‘Women in the South in Relation to Women in the North’ and ‘Women’s Voice in the North–South Dialogue’

Nawal El Saadawi
Nawal El Saadawi (28 February 1986).
Photo Anthony Lewis/Fairfax Media via Getty Images.

These essays are extracted from The Nawal El Saadawi Reader (1997) and reprinted with the kind permission of the publisher. The first essay, “Women in the South in Relation to Women in the North”, is an excerpt from a paper given to the Afrikagrupperna conference, Stockholm, 13 March 1993. The second, “Women’s Voice in the North-South Dialogue”, was part of a keynote address by El Saadawi to an EEC/Council of Europe conference in Barcelona, 30–31 May 1988.

Women in the South in Relation to Women in the North1

Egypt, my home country and where I live, is part of Africa of course. Just look at the map and you will be sure of that. I mean the map of the earth, of the natural earth (our very ancient mother goddess) and the natural boundaries – not the boundaries made by the colonialists, who divided Africa into so-called “white Africa” and “black Africa”. I believe we should undo what the colonialists and neocolonialists did and are still doing. We should have one Africa.

Why one Africa? some people ask. Why one Europe? The reasons for one Europe are exactly the same as for one Africa, but the colonialists and neocolonialists accept the idea and practice of one Europe but not the idea and practice of one Africa. It is obvious that the unity of Africa (or of any oppressed continent or country or countries) will be against the colonial or neocolonial powers that exploit them. “Divide and rule” has been the philosophy of exploitation since the evolution of slavery (or the patriarchal class-race system). Divide the earth or the universe into sky (spirit) and earth (body). Divide the country, divide the people into masters and slaves. Divide the human being into body and spirit, or soul or mind. Let the masters, the rulers, the patriarchs and their gods and their philosophers represent the mind and the soul. Let the slaves and women and the devil represent the body, the inferior body, with all its animal instincts and sins.

During the Gulf War in 1991 we saw the face of the so-called “devil” in newspapers and magazines in Europe and the USA. Who was the devil? He was the “enemy” of the USA and Europe – the dictator of Iraq who was oppressing the Kuwaitis and the Kurds, who was violating human rights and democracy and not respecting UN resolutions. Thirty armies from the USA and Europe gathered their high-tech military weapons to punish this devil. This same devil was their good friend when he was fighting another devil (Iran). Who is the devil in Africa now? Who is disobeying the orders of the masters in the USA?

How many times did the South African apartheid government and the Israeli government violate human rights and democracy and fail to respect UN resolutions? In 1993 Israel deported four hundred Palestinians and did not respect the UN resolution that it should return them, but there was no punishment, no war was waged against Israel, there were not even any economic sanctions. Just read the history of the struggle of the South African and Palestinian people, just read the newspapers today and you see the obvious double standard of the rulers in the so-called “first” or “developed” world – what is called now the North.

Can we speak about women in the North separate from men in the North? What do we mean by “women in the North” or “women in the South”? If we mean Western feminism versus feminism in Africa can we separate feminism from politics (international and national)? Can we separate feminism from economics or history or philosophy or religion or medicine (of the body and of the so-called psyche) or sociology or anthropology or science or art?

I am originally a medical doctor. I studied the body separate from the mind. I became a very good physician ignorant of the human being as a whole. I had to study psychology and psychiatry to know more. I had to go beyond the medical sciences to study religion, economics, politics, history, philosophy, etcetera, to understand why I was oppressed as a woman, why Egypt was colonised by the British and other foreign powers, why Africa is suffering hunger, starvation, famines and foreign debt though Africa, as I learned in primary school, is a very rich continent.

Africa is one of the richest continents in the world, rich in both material and human resources. Who made Africa so poor? Just one week ago I asked this question to one of the leading feminists in the USA. She said, “You know, poverty in Egypt or Africa is due to the population problem: women there give birth to more children.” I told her: “Do you think that women and children are the cause and not colonialism or neocolonialism?” She said, “Oh my god, why do you blame others? Why blame the United States and not the local dictatorship or African governments?” I told her: “Of course the local governments in Africa are responsible, but who keeps them in power?” She said: “Their people, their people in Africa elected them and keep them in power.” I told her: “But a few seconds ago you were mentioning dictatorships in Africa, which means no democracy and no real free elections.” She could not answer the question.

