The link below is to an article that takes a look at some of the more unusual libraries from around the world.
For more visit:
The link below is to an article that takes a look at some of the more unusual libraries from around the world.
For more visit:
The link below is to an article that takes a look at microfiction and four sites that provide it.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at Library Explorer at The Internet Archive.
Visit the Library Explorer at:
Robots are writing more of what we read on the internet. And artificial intelligence (AI) writing tools are becoming freely available for anyone, including students, to use.
In a period of rapid change, there are enormous ethical implications for post-human authorship — in which humans and machines collaborate. The study of AI ethics needs to be central to education as we increasingly use machine-generated content to communicate with others.
AI robot writers, such as GPT-3 (Generative Pre-trained Transformer) take seconds to create text that seems like it was written by humans. In September, 2020 GPT-3 wrote an entire essay in The Guardian to convince people not to fear artificial intelligence.
AI does this through what’s called natural language processing and generation. This involves converting human language to computer commands and vice versa. To do this, machine algorithms study millions of text samples, words, sentences and paragraphs humans use to gain a general understanding of the context of human language. Then machines use that knowledge to put together text.
For example, the free Zyro content generator provides text for websites. I can select the categories “Health and Living” and “Personal Trainer” (I happen to be one, as well as an academic). In two seconds, the following text appears:
I am experienced with personal training, athletic performance, and nutrition. This includes working with children, pregnant women, older adults, people with disabilities, athletes, and anyone looking to achieve a competitive edge, improve their overall health, and overall performance. I also have an interest in alternative health, including wellness coaching and nutrition counselling. In my spare time, I enjoy spending time with my family, the outdoors, and writing.
This sums me up (despite the program knowing nothing about me) and would be fine for my website, if I had one. I have the option to generate more responses, and in two seconds, the program offers:
I am experienced in working with adults and children to improve their overall physical and emotional well-being. I have a strong desire to help you reach your goal […] I love helping others achieve their goals. I love working with others to achieve their goals. I am a mother of two healthy children and a wife to two incredible people.
While this is repetitive and Zyro does not notice the apparent error in the last sentence, these issues would be easy to correct. Text, even for niche purposes, can now be generated in a few clicks.
There are other digital tools such as paraphrasers and rewriters that can generate up to 1,000 articles from a single seed article, each of them substantially unique. Quillbot and WordAI, for instance, can rapidly rewrite text and make it difficult to detect plagiarism. WordAI boasts “unlimited human quality content at your fingertips”.
So what does this mean for education, writing, and society?
Of course, there’s the issue of cheating on essays and other assignments. School and university leaders need to have difficult conversations about what constitutes “authorship” and “editorship” in the post-human age. We are all (already) writing with machines, even just via spelling and grammar checkers.
Tools such as Turnitin — originally developed for detecting plagiarism — are already using more sophisticated means of determining who wrote a text by recognising a human author’s unique “fingerprint”. Part of this involves electronically checking a submitted piece of work against a student’s previous work.
Many student writers are already using AI writing tools. Perhaps, rather than banning or seeking to expose machine collaboration, it should be welcomed as “co-creativity”. Learning to write with machines is an important aspect of the workplace “writing” students will be doing in the future.
AI writers work lightning fast. They can write in multiple languages and can provide images, create metadata, headlines, landing pages, Instagram ads, content ideas, expansions of bullet points and search-engine optimised text, all in seconds. Students need to exploit these machine capabilities, as writers for digital platforms and audiences.
Perhaps assessment should focus more on students’ capacities to use these tools skilfully instead of, or at least in addition to, pursuing “pure” human writing.
Yet the question of fairness remains. Students who can access better AI writers (more “natural”, with more features) will be able to produce and edit better text.
Better AI writers are more expensive and are available on monthly plans or high one-off payments wealthy families can afford. This will exacerbate inequality in schooling, unless schools themselves provide excellent AI writers to all.
We will need protocols for who gets credit for a piece of writing. We will need to know who gets cited. We need to know who is legally liable for content and potential harm it may create. We need transparent systems for identifying, verifying and quantifying human content.
And most importantly of all, we need to ask whether the use of AI writing tools is fair to all students.
