Place, Process and postcolonial feminism of Sadu by Zuhoor AlSayegh

Place, Process and postcolonial feminism of Sadu by Zuhoor AlSayegh

How the study of an indigenous craft such as Sadu supports what de-colonialist and postcolonial feminist theorists say is needed to decolonize our feminism. 


The term Sadu refers to the “extension of the hand”, which could also be referencing the movement of the weaver as they continuously extend to reach the lengths of the floor loom. The loom used was called by the same name and was extremely practical and portable to cater to the nomadic lifestyle. “The loom consisted simply of two horizontal beams, tensioned by four upright stakes that were thrust into the sand, with two further rods for the heddles and warp-cross. A carved wooden sword beater was used to separate the warp threads and beat the weft threads into place. A long stick was used as a shuttle to carry the weft thread and a hooked gazelle horn (mishrat) was used to beat the weft threads to tighten the weave structure, and was highly prized by its owner” Seeing how intertwined the technicalities of Sadu are with the nomadic lifestyle, it’s easy to understand how sudden urbanization can make the taxing and sometimes expensive process of Sadu futile. The most skilled Sadu weavers implement their own style or expressions into the weaving. A skilled weavers' pride was her weavings and her skill level was closely tied to her social standing. So, what does it mean for the woman when she is stripped of this? I delve into the impacts of rapid industrialization on local craftswoman through case studies, while assessing how the matrilineal systems embedded in traditional craft techniques can be a foundation for female empowerment. 


Sadu is a matriarchal system that is a microcosm of the way the economy worked for tribes prior to rapid economic and cultural shifts in the region. It is self-sufficient and tied to “natural environmental cycles and seasonal changes” It’s a system that if revived in the right way can easily represent the post-colonial or de-colonial feminist’s agenda. Post-colonial feminism is a critique of hegemonic “western” feminisms. It is a “hopeful discourse, it seeks peaceful solutions for all marginalized women… Postcolonial feminists work for social, cultural, economic, and religious freedoms for women.” Post-colonial feminists try to tackle the ever-morphing fragility of Arab identity following western imperialism. Enforcing a way of life that was static heavily impacted the identity of the Arab people and more specifically the Bedouin tribes. Understanding the way of life of Bedouin tribes in the Middle East is central to unraveling the reasons Sadu struggles with survival so heavily.


“Life in the desert required movement to get the essential resources of water and foodstuffs for the tribespeople and their livestock.” Due to rapid economic and cultural change in the Gulf the Bedouin lifestyle has greatly diminished. It is unclear how much of the urbanization of the Bedouin tribes was forced and how much of it was a necessary assimilation to survive. However, the Bedouin migration styles were what birthed Sadu, and every development that Sadu experienced came out of necessity and convenience.  “Governed by the principles of Islam, Bedouin tribal women, when compared to women who were urban dwellers, experienced certain freedoms and responsibilities within the tribe, and women master weavers, capable of the most skillful weaving techniques, were highly respected and were called dhefra or “victorious.” The Sadu weavings were used to create the tents or beit al sha’ar (translated directly, house of hair) that the Bedouin tribes lived in, with the most lavish or decorative patterns being used in the middle of the tent as a way to segregate the men and the women.


Returning to before the term feminism was coined we can look at the Andalusian Princess Wallada bint Al Mustakfi. She was a notorious poet and advocate for the education of women. It is said that when she inherited her father’s palace she turned it into a school for girls. Walaada is known for stitching into the inside of her abaya one of her poems: (loosely translated)

I am, by Allah, fit for high positions

And am going my way, with pride! 

Forsooth I allow my lover to kiss my cheek 

And bestow my kisses on him who craves it.


Wallada was very aware of her body and her sexuality. Stitching this verse on the inside of her abaya was a protest and a way of asserting herself. This act should be analyzed within the context of the period and location. Andalusia was known to be much more liberal in comparison to some of the other Islamic caliphs because of the unique mix of the Mediterranean liberalism with the slightly ridged nature of Islam.

We can draw parallels between Wallada’s individual protest and the waves of decolonization during and post the second world war. In the rest of the Arab world we see Pan-Arabism followed by Islamic nationalism all offering different solutions to the vacuum of identity left by colonialism. Women were crucial to the creation of these national identities. More specifically the Arab-Islamic community due to their “role as ‘symbolic cultural bearers’ of national traditions.” Fanon, when talking about Algerian society, states that “beneath the patrilineal pattern of Algerian society, the specialists described a structure of matrilineal essence.” 