Feminists in the USA (and in the North in general) are not all the same. They differ a great deal. Some of them are aware of the link between colonialism or international imperialism and poverty or other problems from which we suffer (women and men) in Africa and other parts of the so-called Third World. A feminist from the North (the USA) called Susan Griffin, who is a poet and a researcher living in California, has this to say:

I wrote “Hunger” [a poem] after seeing an exhibition in Paris of a series of photographs taken by Sebastião Salgado. The photographs document the starvation in a region of Africa known as the Sahel. In the United States we have told ourselves that this is a natural calamity. But if we look more closely at the history of colonialism, we discover a different story. Disregard for the natural ecology of a region goes hand in hand with disregard for the natural rights of people to determine their own fate and to live the way they choose. This pattern of domination and disregard has created many of the famines in Africa. Many African people in areas subject to drought used to grow millet and rotate it seasonally. Millet is an important crop because it can grow with very little water. When the white colonists came to Africa they uprooted the millet and substituted other crops such as wheat. When the weather conditions changed, as the tribal societies that had lived there for centuries understood would happen, the wheat could not withstand the dry spells, and hence a famine was created. Seasons of drought would not have had such a devastating effect on millet, but because of the planting of wheat, terrible starvation resulted.

This pattern has been repeated over and over again and is still being repeated. Today, now not in the name of colonialism but in the name of development.2

How was such an American woman able to know some of the truth about our continent? Because Susan Griffin is not an academic but a poet. She is not a pure scientist using only her intellect to understand the world, but a real artist who does not work with her head only but with all her being. That is why I write novels more than so-called non-fiction. In art you feel whole, with no separation between body and mind, spirit or soul. With no separation between form and content, or art and politics or economics or medicine.

“The oppression of women, especially of women who start to learn, is universal, even though the degree of oppression differs from country to country.”

As a medical doctor in rural Egypt in 1956 I asked myself why poor people became more sick than rich people, and I discovered the relationship between poverty and disease. When I asked myself why people became poor I discovered colonialism and dictatorship and politics. When I asked myself why girls are mutilated by female circumcision I discovered slavery in history and the patriarchal class system. But what happened when I started to discover the original causes of physical and mental diseases? I lost my job in the Ministry of Health in Egypt in 1972 under Sadat. I was placed on the blacklist as a writer and a novelist. In September 1981 I was sent to jail, and I was not released until 25 November 1981, two months after the assassination of Sadat.

But this is a very common story in Africa and the Arab world, and indeed in most countries. The oppression of women, especially of women who start to learn, is universal, even though the degree of oppression differs from country to country. In Africa, because the political and economic systems are not as powerful as in the capitalist, military industrial North, the governments and local dictatorships are fiercer in fighting the opposition. In the North, governments do not mind opposition so long as it does not threaten the class-patriarchal-race system. This is “Western democracy”. We in Africa call it “Hyde Park democracy”: people can talk, they can write, they can demonstrate, so long as they have no real power.3 Real power is the police, the military, capital and religion. Women are outside this real power in the North as well as in the South.

I do not like to divide the globe into North and South. Such a division hides the real causes of oppression and exploitation. There are many local black governments, containing both men and women, who oppress their own people, who collaborate with international colonial and neocolonial powers in the North. There are also many white women and men in the North who fight against their own governments and support people in the South who fight against colonialism and neocolonialism.

In 1982 we established our Arab Women’s Solidarity Association: 30 percent of our members are men fighting with us against the class patriarchal system internationally, nationally and in the family. In 1990 I was in Johannesburg to attend an international writers’ conference and met a lot of women who were fighting against the racist apartheid government. They understand feminism in the same way we understand it in our Arab Women’s Solidarity Association: there is no separation between race, gender or class oppression. There is no separation between war in the Gulf and war in South Africa or war in Bosnia or war in Palestine. The original causes are the same.