For those who are new to the notion of AI writing, it is worthwhile playing and experimenting with the free tools available online, to better understand what “creation” means in our robot future.
Appalachia, in the popular imagination, stubbornly remains poor and white.
Open a dictionary and you’ll see Appalachian described as a “native or inhabitant of Appalachia, especially one of predominantly Scotch-Irish, English, or German ancestry.”
Read J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy” and you’ll enter a world that’s white, poor and uncultured, with few, if any, people of color.
But as Black poets and scholars living in Appalachia, we know that this simplified portrayal obscures a world that is far more complex. It has always been a place filled with diverse inhabitants and endowed with a lush literary history. Black writers like Effie Waller Smith have been part of this cultural landscape as far back as the 19th century. Today, Black writers and poets continue to explore what it means to be Black and from Appalachia.
Swimming against cultural currents, they have long struggled to be heard. But a turning point took place 30 years ago, when Black Appalachian culture experienced a renaissance centered around a single word: “Affrilachia.”
In the 1960s, the Appalachian Regional Commission officially defined the Appalachian region as an area encompassing counties in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia and the entirety of West Virginia. The designation brought national attention – and calls for economic equity – to an impoverished region that had largely been ignored.
When President Lyndon B. Johnson declared his “war on poverty” in 1964, it was with Appalachia in mind. However, as pernicious as the effects of poverty have been for white rural Appalachians, they’ve been worse for Black Appalachians, thanks to the long-term repercussions of slavery, Jim Crow laws, racial terrorism and a dearth of regional welfare programs.
Black Appalachians have long been, as poet and historian Edward J. Cabbell put it, “a neglected minority within a neglected minority.”
In 1991, after a poetry reading that included Black poets from the Appalachian region, Kentucky poet Frank X. Walker decided to give a name to his experience as a Black Appalachian: “Affrilachian.” It subsequently became the title of a poetry collection he released in 2000.
By coining the terms “Affrilachia” and “Affrilachian,” Walker sought to upend assumptions about who is part of Appalachia. Writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has spoken of the danger of the single story. When “one story becomes the only story,” she said in a 2009 TED Talk, “it robs people of dignity.”
Rather than accepting the single story of Appalachia as white and poor, Walker wrote a new one, forging a path for Black Appalachian artists.
It caught on.
In 2001, a number of Affrilachian poets – including Walker, Kelly Norman Ellis, Crystal Wilkinson, Ricardo Nazario y Colon, Gerald Coleman, Paul C. Taylor and Shanna Smith – were the subjects of the documentary “Coal Black Voices.” In 2007, the journal Pluck! was founded out of University of Kentucky with the goal of promoting a diverse range of Affrilachian writers at the national level. In 2016, the anthology “Black Bone: 25 Years of Affrilachian Poetry” was published.
Many Affrilachian poems explore this dynamic, along with the tension of participating in activities, such as hunting, that are stereotyped as being of interest only to white Americans. Food traditions, family and the Appalachian landscape are also central themes of the work.
Affrilachian poet Chanda Feldman’s poem “Rabbit” touches on all of these elements.
Her poem shifts from the speaker hunting for rabbits with their father to the hunt as a larger metaphor for being Black in Appalachia – and thus seen as both predator and prey:
He told me of my great uncle who, Depression era, loaned white townspeople venison and preserves. Later stood off the same ones with a gun when they wanted his property.
We reached out to Walker and asked him to reflect on the term, 30 years after he coined it.
Walker wrote back that it created a “solid foundation” that “encouraged a more diverse view of the region and its history” while increasing “opportunities for others to carve out their own space” – including other poets, musicians and visual artists of color throughout the region.
In her book “Sister Citizen,” journalist and academic Melissa Harris-Perry writes, “Citizens want and need more than a fair distribution of resources: they also desire meaningful recognition of their humanity and uniqueness.”
Affrilachian artistry and identity allows Appalachia to be fully seen as the diverse and culturally rich region that it is, bringing to the forefront those who have historically been pushed to the margins, out of mind and out of sight.
