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Inspiring Thursday: Nawal al-Saadawi

“Danger has been a part of my life ever since I picked up a pen and wrote. Nothing is more perilous than truth in a world that lies.”

Nawal al-Saadawi was an Egyptian feminist writer, activist, physician, and psychiatrist. She is sometimes described as the “Simone de Beauvoir of the Arab world” and is considered the “grandmother of the Arab feminist movement” and “Umm al-Women’s Rights” (mother of women’s rights) in Egypt. Al-Saadawi has written over 55 books dedicated to women’s political and sexual rights and has been translated into more than 32 languages. After a lifetime spent fighting for women’s rights and equality, she died in March 2021 at the age of 89.

Writing and Activism

Born in October 1931 in a village north of Cairo, al-Saadawi studied medicine at Cairo University, Columbia University in New York, and ʿAyn Shams University in Cairo. After working as a physician at Cairo University and in the Egyptian ministry of health, she became the director-general of the health education department within the ministry in 1966. Her book ‘Women and Sex’ (1969) was met with a backlash of criticism and condemnation from Egypt’s political and religious establishment, resulting in her dismissal from her job at the health ministry in 1972.

Nawal al-Saadawi especially became known for first addressing the issue of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) in Egypt in her book ‘The Hidden Face of Eve’ (1977), in which she describes undergoing FGM/C at the age of six. Due to her own traumatic experience and after seeing the damage it could do during her work as a village doctor, she continuously campaigned against the practice, which she described as a patriarchal tool for control. FGM/C was legally banned in Egypt in 2008, but is still being practiced all over the world.

Imprisonment

In 1981, she was charged with “crimes against the State” and imprisoned together with thousands of other intellectuals under the regime of President Anwar Sadat for questioning the establishment and writing forcefully about women’s rights. During her two months in prison, al-Saadawi wrote several short stories with an eyebrow pencil on a toilet paper roll. The stories were later published in ‘Memoirs from the Women’s Prison’ (1983) and all contain a message of the need for justice for the oppressed.

While in prison, she also founded the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association (AWSA), which was the first legal and independent feminist group in Egypt. She later served as editor of the organization’s publication, Al-Nūn. Both Al-Nūn and AWSA were closed-down by the government ten years later in 1991/92; all their funds were seized in the Western zone of Cairo because of al-Saadawi’s clear stance against FGM.

“In Islamic countries, oppression is shown by material things such as the headscarf; in the West, it is more psychological.”

Exile

After receiving threats from Islamic fundamentalist and due to continued political prosecution, including accusations of apostasy, al-Saadawi was forced to flee Egypt in 1993 and not allowed to return until 1996. Including her time in exile, al-Saadawi has taught and lived in the US and Europe for over 13 years. She has spoken out against using the terms “West,” “East,” and “Middle East,” because those terms originated based off of their relation to England, as if England were the center of the world.

In Egypt itself, al-Saadawi was above all an inspiration for generations of women, although she has played only a marginal role in the Egyptian women’s movement itself since the mid-1990s. It was young activists who campaigned against the rampant sexual harassment in public or to reform family law in Egypt. While al-Saadawi had also participated in the protests on Tahrir Square in 2011, she essentially relegated herself to interviews with international media in her later years. In an interview with a German magazine, she described religions with their patriarchal structures as a means of controlling women and exploiting them for the interests of men.

Criticism

Many activists at the time followed her in accusing the Muslim Brotherhood, elected to government in 2012, of co-opting the revolution. But al-Saadawi increasingly came under criticism when she began to defend the regime of current President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi and its human rights violations after the military took power in 2013. Former Tahrir activist and now London-based author Shady Lewis Botros wrote in his obituary that despite her problematic positions in her later years, she gave many women, not only in Egypt but in the whole Arab world, a new sense of self-worth:

“For many generations, El Saadawi was the personified image of feminism, women’s rights and the idea of rebellion to boldly challenge the injustices in society.”


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Written by WAVE Intern Verena Henneberger