Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Nawal El Saadawi, Writer and Women's Rights Activist

Nawal El Saadwi is an Egyptian physician, author, and feminist who dedicated her life to the political and sexual rights of women. 
"For me feminism includes everything. It is social justice, political justice, sexual justice . . . It is the link between medicine, literature, politics, economics, psychology and history. Feminism is all that. You cannot understand the oppression of women without this." ~ Nawal El Saadawi

Nawal El Saadawi was born in 1931 in a village called Kafr Tahla, just north of Cairo. She was the second of nine children. She felt split among two classes as she grew up, with parents that encouraged her to study. Her mother's class was the upper bourgeois class, where children were taught in French schools and learned to ride horses and play the piano, while her father came from the poor peasant class.

Her parents married when her mother was 15 and her father was thirty; with such different backgrounds it seems unlikely that they would meet, but Nawal's father was ambitious and his mother spent everything she had on getting him a good education. It was this that made the marriage possible.

In an interview in 2010, Nawal recalled being a feminist "since I was a child. I was swimming against the sea all my life." She did not see the same instincts in her brothers and sisters, and muses that she must have inherited the rebel gene from her grandmother, and they did not.

The path of a girl

She was taught the value of girls and women versus boys and men at an early age. In her autobiography, A Daughter of Isis, she recalls her grandmother telling her that daughters and sons were not equal: "a boy is worth 15 girls at least... girls are a blight." She stamped her foot when she heard this news.

In this same book, she writes of her experience of female circumcision.
"When I was six, the daya (midwife) came along holding a razor, pulled out my clitoris from between my thighs and cut it off. She said it was the will of God and she had done his will . . . I lay in a pool of blood. After a few days the bleeding stopped . . . But the pain was there like an abscess deep in my flesh . . . I did not know what other parts in my body there were that might need to be cut off in the same way."
Nawal went to school and was good at it, so her parents supported her efforts. When she was 10 however, as was usual for a middle-class Egyptian household, she was expected to become a child bride.

She rebelled against this; when the first suitor came, she blackened her teeth so they were unattractive and spilled coffee all over him. After he left, her mother stood by her and agreed: she would not have to get married at that time.

By 2010, this phenomenon was happening to a lesser degree, though in an interview with The Guardian Nawal stated the country was having a "relapse" again, due to poverty and religious fundamentalism.

Education and Marriage

So passionate was Nawal about her studies that her parents agreed it would be a good idea to send her to university. She went to Cairo University to study psychiatry, and completed her MD in 1955. During her training to be a doctor Nawal's eyes were opened even further to the horrors of female genital mutilation, and it was then that her "radical" views regarding this practice and others against women took their form.

It was the beginning of a protest against female genital mutilation that Nawal would wage for the next 50 years.

While at medical school, she would fall in love with fellow student Ahmed Helmi, and the couple married and had one daughter. They would divorce after some time when the relationship soured and Ahmed turned to drugs. Next Nawal married a lawyer, but when he told her "you have to choose between me and your writing," she picked her writing.

When her second husband refused to grant her a divorce, stating it was the man who divorces, and not the woman, she became desperate and threatened him with a scalpel. He granted the divorce.

In 1965 Nawal married her third husband: a novelist, doctor, and long-term political prisoner, Sherif Hetata. She had her second child with Sherif, and they have been married for over 50 years.

Medical and Civil Service

From 1955-1965 Nawal worked as a physician at Cairo University and the Egyptian Ministry of Health. She was also a lecturer at universities and an avid writer of novels, plays, and short-stories.

One such publication was Women and Sex, (1969), in which Nawal attacks not only the circumcision of women but the brutalization of a woman's virginity, including a ritual where a midwife is present to ensure a new bride has an intact hymen on her wedding night. Nawal lost her job at the General Director for Public Health for publishing these views, and the magazine she founded three years prior was shut down.

She continued to write novels and speak out about the rights of the women of Egypt, addressing such controversial topics as prostitution, domestic violence, and religious fundamentalism.  In 1981, she was jailed for three months for "crimes against the state;" a time she would use to write Memoirs from the Women's Prison (1984) on a roll of toilet paper with an eyebrow pencil smuggled in by a fellow prisoner.

In 1993, she fled to the US after death threats were issued against her by religious groups.

Nawal was frequently the target of legal and political attacks because of her views, but she remained outspoken. By 2010 she had published nearly 50 volumes of work, some so controversial they were destroyed by her Arabic publishers under intimidation from the police.

For all her years of medical training, it was her writing Nawal felt most passionate about. She described herself as "a novelist first, a novelist second, a novelist third." By writing her words and having them translated into over 30 languages, Nawal had a radical impact on the political and social lives of women in Egypt, who would write to her every day for years, telling her the impact her books had on their lives. For example, the novel Women at Point Zero is one of the best-known Arabic novels outside the Arab world and is considered a key work of Arabic feminist literature.

A student of religion, Nawal criticizes all faiths heavily in her books, believing religious extremism is the biggest threat to women's liberation today. To support the notion that religion should be a personal matter, she helped found the Egyptian chapter of the Global Solidarity for Secular society and supports France's ban on all religious symbols, including the hijab.

In 2008 after decades of writing and campaigning about the issue of circumcision for children, a ban was imposed preventing this practice on young girls. It was a step forward, though Nawal notes that the ritual is still practiced in some circles or in secret, and could always made a comeback. She has now focused her efforts on ending the genital mutilation of young boys, stating "The is no excuse whatsoever for cutting children."

Following in her footsteps

Nawal's daughter is Mona Helmi, a writer and poet. In 2007 in Egypt, Mona created controversy on Mother's Day when she published a piece asking, "What present can I give to my mother – shall I give her shoes? A dress? The gift I will give is to carry her name."

She signed the piece Mona Nawal Helmi.

Mona was taken to court for this action, accused of heresy - "...they said it was heresy because in the Qur'an women should take the name of the father, not the mother." Mona would win the case, but the experience left Nawal feeling betrayed. Her feeling was that she should be getting recognition for all she had done for the women and girls of Egypt, but instead she was getting rejection and persecution.

Recent Years

Nawal has felt more protected since the revolution of 2011 and the rise to power of General Sisi in 2013, whom she views as a better leader than Mubarak before him.

In Egypt, her support among young people has grown, and she continues to accept invitations to speak in different countries and promote new English versions of her books, and to express her thoughts on some contemporary themes. When she does speak, it is without reluctance on topics that others might be afraid to tackle.

In a 2015 interview she says "What is it about, this reluctance to criticise religion? Perhaps, I say, people worry they’ll be seen as racist. Well, religion is the embodiment of racism. All gods are jealous. People get killed because they are not praying to the right god.”

Speaking on her life in Egypt today, she says "I am privileged even though I’m poor. I am in the 5%. I have an apartment and air conditioning. Some people in Egypt live in graves, and they’re the lucky ones. Some don’t even have a grave."

Having been recently denied from a teaching position in a new university in Egypt, Nawal's new goal is to go back to home country and teach.


"It's all worth it. If I went back I would do it all again. That is what I have learned from my experiences, that I was on the right track."

"I am becoming more radical with age. I have noticed that writers, when they are old, become milder. But for me it is the opposite. Age makes me more angry."

  • Nawal El Saadawi: "Do You Feel You are Liberated? I feel I am Not." Rachel Cooke, The Guardian,, October 11 2015.
  • Nawal El Saadawi: Egypt's Radical Feminist, Homa Khaleeli, The Guardian,, April 15, 2010.
  • Nawal El Saadawi, The Editors of the Encyclopedia Britannica,, May 20th 2015.

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