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Illness, unlike war, as English academic and writer Elizabeth Outka brilliantly demonstrates in her book Viral Modernism (2019), is a story that easily slips out of cultural and historical memory.
In illness, the modernist writer Virginia Woolf observed, “We cease to be soldiers in the army of the upright; we become deserters.” Woolf, writing in the wake of the first world war, saw the threat that the Spanish flu of 1919 posed to the stories of national triumph. Influenza moves in invisible and unpredictable ways. It renders everyone potentially vulnerable.
This interest in illness was personal. Woolf came down with several bouts of influenza between 1916 and 1925 and needed to confine herself to bed for stretches of time.
She documents the experience of the Spanish flu in her diary in 1918, noting, as an aside, how “we are, by the way, in the midst of a plague unmatched since The Black Death, according to the Times, who seem to tremble lest it may seize upon Lord Northcliffe and thus precipitate us into peace.”
Her tone is mocking. She would later appreciate the seriousness the threat of influenza posed. But here she suggests that what illness promises to bring is the end of the profit of war that fuels the nationalist sentiments churned out by the newspapers owned by Lord Northcliffe’s vast empire of popular journalism.
Reading Woolf’s work, particularly her 1925 novel Mrs Dalloway, on the 80th anniversary of her death and in the midst of our own pandemic, we see how she tried to rewrite death and illness back into the national story of post-first world war glory and strength.
I’m a lecturer in English at Cardiff University, and teaching literature in a sparsely filled lecture theatre during the pandemic has been a discombobulating experience. Mrs Dalloway provided an entry point to make sense of the business of studying and thinking while a new national emergency unfolded around us. The protagonist of Mrs Dalloway is a survivor of the Spanish flu of 1919 and the sense of life that permeates the text emerges from her experience of rediscovering the pleasures of life. We meet Mrs Dalloway as she weaves her way through London, experiencing the quiet intensity of life one morning in June.
The novel’s famous opening line – “Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself” – has taken on new resonance this year as the pandemic has made all our worlds much smaller. Clarissa wants to buy the flowers herself because she is delighted to go out – as we might appreciate – having spent so long indoors.
In class, the students and I thought about what it meant to see Clarissa as a character who has lived through a pandemic and come out the other side. Clarissa’s commitment to life, after a long confinement, is hopeful, though it comes at a cost.
At the centre of Clarissa’s party, which the novel builds to, comes the news that Septimus Smith, a young war veteran, has killed himself. In Woolf’s original plans for her novel, Septimus did not appear and Clarissa was to kill herself during the party. In creating Septimus as Clarissa’s double, Woolf is able to move death to the sidelines – as we all would like to.
Woolf revolutionises character by radically tunnelling inwards – giving us not a description of a character, but a map of their psychic life. We experience the protagonist intimately from within – through their stream of consciousness – but peripheral characters also proliferate in the modernist novel.
Woolf recognises how easy it is to cast characters to the sidelines of life. This is, after all, how national fictions work, by making space for protagonists at the expense of those who are pushed further out of view. In the case of post-war Britain, space was made for the glory of war but not for the the Spanish flu.
Mrs Dalloway is a text that shows how memory and mourning work to uphold the values of the British Empire. Its attention on how emotions circulate between people allows us to understand how national structures of feeling are created through newspapers and through the orchestration of symbolic identifications.
“In all the hat shops and tailors’ shops strangers looked at each other,” Woolf writes, “and thought of the dead; of the flag of Empire.” Woolf is interested in showing something that is hard to pinpoint: how national communities are created and sustained; how the war’s dead continue to underpin an inexorable sense of Britishness.
Woolf saw that a subjective perspective was required to make sense of how death continues to inflect the mood of a generation. Mourning, as Sigmund Freud also realised at a similar point, is ongoing, illusory work. What is remarkable about her writing is that Woolf draws our attention to how death pushes us beyond what we can know. In this unknowing, we are forced to admit that our lives are more fragile and dependent on the lives of others.
As one of her characters articulates in The Voyage Out (1915):
“It seems so inexplicable,” Evelyn continued. “Death, I mean. Why should she be dead, and not you or I? It was only a fortnight ago that she was here with the rest of us?”
