Problems facing a women’s movement in Islamic countries

Interview with Nawal El Saadawi


Women’s Voice: What is your opinion on Islamic feminism?  Is there any meaning to this phenomenon?

Nawal El Saadawi: Yes there is meaning to Islamic feminism (and Christian feminism) if those religions are interpreted  in a progressive way so that God means justice, freedom and love and not a text.


WV: There are women believers of Islam in Iran who also believe women should be equal to men in social rights. What do you think of this?

El Saadawi : Why not. You can believe in Islam (or any other religion) and interpret it to mean equality and social justice.


WV: Is the equality between men and women achievable under a religious state? For instance the Iranian Islamic state formally, and on paper, accepts this equality. Yet the philosophy of the Islamic Republic is based on Islamic sharia’. Do you think that Islamic sharia’ and equality of men and women are compatible?

El Saadawi: I do not think any religious state is able to be just and fair. Religion is a political ideology based on class oppression and male domination. The sharia’ is different from faith or belief. Sharia’ is made by people and changes all the time. The faith also changes, but could be a personal private matter not connected with politics or the state or land or anything else, as in the case of sharia’.


WV: is it possible, without going into religious arguments, to create a women’s movement based upon specific demands of women such as the right to divorce, equal inheritance, guardianship of children etc.?

El Saadawi: Yes it is possible


WV: Independent women’s movement in Islamic countries are usually seen as dependent to foreigners and to the West. How can these movements overcome such a suspicion and how can they prove that the defence of equality between men and women has nothing to do with dependency to the West, and that a feminist movement can also stand up to dependency and encroachment?

El Saadawi: Women can prove that they are independent of the West or East by their work, activities, writings, etc.,.... You can fight against negative rumour by your work and activities and thoughts.


WV: The development of feminist movements in Western countries was in a convergence with the workers’ movement, or at least, they have never been in opposition to each other. On the other hand in Islamic countries, women’s movements appear to be imprisoned in the circle of the middle and upper classes (of course this does not apply to Iran because of the presence of a religious state).

In Islamic countries, the more we move to the bottom of society, the movement of the poor gets more masculine. That is to say in Islamic countries there is a gap between the feminist and workers’ movements. How do you explain this phenomenon and what can be done about it?

El Saadawi: There is also a  gap between the feminist movement in the West and the workers. The same as in other countries. But the women’s liberation movement can attract women from all classes, but each class can produce their leaders. Nobody is going to liberate the peasants except peasants. We liberate ourselves. Nobody can liberate the other. Begin with yourself is a principle that is genuine and real.


WV: The experience of Iran taught us that the women’s movement should be independent of men in order to become more dynamic and energetic. Independent of men means that the activity and movement should not be slowed down by the men’s movement. It has to be expanded by its own potential energy. Also independence from men does not mean being in opposition and antagonism to men. Do you think such a movement in Islamic counties has a chance to become a mass movement?

El Saadawi: In our experience in our countries, we have 30% men in our associations. Men and women can work together if they unveil their brains and acquire knowledge in a new light. But this depends on place and time. Sometimes independent women’s organisations are a must.

Yes women organisations in our countries have the chance to be a mass movement if women connect and organise across class barriers.


WV: Given the lack of democracy, bigotry and fanaticism in Islamic countries, is the women’s movement able to become an active movement with discipline, organisation and strong political muscle throughout these countries. Do you see the women movement coming out of its present position of small cells? If this is probable, in your view what conditions, techniques, demands and possibilities is needed?

El Saadawi: Democracy is lacking all over the world. Women organise in spite of all that. There are women organisations in Islamic countries that are fighting but we do not hear about them. It is lack of communication. Of course under dictatorships all organisations (women and men) are handicapped but they work underground. Men are more experienced in underground work than women. But women are learning to organise in spite of prisons and oppression. It is human nature to fight for freedom, nobody can stop you.


This interview was conducted by Shiva, from Avaye Zan (Women’s Voice) London, November 1997.