Why is it that the international powers hurried to save the Kuwaiti women who were raped by Iraqi soldiers but did not hurry to save women who were raped in Bosnia by the Serbs? I read that at least 30,000 Bosnian women were raped, versus 30 in Kuwait. Everybody now says, if Bosnia had oil … Yes, that is the real problem of the Arab world. Since the discovery of oil, our region, the so-called Middle East, has become a target of colonial and neocolonial exploitation. Since the discovery of the rich raw materials of Africa, the diamonds and other treasures of the earth, Africa has been a target of colonialism and neocolonialism.

On 9 March 1993 an American feminist called Susan Jeffords gave a lecture in Duke University under the title “Rape and US National Identity”. She explained how the US military patriarchal machine used the rape of women as a pretext to launch war against the “villain” or “devil”. She also explained how the “devil” changed all the time according to the economic and political interests of the US government and the multinationals. On 21 February 1993 I participated in a demonstration in Washington, DC, organised by the National Organization of Women (NOW). The demonstration was against the raping of women in Bosnia. It was a very cold Sunday, and hundreds of women and men stood in rain, and sometimes snow, shouting against the oppression of women all over the world, including the USA. There were five speakers, including myself. The US media covered the event on TV and radio and in newspapers, but they censored our speeches. They covered only the descriptive parts, about rape in Bosnia. They cut the points that linked the rape of women to politics and economics.

The media in the North is part of the war against us, the people in Africa and other people in the so-called Third World. In the North it is women, mainly, who support us, and who fight with us against colonialism, whether international or national or in the family.

We are facing an economic and mental crisis in the South as well as in the North. Most countries in the South and the North are facing economic crisis, manifested by high rates of unemployment, foreign debts, inflation and increasing budget deficits. The so-called “only super-power in the world”, the USA, is on the verge of economic collapse, according to President Clinton’s speech to Congress of February 1993. The former Soviet Union is collapsing economically. A young African university woman asked me, “If the US is collapsing economically why do they send military personnel to rescue Somalia from starvation and famine?” I asked her, “Why does the US want to rescue Somalia and not Bosnia, and why do children in Somalia throw stones at the US troops who have come to rescue them or feed them, as the media says?” It seems that those hungry children in Somalia are more aware of politics and the real reasons behind military intervention in Africa than many of our university women and men, and than many African leaders and journalists who participate in the media campaign of brainwashing, in the South as well as in the North.

Women’s Voice in the North–South Dialogue4


When women of the Arab countries started to organise ourselves in the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association we had no funds with which to start the projects we had formulated. So we started to seek assistance from individuals, institutions and organisations within our countries. Then we made attempts to obtain funds from foreign sources. I wrote over one hundred letters to different people and organisations. Some of the Arab petrodollar institutions agreed to assist us but posed conditions that we refused and so this source of assistance never materialised. Then some international bodies in the countries of the North sent us sums for our activities and posed no conditions except the presentation of a final report after the assistance had been expended. But after this initial phase was over, all further requests for assistance were met by complete silence. We could not understand why, but later we came to realise from various sources that this was because we had not complied with these bodies’ view of what a women’s organisation in the South should do. We were an organisation that spoke of patriarchy and class and women’s oppression and tried to organise women and make them more conscious so that they would become a progressive force capable of changing their situation and developing their societies. What they wanted was a women’s organisation that told women they should have fewer babies, that distributed contraceptives and fixed IUDs in the orifices of women’s uteri or developed the kind of “development projects” that have failed all over the Third World and only serve to fill the pockets of those who sponsor them or to change people into instruments of certain policies. So we began to depend on ourselves and in the process found out that we had possibilities that had not been thought of. We were learning to be independent, growing up. We were learning the truth of the saying, “Instead of giving me a fish, teach me how to catch it”, a principle that should apply, and rarely does, to all development aid going to the countries and institutions of the South.

I do not want to expand on a subject that is familiar to all of you. The negative impact of aid on the economies of the South is only too well known. It is one of the instruments of increased exploitation, of the linking of the economies of the South to the North, of the creation of divisions, of the depletion of resources, of the maintenance of dependence. Today we are faced with the disastrous consequences of the enormous international debt owed by the countries of the South to the North, and we feverishly seek ways to keep the economies of the countries of the South afloat. Ostensibly aid is meant to help the poorer countries of the world. In fact it is a means of linking them and exploiting their natural and human resources to the advantage of the North. And with the growing crisis in the South, its countries must seek new ways of solidarity and cooperation, new relations between themselves, and between themselves and the North in a world faced by the need to remould its economic order more equitably on a broad range of issues.