Woolf’s ability to show how hard it is to explain death helps us understand the difficulty of living with its presence. In the face of the loneliness of death, the growing demise of its communal forms, the diminished structures of public mourning, she provides us with a language for death outside of national structures of commemoration.
Many of Virginia Woolf’s early reviewers noted parallels between her literary innovations and those of contemporary composers, such as Claude Debussy. Woolf’s interest in music was overlooked after her death. However, 80 years on, we are now beginning to explore how her extraordinary experimental uses of narrative perspective, repetition and variation derive from her close study of particular musical works and specific musical forms.
Music provided Woolf (and other modernists including James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein and Katherine Mansfield) with a vocabulary to imagine and describe their creative practice and formal innovations. Woolf, for instance, compares her diary writing to a pianist practising their scales. She describes her reading as a process of “tuning up” for her writing. And in 1940 she famously observed:
It’s odd, for I’m not regularly musical but I always think of my books as music before I write them.
Woolf grew up immersed in music. As a young woman, she attended operas and concerts at the Royal Opera House three or four times a week – sometimes, every night. Like most women of her age and social class, she had received basic music education in singing and piano. But her passion as a listener far outstripped her abilities as a performer.
Her letters and diaries repeatedly convey her love of classical repertoire – particularly the works of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Wagner. But she heard a wide variety of music in varied settings. She heard folk music as she travelled in England, Scotland and continental Europe. Took in comic and patriotic songs in music halls. Delighted in the work of Arnold Schoenberg and another avant-garde repertoire through her subscription membership of the National Gramophonic Society, and Russian ballet music when the Ballets Russes visited London in 1912.
Woolf’s Hogarth Press also published studies of contemporary music, composers and popular books of music appreciation. Her understanding of – and in some cases intimate friendships with – leading composers, music critics, conductors and other musicians of her time gave her an insight into professional musical life, too. Friends included the composers and critics Eddy Sackville-West and Gerald Berners, the conductor and educator Nadia Boulanger, and the composer and feminist Ethel Smyth.
Woolf’s feminism, pacificism and cosmopolitanism were significantly shaped by her enduring, passionate love of music. The social conventions surrounding music education, performance and composition catalyse some of her wittiest and most acerbic social comedy but also inform her critiques of, for example, women’s unequal access to music education.
In her first novel, The Voyage Out (1915), Woolf references specific musical works to challenge the established expectation that men and women should play different repertoire. The novel’s female protagonist, who is an accomplished amateur pianist, plays Beethoven’s late piano sonatas. These works were frequently characterised as too technically and intellectually demanding for women performers. Essays addressed to amateur female pianists characterised the works as “simply unattainable”.
Music also influences Woolf’s creative innovations. The double narrative structure of Mrs Dalloway, for example, which contrasts and entwines the lives of society hostess Clarissa Dalloway and traumatised veteran Septimus Warren Smith, may well be modelled on the double form of musical fugues (“fugue” was a contemporary term for shell shock).
Woolf observed in 1909 that, “We are miserably aware how little words can do to render music.” But this difficulty frequently catalyses and becomes a subject of her writing.
It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that her prose has been a rich source of creative inspiration for composers. For instance, her work inspired Dominick Argento’s 1974 song cycle From the Diary of Virginia Woolf and more oblique responses, such as Max Richter’s music for the 2015 ballet Woolf Works.
In the last 15 years, musical responses to Woolf’s writing have proliferated, from the string quartet and songs premiered by the Virginia Woolf and Music project, to the recent announcement that composer Thea Musgrave is writing an opera inspired by Orlando.
In a 1905 essay, Woolf invited contemporary writers to remember words’ allegiance to music and take inspiration from that. Scholars of Woolf’s work and composers are now, it seems, doing just that.
Articles of this kind usually assert that a word’s correct meaning lies in its earliest uses, while later developments are corruptions. Disinterested doesn’t mean “not interested” but “impartial” they complain. Decimate must refer to the destruction of precisely one-tenth of something they protest. Fulsome can only mean “insincere” rather than “very full” they cry.
While this may seem logical enough, in some cases it doesn’t quite work. Here we apply the principle of earliest meaning to five common words and we get some rather unexpected results.
