Feminist Revolutionary Narratives from Egypt and Syria: Hopes and Disappointments (cook)

miriam cooke writes for ISLAMiCommentary *


ISLAMiCommentary Editor’s Note: This paper was written by miriam cooke and presented at the international forum—“Mediterranean Women’s Rights in the Aftermath of the Arab Uprisings” — on June 21, 2013 in Fez, Morocco, and shared with ISLAMiCommentary and TIRN. Note, that this was before the latest round of anti-Morsi protests in Egypt that began this past weekend.

Less than two years have elapsed since the outbreak of revolutionary activity around the Arab world and the narratives of participants are proliferating.[1] Each is compelling if, inevitably at this early stage, somewhat similar: surprise; engagement; euphoria; disappointment; sumud.. After the first few days of the recent Taksim uprising, author Elif Shafak commented, “After days of tension, citizens have started to exchange anecdotes. Suddenly everyone has a story to tell.”[2]

In the supposed absence of intellectuals’ voices and their bodies at the barricades, first-time writers are filling the gaps. People who never thought to write have put pen to paper. In some cases, the astonishing events and the individual’s involvement seemed enough, and they pushed out the poetic and the reflective, the stuff of literature that shapes and deepens our understanding of paradigm-changing events.[3]

Yet some intellectuals have been writing and participating. Their literary renditions provide another kind of lens on to the events of the past two years. Today, I will examine the revolutionary memoirs of two influential feminist writers, Egyptian Nawal El Saadawi (b.1931) and Syrian Samar Yazbek (b.1970). Both participated in their countries’ uprisings; both wrote about their hopes and disappointments.

El Saadawi situates her experience of Tahrir in a long line of revolutionary action going back to the mid-1940s when she was a student, and then even further back to 1919 when her father was a student demonstrating against the English occupation. Much younger than El Saadawi and born into an era of authoritarian regime that tolerated no protest let alone popular uprising, Samar Yazbek is living through her first revolution.

Beyond the difference in age, revolutionary experience, world recognition and literary output—Nawal has published over 30 books that have been translated into about the same number of languages; Samar has published three and only one has been translated—these memoirs reflect the very different trajectories of their people’s recent defiance of their dictators. Egypt’s revolution was over in 18 days with less than 1000 dead and Husni Mubarak gone, Syria’s revolution is in its third year, Bashar Asad is still in power and conservative estimates put the dead at over 90,000 with hundreds more dying on a weekly basis.

The situations are so different that it might not make sense to compare the memoirs were it not for a number of factors. Both women seem to have been born revolutionaries. Their writings have always insisted on the mandate to oppose injustice wherever it may be. Both crafted their reflections in the early summer of 2011, immediately after the outbreak of the simultaneous protest movements in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Qatif in Saudi Arabia, Syria and Yemen. Both have received international prizes for their contributions to their country’s revolutions. In November 2012, the International Peace Bureau in Dublin awarded Nawal and the Tunisian Lina Ben Mhenni the Sean MacBride Peace Prize. In October 2012, Samar was awarded the PEN/ Pinter International Writer of Courage prize and a month later the PEN Tucholsky prize in Sweden.

The Birth of a Revolutionary

What does it mean to say that these women seem to have been born revolutionaries? It means saying no to conventions from an early age. Nawal El Saadawi early defied the gendered expectations of Kafr Tahla. The first of her 3-volume Arabic autobiography Hayati Awraqi (1999) tells of her refusal to marry very young, of her determination to become a doctor and then to exchange medicine for creative and activist writing.

The autobiography tracks the coming of age of a feminist revolutionary, from her child’s indignation with a misogynist God to the 1946 demonstration against the English at Helwan girls’ school where she was boarding. Breaking through the locked school gates, she leads them, shouting: “Long live Egypt in freedom…. My country, my country, I give you my heart and my love… At moments like this the subconscious, the giant doormat under the conscious mind, bursts out… At that moment I realized how powerful I had become,” and she is appointed at age 15 the school delegate. The students burned an English army barrack and the revolution spread to Asyut and Alexandria (1999, 228-232).

Sixty-six years later, in her 2013 Tahrir memoir Al-thawrat al-`arabiya, she thinks back to that day[4] and it is as though she is again “that schoolgirl walking in the demonstration and shouting: Down with the king! Down with the English! As though time did not exist” (2013: 97-99).

