will read her book and use it to further demonize Islam and reaffirm the stereotypes of an underdeveloped and backward third world. More than anything else, the preface of the English version of The Hidden Face of Eve showcases Nawal’s awareness of the Western audience, their assumptions and expectations and her relentless attempts to undermine the notion of a monolithic Islam. She explains how the West is always conflating supposedly ‘more patriarchal’ structures in the Arab world with Islam. She also mentioned that gender power dynamics in the Arab world are primarily governed by Arab men who try to control female sexuality, which they ostensibly see as threatening to the social order they want to maintain. (Saadawi) Even more intriguing is the addition of some sections to the English version of this book which do not exist in the Arabic version. It is a very different book that appears in American bookstores where reviewers emphasize some sections while ignoring others. For instance, in the Arabic version, Nawal only mentions female mutilation in flashbacks to her childhood in the opening paragraphs; whereas, the translated book has a whole chapter called “circumcision of Girls”. It is also the most quoted chapter in American universities. Even the new title “The Hidden Face of Eve” employs the most stagnant hegemonic perception of Arab women whereas the original title of the book is “Al-Wajh al-ari lil-mar’a al-arabiya”which means the naked face of the Arab women. Why does the “Arab women” disappear from the title to become Eve? This misrepresentation of Nawal and her work erases many important aspects of her identity and distorts her story.

In 1978, Fatima Mernissi from Morocco and Nawal El Saadawi from Egypt, along with other Third World Feminists addressed this and wrote an open letter to criticize “the myth that the mere fact of being women can unite us” (quoted by Gurel). They denounced the blind unnuanced glorification of Liberal Western Feminism and recognize the politics of location in receiving feminist work. What an Arab feminist says is less important than the place where they say it, the context in which their words are received and the audiences who consume their work. (Amal Amireh). The work of Arab feminists always receive sympathetic nods as the Western audience would much rather satisfy their insatiable appetite for an exotic and oppressed “other woman” than actually learn the history behind those “other woman.”

In sum, doing feminist work across cultural divides is no easy task. Ignoring differences and falling into exoticism is ethnocentric and does more harm than good to Arab Women and Arab feminism. The Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy depicts this perfectly in her tweet: “Nawal El Saadawi is the #NawalElSaadawi of the world. She is not the Simone de Beauvoir of the Arab World. Do not Call her that. We are not local versions of people from elsewhere.” Arab women’s need for positive change is no more nor less than that of women anywhere else.


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