This word is from Old English prættig, “cunning”, from præt “trick” – unrelated to prat “idiot”, which originally referred to the buttocks (hence pratfall: a fall onto the backside).
By the 15th century, pretty described something cleverly made, artful or ingenious. This led to its use to describe someone attractive or good-looking – most commonly a woman or child, although the diarist Samuel Pepys refers to one Dr Clarke as a “very pretty man”.
Ironic uses of pretty to refer to something unpleasant are the origins of phrases like “pretty pass”, “pretty state of affairs” and “pretty kettle of fish”; the latter more often found in the phrase “different kettle of fish”. The kettle here isn’t the kind we use to make tea, but rather a large cooking vessel (from Latin catillus).
Tall is from an Old English word that meant “swift” or “active”. By the 15th century, it had come to mean “handsome” or “elegant”. Its use to mean “skilful” gave rise to the expressions “tall of hand”, meaning “handy” and “tall of tongue”, meaning “good at arguing”.
The 16th century saw the emergence of uses relating to height; subsequent metaphorical extensions include “large”, as in “tall order”, and “exaggerated”, from which the phrase “tall story” emerged. These changes in meaning may seem surprising, but several common adjectives that describe our physical appearances began life referring to dexterity and pliancy. Handsome, as the name suggests, originally meant “easy to handle”, “clever” meant “dexterous”, and “buxom” meant “obedient” (from “bow” meaning “to bend the neck”).
Someone silly in Old English was “happy” or “fortunate”, and later “pious” or “holy”. Because the innocent are easily taken advantage of, it came to signal a person deemed “weak” or “helpless”. Further negative associations are apparent from its use to mean “rustic” or “lacking sophistication”, from which our modern sense of “foolish” emerged.
This process, whereby a compliment becomes a term of abuse, is known to linguists as “pejoration” (from Latin peior “worse”). Its opposite, “amelioration” (from Latin melior “better”), can be seen in the history of “nice”, which originally meant “foolish” (from Latin nescius “ignorant”).
In Old English, to be naughty was to be poor, literally “to have naught” or “nothing”. It was later used to describe someone immoral and, in a weakened sense, mischievous or disobedient. The particular association with badly behaved children led to the “naughty corner” – a place of isolation to which a child may be sent as a punishment.
Perhaps it was the naughty corner’s Victorian associations that led to the invention of the “naughty step”, a form of discipline advocated by the British reality TV show Supernanny, whose transatlantic success led to its adoption in the US.
Its use to mean “indecent” survives into modern usage in phrases like “naughty but nice”. This phrase was promoted by adverts for cream cakes in the 1980s and was the brainchild of the novelist Salman Rushdie, while he was working as a copywriter. “Naughty bits”, referring to the genitals, was first recorded in a Monty Python sketch in 1970. This euphemism was considered too explicit for American audiences and was bleeped out when the show was broadcast in the US.
This word is from Old English sæd, which meant “full”, as the German satt still does. In English, it has been replaced in this sense by “satisfied” or “sated”, from Latin satis “enough”.
By the 14th century, sad meant “settled”, “firm” or “resolute” and from this the senses “serious” and “grave” developed.
The modern use of sad to mean “sorrowful” can be traced back to Old English, where the word already carried a sense of being weary or tired of something, reflecting the way that satisfaction quickly shades into ennui. Surprisingly, “happy” was brought to us by the Vikings who plundered the north of England and is borrowed from the Old Norse happ, which filled the gap created by the changing use of “silly”. It originally meant “fortunate” – a sense preserved in the phrase “by happy chance”.
To suggest that we are using words incorrectly, therefore, is to ignore the various ways in which meanings of words change over time. In the case of fulsome, “very full” is the earlier of the two senses. Its use to mean “excessive” arose out of “fulsome apologies” that were felt to be insincere – as Priti Patel found to her cost in her resignation letter of 2017.
The looser use of decimate to mean “devastate” is recorded from the 17th century, so can it really be wrong today? And if we did insist on only sanctioning its earliest use – put to death one in every ten of an army of mutinous soldiers – how often would we use it? So feel free to be disinterested in this post, or to lavish it with fulsome praise. Attempting to constrain the uses of words is plain silly – in its modern rather than its medieval meaning.