We in the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association know that solidarity can only grow in the light of knowledge and understanding. That is why the aims expressed in our motto are threefold: “Power of Women – Solidarity – Unveiling of the Mind”. How can the mind of the South be unveiled, for the South is like an African, or an Asian, or an Arab woman wearing a veil imported from abroad, who thinks that she is defying the North by returning to tradition, to what she imagines as being her identity, and by donning what is called the Muslim dress. This is one of the most widespread forms of brainwashing, and it creates the illusion that a return to the religious traditions and values practised hundreds of years ago is a solution to the economic and political dependence that holds the South in its yoke.

“Ostensibly aid is meant to help the poorer countries of the world. In fact it is a means of linking them and exploiting their natural and human resources to the advantage of the North.”

What we require is not a formal return to tradition and religion but a rereading, a reinterpretation, of our history that can illuminate the present and pave the way to a better future. For example, if we delve more deeply into ancient Egyptian and African civilisations we will discover the humanistic elements that were prevalent in many areas of life. Women enjoyed a high status and rights, which they later lost when class patriarchal society became the prevalent social system.

Western orientalist circles have tried to deprive us of our history just as Western capitalist circles have deprived us of our resources. We are required to be without a civilisation, without a culture, without a past, and without roots. Misconceptions related to our history have been widely mooted. For example, Ancient Greek civilisation has been cut off from Ancient Egyptian and Ancient African civilisations; this has paved the way for a consistently dominant school of history that considers that modern Europe is the descendant of Ancient Greek civilisation and thought. According to this theory, the civilisation of the North has no roots in the South. This school of thought severs the human patrimony into two, creates the dichotomy between South and North, and facilitates the ideology of domination that still prevails in the relations between the two.

One of the modern historians, however, has made an original contribution in his book Black Athena by tracing the Egyptian and Afro-asian roots of the civilisation of the Ancient Greeks.5 Martin Bernal has tried to make the human linkages that bring us together rather than the linkages of exploitation and denial that separate us and keep pushing the world to the brink of disaster.

Technology exported by the North to the South has not served as an instrument of real development but has tended to propagate the patterns that serve the interests of the North, to integrate the periphery into the centre, and to make it wholly dependent instead of helping its countries to stand on their own feet and strengthen their agricultural, industrial and human capabilities. True, the peoples of the South produce more, grow more and work more. But are they better off? And if not, how is it that aid and technological cooperation have led only to debts, a growing deficit, falling standards of living, inflation and unemployment? Are these the fruits of North–South cooperation? Western economists and politicians say this state of affairs has come about because we are lazy or inefficient or backward or have bad leaders. But is it not a fact that in the world of today our riches continue to be pumped out from South to North? True, there is a lot that the peoples of the South must do to change things: to depend on their own inner strength and their own resources to create solidarity among themselves in the struggle for a new economic order.

The world economic order is the witness of an important change in the relative development of economic forces, with the European Economic Community (EEC) and Japan moving abreast of the US giant. The economic potential of the EEC is enormous if note is taken of the fact that it encompasses a market of 325 million consumers as compared to 246 million in the USA and 122 million in Japan. By the end of 1988 it is expected that total production in the EEC will represent 22 percent of total world production, that is, $4,100 million compared to the USA’s $4,700 million. Statistics also show that the economic weight of the USA in total world production dropped from 32 percent at the beginning of the seventies to 28 percent in 1988. It also shifted from being a net creditor owed a total of $141 million, to being a debtor to the tune of $400 million.