She connects 1946, 1967 (when she volunteered to treat the Palestinian wounded on the border), and then 1971 (when students rose up against the newly enthroned Sadat[5]), to her father’s stories about participating in the 1919 revolution (2013: 114, 106). Protesting injustice, authoritarianism and corruption was a way of life for her but also for the Egyptian people. Tahrir was merely the next stage in a chain of revolutionary events.

Her six-decade activist career culminated in the 2011 revolution that she claimed at the time had made all of her struggles worthwhile. She writes with excitement about her Tahrir routine. Every morning, some youth came to her Shubra apartment to take her downtown by car, taxi, metro or even motorcycle with someone sitting behind her to make sure she did not fall off when they flew over potholes. Upon arrival, they passed through barricades run by young volunteers, and then she spent hours sitting in tents and chatting with the people, including some heavily veiled women and Islamists: “I can scarcely believe that this is the same Egypt that caused me so much sadness and hardship … Tahrir became my watan for which I have been searching since childhood” (112-113).

Along with the masses, she shouts “Go! Go! Down with the regime” (117). And despite her terrible fatigue when returning home at night, she cannot wait to return to the growing crowds of school children, university students, factory workers, and villagers of all ages. She loved it all!

“These revolutionary days,” she writes in her diary, “were the most beautiful days of my life despite the thugs who attacked us on February 2 riding horses and camels and carrying bayonets, swords and knives … One of the horses almost knocked me over and one of the young men came to my rescue. He wanted to take me away but I preferred to stay. The child within controls me during the most dangerous moments, wanting to see and know at the risk of dying… I did not move from the place where the revolutionaries gathered. I saw them attack the camel riders … there were millions in Tahrir and after sunset we celebrated the Camel Event.” (47-49)

In 1998, she had written in some amazement, “I do not know how the child in me remained alive” (206) and in November 2012 she reiterates the power of the child within that still controls her even on this the morning of her 80th birthday (El Saadawi 2013: 25).[6]

The child is curious, fearless and sometimes terribly angry. There is something powerful, pure, and true in “the anger of a child,” she wrote in her autobiography. (A Daughter of Isis: The Autobiography of Nawal El Saadawi. Translated by Sherif Hetata. New York: St. Martins Press, 1999) This kind of anger is followed by numbness “a state which I realized later precedes every courageous act, even if that act were to throw oneself under the wheel of a train.” (1999, 163, 268).

Al-thawrat al-`arabiya, a book she began writing on February 11, 2011, emerges out of this child’s anger. She is furious that Muhammad Mursi, who won what she calls a fraudulent election, cites Qur’anic verses all the time and repeats the name of Allah 34 times in his victory speech. Why does he not talk about education, culture and freedom of thought and expression? What happened to the revolution that toppled the ruler but kept the system intact? The military reaped the benefits, having stolen the $9 billion that Mubarak stole from the country’s coffers filled with money from the Gulf States rewarding Egypt for its support during the 1990-1 Gulf War. The theft was noticed a year later only (31).

Nawal is defiant: those who have betrayed the revolution, like men who betray their wives, must be denounced. Her fury that religion has replaced revolution burns on every page that accuses the Muslim Brothers of inviting America, the European Union, Israel and their Gulf State lackeys to the Egyptian table (80-82, 104).

“Revolution is the art of the impossible” (20), she declared. And the young revolutionaries did the impossible, so where are these women and men now? They have been stigmatized and blamed for the country’s ills. Harassment of revolutionaries, she protests, has become a strategy to abort (ijhad) the revolution. Yet this revolution inspired Occupy movements around the world (65). She is invited to several of these Occupy movements, many of them directed against class-patriarchy, her lifelong enemy. [7]

Tadmor’s Ghosts

Although Samar Yazbek writes about the same period, June to July 2011, that Nawal covers, hers is a very different book. With no symbolic center, the Syrian revolution spread across the country and Samar travels far and wide to support and record it. Unlike Nawal, she is not feted for her participation, but reviled for betraying her Alawite coreligionists.

In A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution, she describes survival under the bombs and a crazy compulsion to fight this loathsome regime. Endangering not only herself but also her daughter, she follows the action, meets with fighters from the Free Syrian Army and records the government’s atrocities and is finally forced to flee.

Yazbek is a prominent Alawite opposition writer directly defying the Alawite regime, such a defiance was unthinkable before March 2011.[8] She is confirming the prescience of another Alawite rebel, the late Mamduh Adwan (1941-2005). During the darkest days of Hafiz Asad’s regime, he warned in The Ghoul: “You shall not escape us even while you sleep. Your victims’ vengeance will pursue you for blood… Even if you muzzle their complaints they will haunt you as ghosts… From now on we shall begin our great duty: This tyranny shall never recur.”[9] 17 years later, Samar confirms, “The idea of a revolt against this regime had been brewing for years … We mobilized on Facebook, through art and writing” (236, 237 my emphasis).