These cinema-starved times have made me pine for the magic of the movies on the big screen. The convenience and comfort of watching DVDs and streamed films at home are, of course, wonderful. Lockdown is inconceivable without them. But the experience of being in the cinema is not possible to replicate from your sofa. The sensory overwhelm and immersion is what makes a trip to the cinema a truly particular experience, and I’ve been contemplating what it is that makes it so special.
The writer Virginia Woolf wondered the same thing after a trip to the cinema in 1926. How might watching a film be so different from reading a novel or attending a concert? For Woolf, the cinema was a new art form, technically advanced but, as yet, not able to show its potential in how it might depict our lives to us.
On the 80th anniversary of her death, her prescient thoughts in the essay, The Cinema, have gained new resonance as we all pine to see film the way it is supposed to be seen, up on the silver screen.
Philosophers who pronounce that we are “at the fag-end of civilisation” and who believe everything has already been said, have, Woolf declares, “presumably forgotten the movies”. By this, she means that film presents, at that time, a brand new way to “see life as it is when we have no part of it” – to watch, in other words, love, hate, fear and anger all play out on the screen in a form that transfixes us through images.
Woolf sees the wonderment on the faces of the moviegoers, that takes people back to their primitive pleasures. The riches on offer in the cinema make it seem as if “we are peering over the edge of a cauldron in which fragments seem to simmer, and now and again some vast form heaves and seems about to haul itself up out of chaos.”
What is so interesting about Woolf’s perceptive assessment of the potential of the cinema is that she sees its possibilities for enlarging and surprising our consciousness and imagination. She is not simply referring to newsreel footage of the King, or the Grand National, although she considers that even with these images our eyes are being tricked into seeing such things as being more real or real with a different reality from that which we perceive in daily life.
When we are watching these occurrences without actually being there, she observes that:
We have time to open our minds wide to beauty and register on top of it the queer sensation — this beauty will continue, and this beauty will flourish whether we behold it or not.
But what mainly occupies Woolf is how filmmakers are going to make an art of their own. While she recognises that there are novels to be adapted, focusing on Anna Karenina, she is adamant that film can do something very different from just telling a story that has already been told.
She also identities the difficulties film might encounter when creating images of characters of whom who we already have our own mental images from reading. No, she says, it is when we give up trying to match pictures with a book, that we see the possibility for what cinema might create “if left to its own devices”.
Woolf writes about seeing the hugely influential German Expressionist horror The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, and how a shadow shaped like a tadpole appeared quivering in the corner of the screen: “It swelled to an immense size, quivered, bulged, and sank back again into nonentity”.
She describes how this image seemed like something monstrous from within the killer’s brain – but in fact, was a flaw in the film! However, it led Woolf to this fabulous insight: “The monstrous quivering tadpole seemed to be fear itself, and not the statement ‘I am afraid’”.
The realisation that an image on the cinema screen, even just a shadow, at a certain moment, can create an emotion, a mood, and an experience, without words, shows prescient insight into the power of cinema.
She wonders whether there is a secret language, of forms and symbols, that cinema can make visible. A language unlike anything before that can express emotion in hitherto unseen ways. To unlock this, Woolf insists that cinema must find its own images and symbols, and these will be quite unlike the objects in real life: “of such movements and abstractions the films may in time come to be composed”. She sees that film could then present us with clashing emotions – happiness and sadness at once, for instance – that a writer can only toil in vain to convey, more akin to dreams, in colour, sounds and movements.
For Woolf, cinema’s “immense dexterity and enormous technical proficiency” does not quite know what to do with itself yet. And that is its task: to find what it can do specifically more than the novel, the poem, or the piece of music. I find it inspirational and moving to read what Woolf had in mind for the cinema’s future when she wrote this in the mid-1920s. And what she identified – the unique and ineffable power of images on screen – is still what makes me desperate to get back to the cinema as soon as possible.
She was prolific, publishing over 50 books of fiction and non fiction in Arabic, many translated and receiving global attention.