This means that the EEC is called upon by the world economy to play an increasing role in North–South relations. To attain real equality in mutual relations and benefits between South and North countries will be a long struggle, and will require substantial changes in the direction of a new economic order. But my question is, will the EEC continue to follow policies dictated predominately by US interests, or interests linked to the USA? Is it possible to envisage a gradual transformation in relations between North and South built on a new vision of the world of tomorrow? If capitalist relations continue to govern the major part of our world, must it be the most aggressive and reactionary forces that hold the upper hand, those built on war, on military production, on the arms race, on racial, ethnic, sexual and religious discrimination, on destruction of the natural environment, pollution and imbalance of the ecosystem, on master–slave relations between countries and peoples of the South and countries and peoples of the North? Or is it possible to imagine that Europe can constitute an independent force that can discover new horizons for the capitalist world where peace between nations is possible, where economic development and profits are perceived as best served by a more balanced development for all, where a more prosperous South can help to create a greater prosperity for the North and to halt the vicious circle of currency depreciation, reduced production and unemployment, and face the rapidly growing problems of environmental deterioration?

That is the question asked with increasing insistence in many circles. So far the response has been negative. The years pass, congresses and meetings are held, politicians and experts exchange views, institutions are born or stagnate in boredom, yet nothing seems to change in the North–South dialogue. Yes, we agree on the need for solidarity and independence, but on what terms: mutual benefit, or the terms dictated by a powerful minority who can see no further than their profits and control?

We need a new solidarity, a new vision that can transform the present confrontation between South and North into a new dialogue. Let me cite as an example the UN conference for the Promotion of International Cooperation in Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy (held in Geneva, March–April 1987). The summary of the work of the conference adopted by participants includes this statement:

exclusive efforts were made by the conference to reach agreements on principles universally acceptable for international cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy […] despite its efforts, the conference was unable to reach an agreement on principles for international cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

Failure to solve this major problem indicates a deep crisis of purpose and goals resulting from the preponderance of narrow interests. In the absence of a change in the mentality of influential sectors in the North, the dialogue between South and North will continue to go round in a circle, leading to an unnecessary gap between North and South and to rapidly growing inequities in a world where scientific and technological knowledge remains the devastating prerogative of a privileged few.

“The ideas of solidarity and interdependence must receive a new impetus, a new outlook that will change master–slave relationships into a common endeavour for a better world for all concerned. In this area, solidarity between the peoples and states of the South can be a potent lever.”

It is vital that all concerned work hard towards agreement on new purposes and new goals not only in the fields of military (defensive) and nuclear technology and material production, but also in the social, educational, cultural and informational fields. This redefinition of goals and purposes is a fundamental condition for any success in the North–South dialogue. The ideas of solidarity and interdependence must receive a new impetus, a new outlook that will change master–slave relationships into a common endeavour for a better world for all concerned. In this area, solidarity between the peoples and states of the South can be a potent lever. If this is coupled with a new outlook amongst the peoples of the North, and in particular amongst capitalist circles not primarily interested in military production and war, we may witness a new turn in the North–South dialogue.

History is bringing North closer to South and East closer to West. It is bringing different, diversified cultures closer. The globe is shrinking and we face globalisation. But the concept of universality should be redefined. It should not mean central control, monopoly and domination of one country over another. Real human universality and unity should be democratic, and respect differences, interests and multiple systems.


Women in the South and the North have been playing an increasingly important role through the feminist movement. You may see both negative and positive aspects in this movement, yet on the whole its general contribution in the field of human thought – of new ideas and forms of action – and in changing society has been important. Women continue to raise issues related to social justice, peace and development, and they tend to emphasise the cultural and human aspects of relationships between people rather than matters related to economic growth and military strength. They have contributed to the struggle against patriarchal class relations entrenched in state and religious institutions on a global scale: in the multinational economic and political network right down to the smallest unit constituted by the family.

The International Women’s Decade (1975–1985) helped to bring women of the North and South closer together and to eliminate some misunderstandings. In the South, mistrust of the “white woman”, which often leads to over-reaction and sensitivities, is being overcome by the multiple exchanges taking place and by common action. There has been a tendency amongst some women in the North to consider the feminist movement as a Western innovation and to lay down patterns of thought and action for all women – even those in the South whose conditions and history are different and who must therefore seek original forms of organisation and appropriate solutions to their problems.

For example, in the countries of the South we do not believe that the women’s emancipation movement should be developed on the basis of solidarity between women against men, that the struggle is that of woman against man. Women must organise and be able to exert pressure as a political, economic and cultural force. But the aim is a concerted effort to change relations within society – and between men and women – in the direction of greater equality, a more profound understanding and a deeper humanity. This will entail struggle, but we are against animosity, hatred and enmity between the sexes, which can only serve to accentuate problems and prevent men and women from being partners in building a better future.