Little known is that a year before the formation of the Arab League in 1945, an Arab feminist conference took place in Cairo, inaugurating the Pan-Arab feminist ideology and demands. Women from Arab nations came together to form a Pan-Arab identity that would benefit their feminist ideology. The conference included women teachers, journalists, and government employees. 51 resolutions addressing political, social and economic goals with an emphasis on gender equality within Pan-Arab unity were formed. 


We can supplement these historical examples with theory to better assess the importance of drawing from our own practices to empower ourselves. In ‘Feminism Without Borders’, Mohanty critiques hegemonic feminism as ‘othering’ in order to define themselves. Including manifestos or feminisms that claim all women are hegemonic and thus monolithic: “The first analytic presupposition I focus on is involved in the strategic location of the category ‘women’ vis-a-vis the context of analysis. The assumption of women as an already constituted, coherent group with identical interests and desires, regardless of class, ethnic, or racial location, or contradictions, implies a notion of gender or sexual difference or even patriarchy that can be applied universally and cross-culturally.” The issues Mohanty brings to light are what de-colonial feminists such as Hourija Boutildja are encountering and trying to deconstruct. In We, indigenous women Boutildja quotes a conversation she had with a friend, where her friend states “I have never been a feminist. I never even thought about it. For me, feminism is like chocolate.” She then interjects that “reproaching us for not being feminists is like reproaching a poor person for not eating caviar.” For non-white women these theories are a necessity. To survive and progress as a people we need to redefine dominant feminist ideologies and de-homogenize the feminisms we support that are for the most part a luxury, and create one that is a necessity – water vs caviar. In my opinion what needs to accompany the critique and possible deconstruction of “western” feminisms are studies of matriarchal systems that always functioned and thrived separate to the western canon of feminism. I’d like to write about various feminisms while also writing about Sadu weaving, the culture that surrounds it, and how we can elevate it to exist in the modern world without commodifying it.


There are a few organizations that attempt to maintain indigenous crafts by giving them a business model that can be applied in the modern world. Al Ghadeer is a non-profit organization based in the United Arab Emirates and funded by the Red Crescent. Al Ghadeer has been a pioneer in the region as it offers the women unprecedented support by buying their products regardless of whether they sell or not. This offers financial incentive but still leaves the artisans little room for advancement. It also commodifies them as it places their value as monetary, which is a metric that is entirely too simplistic when assessing the value of craft. With that being said it is still important to assess the individual case studies of the women at Al Ghadeer to understand their perspectives on being part of the organization. 


I would like to tell the story of Najaa. Najaa moved to a city away from family and familiarity and although this is a contemporary story it can be assessed in parallel with histories of forced urbanization. In Najaa’s case it was for her husband to be able to continue to support their family. The move resulted in her clinical depression and taking antidepressants. Najaa’s hands were stiffening and she had to endure years of physiotherapy as well as insomnia and continued financial problems despite the move. Najaa now works with Al Ghadeer as a weaver and says that “for (her) the real change was not material, it was personal and lifted (her) spirits.” Showing the depth of the ties between craftswoman and craft and highlighting the importance of empowering these women through their craft as a process of decolonization.


Tufla is another woman who works at Al Ghadeer. She is the eldest craftswoman at Al Ghadeer and the rapid development of the country affects her the most. Tufla recalls a time where there were no schools or hospitals and the local population was self-sufficient (it’s important to recognize that despite the lack of institutional presence of hospitals and schools it doesn’t mean the population didn’t have access to health care and education). Tufla is currently the sole breadwinner of her household as her husband is bed-ridden and she must provide for her kids including a son that has special-needs. Tufla grows palm trees from which she hand-picks the fronds for the Khoos pieces which she makes herself, as well as harvesting and selling the dates. Tufla also sells home-made spices and roasts her own coffee beans and despite being illiterate, is passionate about poetry and has memorized dozens of verses.


