Nawal El Saadawi

Women We Love: Nawal El Saadawi

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L’étrange Madone

Born and bred in a third world country, trying to reconcile my desire to live according to my own terms and respecting traditions. I am here to exorcise this paradox.

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When I started writing for TRN, I discovered that I have relied on American and European female feminist writers to learn about feminism. I am from North Africa, which is part of the Arab world, and this made me wonder why I did not rely on Arab feminists to build this knowledge. The truth is, I am clueless about who they are. I can even say that for years I doubted their existence, aside from Nawal El Saadawi. I’d heard about her. Everyone who has a Facebook in the Arab world must have come across one of her quotes written over a cheesy floral background. Until this article, I have never felt compelled to know more about her or any other feminist writers from my culture. It’s a shame to admit this. It’s a shame that only those who have a certain level of education know about Nawal’s ideologies, life, struggle and history. I feel it’s my duty to learn about her, and to share it with you, reader.

Nawal El Saadawi is THE Arab feminist rockstar. She is an Egyptian writer, activist, physician, and psychiatrist. Nawal is able to address the issues facing women in Egypt on both the physical and psychological level. The subject that is dearest to her heart is Female Genitalia Mutilation; she herself was excised at age 6. In her book Women and Sex, which was banned for almost twenty years after its publication, Nawal says “I have been fighting the cutting of children, male and female, all my life” because she knows firsthand how it impacts their lives and scars them psychologically forever. She still remembers the moment of her excision and how she reached for her mother for help and saw her just standing, motionless, letting it all happen to her. This is a traumatizing experience that millions of girls  go through. According to UNICEF, in 2005, 97% of all Egyptian girls were excised.

Nawal Ed Saadawi
Nawal as a young woman.

The badassness of Nawal comes from the fact that throughout her life she never refrained from expressing her opinion. Nawal attacks the way Arab society treats the female body and its obsession with virginity. She has very strong opinions against the veil and Muslim extremists. Because of her beliefs, she was on a death list issued by a Saudi newspaper. It must be noted that she never encouraged female nudity or lewdness but merely challenged the double standards of her society:

“No one criticizes a woman who is half-naked. This is so called freedom, too. The problem is our conception of freedom. Men are encouraged to neither be half-naked nor veiled. Why?”

Nawal was imprisoned under the rule of President Sadat. During President Mubarak’s rule, he assigned protection for her after she received death threats. Guards were in front of her house seemingly protecting her life, but in reality keeping an eye on her, allowing the government to control the dissidents at that time. She was kicked out of many jobs and high positions and even lost “Al Sihha” (Health), a magazine she founded.

What she suffered was the fate of most dissidents and activists in the Arab world, but what makes Nawal threatening is that she has a far greater influence that isn’t limited to one country or one era. She is now 85 and her opinion is still sought after, whether on ISIS, the Arab revolutions, politics, laws, etc. She is still untamed and unafraid and hated. To this day Nawal is considered the spawn of Satan by sheikhs and muftis in Egypt who prosecuted her and asked for her excommunication from Islam, beheading, and having her Egyptian nationality revoked.
Nawal El Saadawi

From her experience in prison, she wrote Woman at Point Zero, the story of Ferdaus, which was inspired by her fellow inmate, a prostitute convicted for murdering her pimp. Other writings include Memoirs of a Woman Doctor, in which she tackled the issue of freedom from family constraints, women’s independence and how it’s perceived in society. Needless to say, it’s a negative point of view. The publisher of The Fall of The Imam refused to distribute the book because after reading it, he thought it’s publication would make Allah angry with him.

Nawal was always considered a man-hater, prejudiced especially against Arab men whom she sought to demean in comparison to Western men, but this explains it all:

“The problem, by the way, is not Egyptian men. I have Egyptian friends who married British and American men, and they lived in hell […] Egyptian men are not violent relative to American men. They’ve been conquered by colonialism so they’re not so full of machism.”

Another controversial issue that Nawal criticized is how Western feminists like the image of the oppressed Arab woman and how they build on that image to make themselves look like heroes by trying to save them from the evil patriarchal society:

“liberate yourself before you liberate me! This is the problem. I had to quarrel with many American feminists — Gloria Steinem, Robin Morgan — because I noticed that many of them were oppressed by their husbands, and they came here to liberate me!”

This last quote sums up the fierce attitude of Nawal El Saadawi, who, as a wrinkled old lady with her signature fuzzy white hair, refuses to take any bullshit from anyone and doesn’t think twice before she expresses herself. I hope that our readers will do their own research about Nawal, read her books and articles, and watch her interviews, because I can’t in this one article give her justice or tell her whole story.


Photo Credit for Featured Image: Kristina Budelis.