The revolution began peacefully, the people of Dar`a believing that, like the Tunisians and Egyptians, they might achieve their goal of toppling the dictator without violence. She meets with Syrians from all walks of life and urgently records their witness to the regime’s brutality. Accused of Salafi leanings, Samar is detained three times. She details her time with the security officers, the indignities she suffered, and her shock at seeing the bleeding remains of young men’s bodies hanging from metal clamps, “swinging there like sides of beef … Suddenly, one of the young men sluggishly tried to lift his head and I saw his face in those dim rays of lights. He didn’t have a face” (82-87).

Unlike Nawal who defies fear, Samar writes about her own fears and troubles. The danger, the electricity and water cuts and running out of Xanax: “I have been awake for two days straight, from Thursday night until right now … I do not sleep.” (100) But by the end she has conquered that fear, “through that panic I learned how to cultivate a dark patch in my heart, a zone no one can reach, one that remains fixed, where not even death can penetrate … Fire either reduces you to ash or burnishes you” (258).

The extraordinary bravery of the fighters dazzles her. A Free Syrian Army soldier told her, “We know they have bigger and more powerful weapons but we have our courage and our conviction in our revolution. We won’t let them humiliate us. We’re ready to defend our homes to the death.”[10]

She tells the story of an officer interrogating a wounded man in hospital. He orders the patient to say on television that armed gangs had shot him. “The wounded man looks the officer straight in the face and says, ‘It was security who shot me.’ Suddenly the officer stands up, pulls out a gun, and places it against the wounded man’s forehead. The wounded man doesn’t blink, and the officer stares right at him. ‘Who shot you?’ The wounded man says, ‘It was security who shot me.’ The officer shoots the wounded man in the head and walks out” (117).

Fully aware of the danger of writing about the government’s brutality and blaming of massacres on to the rebels, she interviews a defecting lieutenant about the regime’s recruiting of criminals “to carry out the killing” (136).

Woman in the Crossfire chronicles her evolution from being “just an idea, a character in a novel. I drink my coffee and believe that I am only thinking about a woman I’ll write about one day. I am a novel.” (78) Her Facebook entries catch the eye of the intelligence service and their “mukhabarati website” rejoins with accusations of her sellout to the Americans (33). In the end it is these same diaries that force her to leave Syria. She feels compelled to “turn my diaries into a book” (258) because she believes that her witness needs to be known in the world: “Somebody has to smash the narrative of this criminal regime with the truth of the revolution. This is a revolution and not a sectarian war, and my voice as a writer and a journalist must come out in support of the uprising… the demonstrators going out to protest are unarmed and peaceful people, and their demands are for freedom and dignity and justice” (230, 255).[11]

No longer resigned to die, she must survive to tell the world what has happened in that place of hell. “I’ll leave behind a whole raft of small issues. I’ll leave behind my anger at all the intellectuals who remain silent in the face of this killing, at their cowardice and fear” (257). As herself an intellectual, she feels terribly alone.

She knows how these critical days will be viewed in the future: “My daughter will refer to them like a scrap of tattered lace in the closet. Beautiful girlfriends will tell me how I stumbled like a cartoon character whenever I walked. I’ll continue roaming the streets, nervous, out of breath, frightened, biting my fingers … every day I bow to you, Oh courageous Syrians, and I’ll continue to bow down until my lips touch the dust left behind by your pure remains” (49). Hers is a moving testimony to the people’s determination to keep on fighting for a better world.


Both Nawal and Samar write about the erasure of women’s important roles. The Egyptian regime called the revolutionary women prostitutes and agents of corruption, and on March 9, 2011—a day after a Women’s Day march —they arrested seventeen women and imposed virginity tests on them[12]. A village woman from Upper Egypt Samira Ibrahim denounced the military and El Saadawi hails a heroine (52, 77).

The women, she declares, turned the political revolution into a cultural, moral revolution: “The brave revolutionary women have changed the contempt with which women are viewed and demonstrated that they are more rational than the rulers … Egyptian women freed themselves from slavery by leaving their homes and going out into the streets, prepared to be beaten and stripped and even to die” (55, 56). She writes with outrage of what has come to be called the Blue Bra woman and how the armed soldiers kicked her on the ground and stripped away her clothes to reveal her underwear (61).

