International Women’s Day: Translating, or Mistranslating, Arab Feminisms

Nawal El Saadawi just finished up a popular, well-received appearance at the Emirates LitFest in Dubai:

iwd_squareNow, the eighty-three-year-old novelist and activist is in England for an appearance at the Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall. It’s part of a tour, organized by Sable Litmag, which will take El Saadawi across England and Scotland. (See the schedule of events.)

El Saadawi has long been a poster-child for Arab feminism in the West. Indeed, both El Saadawi’s important work as an Egyptian feminist and the use of her work by Western feminists shed light on the difficulties translating international feminist “solidarity.”

As Amal Amireh writes in “Framing Nawal El Saadawi: Arab Feminism in a Transnational World“:

“In this case study of El Saadawi’s reception, I examine both academic and nonacademic writing by and about her, foregrounding the strategies by which the first world reads and understands Arab women’s texts and drawing out their implications for issues of cross-cultural inquiry and feminist solidarity. I show that El Saadawi and her Arab feminist work are consumed by a Western audience in a context saturated by stereotypes of Arab culture and that this context of reception, to a large extent, ends up rewriting both the writer and her texts according to scripted first-world narratives about Arab women’s oppression.

This doesn’t change the important role El Saadawi has played in creating space for feminist fiction and memoir in Arabic — including feminist fiction by men, as novelist Fadi Zaghmout’s comments on her Dubai talk demonstrate. But it points to a fundamental difficulty in translating her work, which is inserted into an entirely different web of meanings.

When some Arab commentators suggest that only women’s work is being translated (it’s not) or that Arab women writers get more attention in English (nope), it points back to the way in which Arab women writers are often positioned, as freedom fighters aligned with the West. So: Is it possible to choose to read women writers, and to be interested in women’s writing, without re-writing those works to fit a particular liberationist narrative? I’d hope so.


Syrian author Rasha Abbas’s “The Gist of It,” trans. Alice Guthrie

Lebanese author Hanan al-Shaykh’s “God, It’s as Though You’re Sewing a Dress For a Flea,” trans. Randa Jarrar

Palestinian author Adania Shibli’s “Silence,” trans. Randa Jarrar

Tunisian author Rachida al-Charni’s “The Way to Poppy Street,” trans. Piers Amodia


Egyptian poet Iman Mersal’s “Love,” trans. Khaled Mattawa

Emirati poet Nujoom al-Ghanem “She Who Resembles Herself,” trans. Khaled al-Masri

Iraqi poet Nazik al-Mala’ika “Love Song for Words,” trans. Rebecca Carol Johnson


Mourid Barghouti’s “Sleeping Woman,” which must refer to Radwa Ashour, translated by Ashour.

An excerpt from Sinan Antoon’s Ave Mariatrans. Maia Tabet.

Also, of course:

Arab Women Writers Recommend Their Favorite Arab Women Writers


  1. There’s always this narrative of Arab women in need of saving, and it’s not only harmful to these women, but it also plays into the hands of conservative parties opposing any sort of valid, deep discussion about women’s situation in our countries, citing it as western agenda to corrupt the nation, basically.

    Change must come from within, of course, but it’s difficult when there are so many restrictions on speech and mobility, not to mention the large class of illiterate, uneducated women. I’ve noticed in the past two years many attempts from women in the middle east reaching to other women, but it’s still largely conducted in the frame of motherhood, shying away from discussions of politics, sex, religion and women’s role in it. They are good attempts, but still fail to remove women from a patriarchal, normative standard.

    In these times, what we need is to be radical, and right now, they’re not doing much.

  2. Reblogged this on Cairoscope and commented:
    Nawal El Saadawi ist eine faszinierende Frau. Ich hatte die große Ehre, sie im Herbst 2010 auf eine Reise nach Mexiko und Schweden begleiten zu dürfen. Wir haben auf dieser langen Reise viel geredet und die Kraft dieser damals schon fast 80-jährigen Frau, ihre Klarheit, ihre Durchsetzungskraft und ihr Mut, sich von niemandem niemals den Mund und ihre Gedanken verbieten zu lassen, hat mich tief beeindruckt. Sie ist eine Inspiration, nicht nur für ägyptische Frauen und ich hoffe, dass sie uns noch lange erhalten bleibt. Wir brauchen – vor allem in Ägypten, vor allem in dieser Zeit – Frauen, die immer wieder den Finger in die vorhandenen Wunden legen, die Missstände ansprechen und sich vehement für die Rechte der Frauen einsetzen. Nawal El Saadawi ist eine Inspiration, weil sie keine Angst hat. Vor niemandem.

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