Challenging Feminist Stereotypes: Nawal El Saadawi’s Creation of Transnational Solidarity at the UN’s Mid-Decade Conference

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Nawal El Saadawi, an advocate for women’s rights in the Arab World and outspoken critic of Egyptian political regimes, quickly gained international attention in the 1980s thanks to the translation of her nonfiction and fictional books into dozens of languages and her participation in international women’s conferences. Both literary and Arab World scholars have written much on El Saadawi, focusing on her writing and the ways in which her work has been (mis)read by feminists, journalists, and politicians in the Global North.

Using a historical lens, this paper contributes to this body of scholarship by showing change over time in terms of El Saadawi’s activism and thinking; it also places El Saadawi’s life and work within the historical context of a postcolonial Egypt and within the evolution of transnational feminist networks in the late twentieth century. In doing so, it reveals a complex story of feminist interaction that included criticism, challenges, adaptations, adoptions, condemnation, and commendation. It provides lessons for us today as El Saadawi’s ability to speak across geopolitical borders and to call attention to the political, social, and historical complexities of women’s situations won her international distinction as she forwarded a vision of solidarity and transnational feminism.

This paper stems from Frazier’s current book project, “Creating Transnational Feminist Networks, 1940-2000,” which presents a collective biography of three feminist activists who participated in international conferences, organizations, and networks in the late twentieth century. The larger project aims to understand why women looked to the international realm; what challenges they faced in doing so; how international, regional, national, and local contexts shaped their advocacy; and how their activism influenced international discussions. It shows how feminist ideas traveled across borders and were adapted, adopted, rejected, or co-opted in various regions of the world.