To expand my first hand understanding of the study of intangible heritage in the UAE, I interviewed Dana Al Mazrouei who has conducted research on artisans in the UAE. In our conversation, we discussed the risks of the intangible heritage of the women of Al Dhafrah deteriorating and what it means to safeguard this craft. Mazrouei emphasized the need to examine, on a cultural level, collaborative practice and its impact on how the craftswomen and their practice exist. Mazrouei brought to my attention that the way I was viewing these crafts as elements of history was flawed, as these practices still exist within the living rooms of the craftswomen and outside of institutionally staged heritage. Because the UAE is such a young country we are constantly trying to prove that we ‘have enough history’. And with the intention of safeguarding, we fossilize communities that are still very much alive and thriving.


In order to safeguard these crafts, we need to instead treat them as living entities and emphasize the three dimensionality of these crafts and their communities. Al Mazrouei highlighted in our conversation the unnecessary dependency on ‘the mediator’; institutions that interact with the artisans as part time employees as opposed to really integrating them into the institutional rankings. This structure makes the craftswoman constantly dependent on the institution as opposed to empowering them. This is very much a western institutional model that is being attached to a non-western community driven practice. In order to create something that can be revived we will need to de-colonize these systems and implement a community engagement model that works from the bottom up. The craftswoman should be trained to develop the pedagogy and to decide how she wants to engage with the community – moving past the performance of heritage and into reviving it. 


When we look at the micro and macro elements of craft communities we can see that when revived correctly they can be vital to female empowerment in the region and thus, important parts of any de-colonial or post-colonial theory. De-colonialism acknowledges that we are still dealing with the social, political and economic ramifications of colonialism and the tumultuous journey ahead of the Sadu weavers in all the different communities is evidence of that. My practice and learning these techniques are central to my own personal decolonization, but also trying to offer a tangible solution is a huge priority for me, and is an issue I hope to try and address in my work.

Zuhoor Al Sayegh is an interdisciplinary artist who works primarily in textile, she is a member of artist run space BAIT15 in Abu Dhabi. Al Sayegh graduated with a BFA from SAIC (School of the art institute of Chicago). Her research interests revolve around indigenous textile practices and the decolonization of her own craft.

Reading list 

I compiled a reading list with pieces that I believe are central towards discussing the history of textile in relation to the politics and social dynamics that I perceive influence the craft.
On Weaving by Anni Albers 

Leap before you look : Black Mountain College, 1933-1957  By: Helen Anne Molesworth,


The golden thread : how fabric changed history by Kassia St Clair.

Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance by bell hooks

Gateways to the world : port cities in the Persian Gulf by Mehran Kamrava

Opening the Gates: An Anthology of Arab Feminist Writing. by Badran, Margot, and Miriam Cooke. 
A Dying Colonialism. by Frantz Fanon.
Gee’s Bend’s Quilts
Symposium: Commodification, Intellectual Property and the Quilters of Gee's Bend by Victoria F. Phillips
Exell, K. and Rico, T. (2014). Cultural Heritage in the Arabian Peninsula: Debates, Discourses and Practices. Farnham: Taylor & Francis Group.
Ravetz, A., Kettle, A. and Felcey, H. (2013) Collaboration Through Craft. UK: Bloomsbury. 
Smith, L. (2008). “Heritage, gender and identity”, in Howard, P. (2008). The Ashgate Research Companion to Heritage and Identity. London: Taylor & Francis Group
Grahn, W. and Wilson, R.J. eds., 2018. Gender and Heritage: Performance, Place and Politics. Routledge. 

Material symbols of traditional Bedouin Al-Sadu weavings of Kuwait – Keireine Canavan and Ali Alnajadah
Raj Kumar Mishra - Postcolonial feminism: looking into within-beyond-to difference
"Wallada Bint Al-Mustakfi, Poetic Princess." HeadStuff
Post-Colonial Identity and Gender in the Arab World: The Case of the Hijab Paul Eid, (Abu Odeh 1993)
Decolonization: Perspectives from Now and Then, Prasenjit Duara
Chandra Talpade Mohanty FEMINISM WITHOUT BORDERS Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity 
Houria Bouteldja – we, indigenous women 
Phone call with Amna Al Nowais, April 25th 2018. All subsequent references are to Al Nowais 2018
Interview with Dana Al Mazrouei, November 10th 2020. All subsequent references are to Al Mazrouei 2020