Although the regime was trying to abort (ijhad) the revolution, she repeats again and again, but there was still hope because of women like Fajr Bint Firdaws. (I believe that she is a made-up person, the daughter of Fridaws, the Woman at Point Zero whom she had interviewed in prison years ago). Fajr, like her mother, had been tossed from one man to another until she struck out on her own. She supported her brother and mother from housecleaning earnings. Everyone was happy until she participated in the demonstrations and then they accused her of being a prostitute. She leaves her mother’s home where she had fled from her husband and goes to the Square where she meets Nawal: “Don’t you remember me, Doctor? I’m Fajr Bint Firdaws. I read your books when I was fifteen” (151-154). Fajr, whose name means Dawn, will not be executed like her mother for killing her pimp. She will join the revolutionary vanguard.

Nawal’s concern about the regime’s abuse of women has become part of a general protest. Women on Walls (WOW), Sitt al-hita, is a highly visible project that began in April of this year “to see how we can use graffiti and street art in a project that combines the creativity and uniqueness of Egypt’s top graffiti, street, and visual artists to work on a national campaign focusing on women’s empowerment.”[13] However much Mursi and his men may want to marginalize women and keep them out of Egypt’s future, women like Fajr will not give up. The women of the Egyptian revolution, according to Nawal, are the dawn of a new era.

More grassroots in her participation, probably because Syria did not have a Tahrir Square, Yazbek writes of a women’s march and her involvement in founding the Syrian Women in Support of the Uprising initiative. The women meet secretly but the security finds out and she is discouraged: “There are supposed to be three meetings but nothing ever comes of them.” (142, 159) When she meets with some of the members to video Alawite women opposed to Bashar, she affirms their “aim is to affirm national unity among different sects and sectors of Syrian society,” and for the duration of the filming she is blissful (176). Not for long, Alawites soon send her death threats.

As early as June 9, 2011 Yazbek despairs of rebel success. “None of these trips and actions over the past few days has amounted to anything at all. Just forming the women’s initiative in support of the uprising makes me feel hollow, powerless, as I watch Syrians being transformed into refugees … I am frustrated. I won’t deny it, a subtle sorrow has started to seep into my diaries, not regular everyday sorrow, but overlapping strands of everyday inability, total intellectual paralysis.” (131, 132) Paralysis notwithstanding, she is buoyed by the crowds once again flooding the streets. With an iron will and an inexplicable fearlessness, they topple statues of the president, “Statue after statue” (153).

There is nothing triumphalist in this story of women’s revolutionary participation. In the Introduction to Writing Revolution, written almost two years later, Samar asks a poignant question of Libyan, Tunisian and Egyptian women that is clearly also meant for her compatriots: “How can women participate in revolutions whose outcomes appear even more damaging to their cause?… They have had to fight the dictators and now, they must fight against the manifold forms of Islamic religious extremism that have emerged in reaction to the region’s stillborn secularist movements … the place of women is going to be the most crucial and inflammatory issue in this post-dictatorial world. In any case, for these women moving forward is the only viable choice” (6). Although both Nawal and Samar denounce the Islamizing of the revolutions that will especially harm the women, both know that there is no going back.


Samar’s memoir demonstrates an increasing commitment to writing as an important form of political activism. “These diaries turn death into a canvas for painting a darkened mysterious canvas that appears before me upon the chests of unarmed young men going out to die … Heroism is to stand on the side of the weak until they are strong, for me to spin the world on my fragile fingers and rewrite it with a few gauzy words” (13). Whereas in the first days she is not sure that there is any “use in writing down what was happening,” she later discovers “that these diaries were helping me to stay alive” (50).

In the Introduction to Writing Revolution published more than a year later she worries about the activist/ intellectual binary that Saadallah Wannus had examined in Historical Miniatures: “can writing also be a valid form of engagement, though it entails occasionally stepping back from the reality on the ground?”

