The end of sisterhood: an encounter with Nawal Al-Saadawi - By Dr. Choman Hardi

Nawal Al-Saadawi, the prominent Egyptian feminist, has been in Kurdistan, receiving a warm welcome from women activists, NGOs, the Kurdistan Regional Government and the public. I was unable to attend her seminar two days ago as I was teaching but I encouraged all my students to go. On November 28, a few of us- women activists, writers, and parliamentarians- were invited to the Culture Cafe in Sulaimany to meet with Al-Saadawi in before her final press conference in the city, after which she left for Erbil.

After answering her questions about women’s situation in Kurdistan we had a few questions of our own. Some of us were concerned about her position on Kurdish issues. Her visit to Halabja a few days ago, for example, was followed by the release of her comment in Halabja’s memorial book condemning  “America”, “Europe” and “Israel” along with “regional states” for the gassing of Halabja. It is true that the US and European countries (but not Israel) supplied raw material for Saddam Hussein’s WMD but not naming the Arab nationalist Baath state as the main actor is merely to obscure the issue and absolve the former Iraqi state of responsibility.

Al-Saadawi is also reported to have said in a conference in Europe that she is against the division of Arab land in Iraq (arguing, like other Arab nationalists, that Kurdistan is Arab land). When we asked her about this incident, she did not deny saying such a thing, she merely said that she does not remember whether or not she has said this. On the other hand, in her writings about IS she has criticized the US for its former support of this terrorist group, remaining silent about the Arab states’ financial support to IS (past and present).

When we questioned her about her position on these issues, especially about Kurdish independence and Arab nationalism, she kept contradicting herself. First of all, she said that she is against ethnic and gender divisions, arguing that we are all the same and we should all get along. However Al-Saadawi does not have the same attitude towards Palestinians and Israelis. She supports the Palestinian independence, as we do, but somehow when it comes to Kurds (who have suffered genocide at the hands of a nationalist Arab state) she does not think Kurdish Independence is justified. Apparently, only Arabs deserve independence.

She insisted that her work is about women’s rights and she does not address political issues related to nation states (this is not strictly true). We pointed out that as an intellectual she has a moral responsibility to condemn perpetrators and oppressors, whoever they may be. She replied that she is not an intellectual but “merely a writer”. It seems clear that it is easy for her to blame the US and Israel for all the problems in the Arab world, but somehow she cannot face up to the crimes committed by her ethnic group against others. Her position reminded me of the early white, middle class feminists who insisted on the global oppression of women, ignoring the way their own race oppressed women of colour. This is where sisterhood ends. This is why I and my sister had to walk out on Nawal Al-Saadawi yesterday.

Perhaps Al-Saadawi has never considered the contradictory relationship between feminism and nationalism. Nationalism is by nature a masculinist project imbued with terms such as “honour, patriotism, cowardice, bravery and duty” which are masculine terms (Nagel, 1998: 252). In nationalist discourses women “occupy a distinct, symbolic role... a role that reflects a masculinist definition of femininity and of women’s proper place in the nation” (Nagel, 1998: 252). Perhaps she does not see that as feminists we must oppose nationalism. Nor does she see that as writers (intellectual or not), as human beings, we have moral responsibilities towards the world we live in, to condemn oppression and domination, whoever the perpetrator may be.

I want to stress that I do not hold individual Arabs responsible for the crimes of a nationalist state and I condemn any form of discrimination, including Kurdish discrimination against Arabs, under any excuse. I do, however, detest nationalism amongst Arab intellectuals. It is disappointing that an intellectual woman, a writer, a defender of gender equality whom we have admired is so nationalist. I want to say to Nawal Al-Saadawi: you have been a pioneering women regarding women’s oppression in this region but your ethnic politics is oppressive. It is a shame to see an intelligent woman like you be blinded by nationalism, contradicting yourself and avoiding serious political issues. If you continue to support Arab nationalism to the exclusion of all else, you will be judged by history.


Nagel, J. (1998) Masculinity and nationalism: gender and sexuality in the making of nations.  Ethnic and Racial Studies: 21. pp. 242- 269


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November 29, 2014
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