Egyptian feminists: Deep roots and diverse journeys to revolution

| March 8, 2011
Nawal el Saadawi at the 4th Annual Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture in 2009. Photo: Beowulf Sheehan/PEN American Center

As a protest against women being left off the committee to revise Egypt's constitution, Cairo today saw A Million Women March as part of International Women's Day. Many are worried that their demands will not be heard in a post-Mubarak Egypt. Rahat Kurd describes the power of Egyptian feminists and their roles in the recent uprising and revolution, as well as their roles within Islam.

The instant that quelled my last trace of doubt that the Egyptian people would prevail over their dictator was the instant I heard Nawal el Saadawi exulting in the powerful sense of unity and high morale surrounding her in Tahrir Square. A few days before the old regime capitulated, Saadawi spoke by phone with Amy Goodman at Democracy Now. The snap and vigour in her 80-year-old voice gave testimony to more than one woman's stand for freedom. Saadawi's triumph in Tahrir Square was a wonderful vindication of an entire life given to improving the education, health, and full political rights of girls and women in Egypt.

Ever since my teens, when I'd read The Hidden Face of Eve -- her most well-known work in English, first published in 1977 and issued in a second edition in 2007 -- Saadawi's voice as a physician, feminist writer and activist was one I had associated with defiance and anger. It was the first such voice I'd come across in an educated, accomplished Muslim woman whose highly charged moral outrage shocked me almost as much as the harmful and repressive practices (clitoridectomy and early or forced marriage; prostitution and incest) she had witnessed; I recall my mother and other women in my largely immigrant Muslim community suppressing shudders of horror while discussing her book in low voices. These were unmistakably crimes against women; how was it possible that any girl anywhere in the world should have endured such things?

But many of us had not previously known any woman to express anger against forms of misogyny so thickly cloaked in religious and social pieties that over time they had come to seem immovable. In Saadawi's view, stoic female silence ceased to be a virtue wherever female safety was violated: "Nor has any feminist," writes Professor Leila Ahmed of Saadawi, "been more outspoken and done more to challenge the misogynist and androcentric practices of the culture."

And while Saadawi's work is one of many threads in the long and unfinished history of feminism in Egypt, I wonder now if that challenging, outspoken quality deserves particular credit for shaking more conservative Muslim readers -- even ones in the far-flung city of Hamilton, Ont., where I grew up -- out of their complacency and sharpening their vigilance regarding their rights within religious and cultural contexts. Perhaps the shock value of Saadawi's narratives paved some of the psychological ground for the intense debates, research and activism that have shaped the emergence of Muslim feminism in locales from North America to north Africa to southeast Asia over the past three decades.

Arab feminists have kick-started many critical debates among contemporary Muslims; their originality of thought wields far-reaching and profound influence. The Veil and the Male Elite by Fatima Mernissi from Morocco and Women and Gender in Islam by Leila Ahmed from Egypt, are widely regarded as two modern classics of Muslim feminism. Published in 1988 and 1992 respectively, these works have engaged and interpreted central religious source texts in order to reclaim the enlightened, compassionate and socially just worldview at the core of Islamic principles. They have become required reading not only in Women's Studies seminars in North American campuses but among progressive Muslim book clubs and discussion groups; Muslim feminists will often cite Mernissi and Ahmed as sources of confidence and inspiration for their own work and personal paths.

Anyone looking for context and background to account for the large, vibrant female presence in Tahrir Square last month would do well to begin with Leila Ahmed's landmark text Women and Gender in Islam, published by Yale in 1992.

A professor at the Harvard Divinity School for over 10 years, Ahmed is widely admired for her incisive contextualization of Islamic legal texts within the framework of women's lived experience. Her comprehensive and thoughtful overview of the history of feminism in Egypt closely considers the impacts of education and class on both the men and women responsible for its various articulations, progressions, and effects during the 19th and 20th centuries; tumultuous decades that spanned colonial rule, struggles for independence and democracy, and the rise of Arab nationalism. Women and Gender in Islam delivers one memorable frisson of scandal revolving around one Lord Cromer, the Victorian-era British consul-general in Egypt, who attempted to advance British colonial power by posturing as a liberator of oppressed Egyptian women -- while doing his utmost to thwart the feminist struggle for the right to vote back at home in England.

Ahmed focuses on Egypt as a Muslim cultural and political capital where important feminist struggles, particularly since the end of the 19th century, have been documented in journals, newspapers, memoirs and fiction. Ahmed mines these materials to bring us the lives and accomplishments of Huda Sha'rawi, Zeinab al-Ghazali, and Doria Shafik, women whose struggles ranged in expression from the secular to the religious; all of whom, like Saadawi after them, suffered personally for the sake of women's full political rights. They withstood denunciations by colleagues, jail sentences and hunger strikes, adhering fiercely to their principles even at the cost of their lives.

Leila Ahmed is also the author of A Border Passage: From Cairo to America -- A Woman's Journey, an intimate memoir published in 2000 and another excellent entry point to contemporary Arab, Muslim and feminist discourse. Vivid and evocative scenes of Cairo and Alexandria in the mid-20th century form the first settings for Ahmed's stories of women's lives -- her grandmother, mother and aunts; her teachers in Cairo; later, her peers and mentors at Cambridge University in England, her students and founders of women's universities in Abu Dhabi, and her colleagues in feminist studies on American university campuses -- lives whose contradictions and nuances continued to enrich Ahmed's understanding of her own identity and independence of thought:

"By the end of my graduate student days I had essentially acquiesced in and accepted my own proper invisibility from scholarship. The passion and joy of thought and understanding would come back into my life only after I had gone to Abu Dhabi to work and begun to feel driven by my need to understand, as the Iranian revolution crested, our history as Muslim women; simultaneously I began to read the exhilarating feminist books coming out of America. Placing Muslim women at the heart of my own work was in a way a refusal of our invisibility."

Rahat Kurd is a writer and rabble book lounger in Vancouver. Forthcoming work by her will appear in The New Quarterly and in Maisonneuve this spring and summer.



We welcome your comments! embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:


  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.


  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.