Acknowledging the role of social media in political activism, she suggests that the written word in its new context is “now for everyone, and the short texts shared on the pages of Facebook activists have become important documents.” (2013, 1) Theorizing the revolutions will come later along with “a new form of literature to describe them.” But in the meantime, she notes, “writing in a time of revolution is part of the process of change.” (7)

When I asked Nawal last week what was the role of writing in the revolution, she was adamant about differentiating between revolutionary and non-revolutionary writing. Writing is a tool, not an end in itself. In her autobiography, she had written that writing allowed her to uncover and change the gendered values and norms of the world in which she lives. “Writing became a weapon with which to fight the system, which draws its autocratic power exercised by the ruler of the state, and that of the father or the husband in the family. The written word for me became an act of rebellion against injustice exercised in the name of religion, or morals, or love.” (2005: 292)

Not only Nawal El Saadawi and Samar Yazbek, but also others’ accounts of the recent Arab ahdath recognize that revolutions do not succeed overnight and much remains to be done whether in Mursi’s Egypt or Asad’s Syria. But what matters is that the experience of standing up to an unjust regime has “honed [them] and enabled [them] to engage in their work … with greater awareness and commitment.” (Yazbek 2013, 4)

miriam cooke is the Braxton Craven Professor of Arab Cultures at Duke University, and Director of the Duke University Middle East Studies Center. She specializes in the study of gender and war in the Arab world, Islamic feminism, modern Arabic literature and culture. Her work focuses on the fiction and films of Egyptians, Lebanese, Syrians, Iraqis, and Algerians and the political networks that Muslim women are creating in the 21st century. Her new book Tribal Modern: Branding New Nations in the Arab Gulf (University of California Press, January 2014) is forthcoming.



[1] For example, Layla al-Zubaidi & Matthew Cassel (eds) Writing Revolution: the Voices from Tunis to Damascus I.B.Tauris 2013

[3] Writing about Syrian Khawla Dunia’s “And the demonstrations go on: Days of an Unfinished Diary” Yazbek writes that the long-time activist was “no longer just a woman who works in politics: now she is a poet, too” (Writing Revolution, 2).

[4] She writes that 28 (25?) students were killed and 423 (125?) were wounded

[5] Americans sent “aid” to support the dictator who in 1979 abolished the students’ union and prohibited political activity in universities

[6] The telephone interrupts the haze of that early morning moment, and Yusriya, the only surviving member of her primary school class, tells her to watch Mubarak’s trial on television. Brushing the dust from the ancient TV, she watches a trial more like a Ramadan serial where the hero of 1973 is reduced to a dictator stealing the people’s money and killing demonstrators (27).

[7] She writes about her appearance in St. Paul’s Square in London on October 22, 2011 and her pride that Tahrir has inspired so many. She acknowledges also the role of social media in the success of these movements (108-111).

[8] She writes of her alienation from her pro-Bashar family (81).

[9] Mamduh Adwan, The Ghoul 1995 (DS 81, 90)

[10] Samar Yazbek, “In the Shadow of Assad’s Bombs” New York Times August 9, 2012

[11] Yazbek is an organic intellectual whose function is to direct “the ideas and aspirations of the class to which they organically belong” (Gramsci 1999, 131-161).

[12] The numbers vary with some claiming that only seven women were tested.

[13] “each of the artists brings their own unique stories to the project—each has had different interactions with the street and the streets have touched each in a very special way…. And so here we are today: a core group of over 60 street, graffiti and visual artists working together in the street in four different cities; a small group of young film directors following the entire process, and a slightly bigger group of musicians creating and/or donating songs to the project. What began as a campaign for women’s empowerment has grown to become an experimental artistic platform for all kinds of artists to come together and produce an artistic collage in the street, in film and in music.” http://womenonwalls.com/about/ accessed May 19, 2013


(Introduction): Twenty-five participants from Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Palestine, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Libya, Yemen, Ghana, Turkey, Italy, Holland, Canada and the U.S. gathered in Fez June 21-23 to share their research on developments in the southern Mediterranean in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings. The two major concerns were the backlash against women revolutionaries, and the political Islamization of the MENA region.

Scholars, activists, university administrators, diplomats and physicians exchanged views on the meaning of the events that have shaken the Middle East and North Africa during the past two years. Women and several men reported on developments in individual countries, many focused on women’s roles during the protests and the negative consequences of such participation. Subjects ranged from Libyan women’s courageous stance against the government, to the status of women’s rights in the new constitutions of Tunisia and Egypt to sustainable economic empowerment for rural Moroccan women.

My paper (below, as delivered) dealt with the revolutionary memoirs of two influential feminist writers, Egyptian Nawal El Saadawi and Syrian Samar Yazbek, who participated in their countries’ uprisings and then wrote about their hopes and disappointments.

The conference organizer Fatima Sadiqi, founder of the Isis Center for Women and Development and President of the National Union of Women’s Associations, concluded the meeting with some recommendations. She challenged participants and the consistently large audience to work toward ensuring that the achievements of the uprisings are maintained and that the current pessimism not dampen such efforts. Above all, the dialogue among countries must continue with attention to specificities.


Mirrored from IslamiCommentary

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