One notable development has been the changing attitude of women in the “socialist countries” toward the feminist movement. I quote from the opening statement made by the president of the World Federation of Democratic Women, Freda Brown, at the International Conference of Women held in Moscow during June 1987:

We have never made an effort to understand and analyse the feminist movement, despite the deep influence it has had on events in different areas and in different parts of the world. In the “Plan of Work” approved by the Federation one of the resolutions runs as follows: “Give special attention and importance to the understanding and analysis of feminist movements, and to studying ways and means of cooperation with these movements and with different groups of women all over the world.”6

There is no doubt that we have learned a lot during the period through which we are living. We realise that the world is growing smaller, that peoples and nations are coming closer, that our future hangs together. Men and women all over the world must seek to change the system under which we live, a system built on exploitation and oppression, on a dualism that creates more and more divisions between higher and lower, black and white, men and women, North and South, rich and poor. We need to work towards a new world system, a new economic, political and information order bulk on increasing equality, mutual respect and exchange, human dignity and human rights.

In this difficult struggle women can play an increasingly important role. Not only do they constitute half the society, they suffer a double burden of oppression, and their relations with the human experiences of life, death, reproduction and child rearing are much more intimate and concrete than those of men. They can therefore bring to the task of creating new relations between North and South a human depth that so far has been sadly lacking in the ruthless struggle for power and wealth.


Nawal El Saadawi was an internationally renowned writer, novelist and fighter for women’s rights in Egypt and abroad. In the early 1970s, El Saadawi began to write works of fiction and non-fiction on the oppression of Arab women. Her renowned novel, Woman at Point Zero, was published in Beirut in 1973. It was followed in 1976 by God Dies by the Nile, and in 1977 by her study of Arab women, The Hidden Face of Eve. In 1981, El Saadawi publicly criticised the one-party rule of President Anwar Sadat, and was arrested and imprisoned. She was released one month after Sadat’s assassination. In 1982, she established the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association, which was outlawed in 1991. For some years during the Mubarak regime, El Saadawi lived in exile, teaching in universities in the USA and Europe, including Duke and Washington State. She returned to Egypt in 1996. She held honorary doctorates from the universities of York, Illinois at Chicago, St Andrews, Tromsø and the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, amongst others. Her many prizes and awards include the Premi Internacional Catalunya (2003), the Council of Europe North–South Prize (2004), the Women of the Year Award (UK, 2011), the Seán MacBride Peace Prize (Ireland, 2012) and the French National Order of Merit (2013). Her books have been translated into over 40 languages and are taught in universities across the world.

Adapted from El Saadawi, N. (1997). The Nawal El Saadawi Reader. London: Zed Books, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. Republished by permission. All rights reserved


  1. Excerpt from a paper given to the Afrikagrupperna conference, Stockholm, 13 March 1993, in El Saadawi, N. (1997). The Nawal El Saadawi Reader. London: Bloomsbury.
  2. Susan Griffin, in Diamond, I. and Orenstein, G. (eds.) (1990). Reweaving the World: The Emergence of Ecofeminism. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, p. 95.
  3. Or make open-air speeches, as people do at Speaker’s Corner, in London’s Hyde Park.
  4. Part of a keynote address to an EEC/Council of Europe conference in Barcelona, 30–31 May 1988, in El Sadaawi, N. (1997). The Nawal El Saadawi Reader. London: Bloomsbury.
  5. Bernal, M. (1987). Black Athena: The Afroasian Roots of Classical Civilization. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, pp 2–27.
  6. Pamphlet summarising the Ninth Congress of the World Federation of Democratic Women, Moscow, 28–29 June 1987, pp. 10, 33.

How to cite this article:
Nawal El Saadawi (2024), "‘Women in the South in Relation to Women in the North’ and ‘Women’s Voice in the North–South Dialogue’" in JCAF Journal: Interdisciplinary Knowledge from the South No. 1. https://jcafjournal.org.za/women-in-the-south-in-relation-to-women-in-the-north-and-womens-voice-in-the-north-south-dialogue/. Accessed 16 July 2024.