Focusing on sex, politics, and religion, El Saadawi believed that patriarchy, capitalism and imperialism are intertwined systems that oppress Arab women and prevent them from reaching their full potential.
The trajectory of El Saadawi’s intellectual life follows major developments in Arab society and culture from the 1940s to the present. To understand her contribution, it’s important to see her in the context of the historical moment that made her work possible, necessary and provocative.
Born in 1931 in the village of Kafr Tahla near Cairo, into a middle class family, El Saadawi was the second of nine children. She came of age at the cusp of key changes such as the drive for girls’ education pioneered by an earlier generation of activists. She, in fact, attended a school established by Nabawyya Mousa, an activist for women’s education.
Supported by a father who believed in the importance of education for social mobility, El Saadawi attended the British School. Her academic excellence allowed her to evade early marriage and receive a scholarship to study medicine at the University of Cairo. She graduated in 1955 with a specialisation in psychiatry.
At university she was exposed to nationalist, anti-colonialist politics. She participated in student demonstrations against the British and married a fellow activist. They had a daughter but divorced. Her second marriage ended in divorce after her husband stipulated she stops writing. Her third marriage, to Sherif Hetata a novelist and former political prisoner, lasted over 40 years but also ended in divorce. They had a son.
After medical school, El Saadawi returned to her village. Working as a countryside physician exposed her to class and gender inequities that further shaped her thinking. She witnessed first hand the harmful consequences of entrenched patriarchal practices such as female genital cutting and defloration inflicted on the bodies of poor village women, detailing some of her experiences in Memoirs of a Woman Doctor (1958).
In 1963, she was appointed director general for public health education and was able to travel to international forums and conferences. These travels, documented in My Travels Around the World (1991), gave her perspective on the struggles of other women. She always asserted that patriarchy is a universal system of oppression, not only restricted to Arab or Muslim societies.
Thus while she did not hesitate to call female genital cutting “barbaric” she also resisted its sensationalisation in the West as a mark of difference between first world and third world women. She insisted that all women are circumcised if not physically then “psychologically and educationally”. She rejected the idea that western women are needed to help liberate their Arab or African sisters.
But it was the 1967 Six-Day War that pushed El Saadawi to a more radical public position regarding gender. This crushing Arab military defeat by Israel created a crisis for Arab intellectuals generally, compelling them to take a surgical look at their societies.
El Saadawi believed that patriarchy and gender inequalities are root causes for Arab defeatism. She rose to fame in the 1970s with a series of feminist manifestos that put her on the map. Women and Sex (1971) was the first. In it, she condemned the violence committed against women’s bodies including virginity tests, honour killings, wedding night defloration and genital cutting.
She exposed her society’s ignorance and double standards regarding women’s bodies and sexuality. Her first chapter, for instance, was focused on the clitoris and its importance for women’s sexual pleasure. She argued that exploitative marriages are no different from prostitution.
Using her medical knowledge, she argued that differences between the sexes are not natural but socially constructed by patriarchal practices – and can therefore be changed through legislation and education. However, she insisted that gender justice will not be possible under a capitalist society. Soon after publication, she lost her job and the magazine she had founded was closed down.
But the positive reception of her work among the public encouraged her to write other polemics including The Female is the Origin (1974), Woman and Psychological Struggle (1976), Man and Sex (1976) and The Hidden Face of Eve (1977). Combining anecdotes of patients, her biography, medical and social research and polemic against gender injustice, she spoke with the authority of a physician, the knowledge of an intellectual and the passion of an injured woman.
El Saadawi viewed herself first and foremost as a novelist, using fiction to express many of her ideas regarding sex and society. Her first novel to attract attention, for example, was Woman at Point Zero (1983). Her main character, working class Firdaus, experiences sexual exploitation and assault and eventually is executed by the state for killing her pimp.
While she made significant contributions to the Arab feminist novel, El Saadawi’s fiction was received less enthusiastically than her other work, criticised for being repetitive and her female characters dismissed as one-dimensional.
But the creativity of fiction allowed a space to critique another taboo in Arab society – religion. Her later works were written in response to a religious backlash that had taken over public life in Egypt and beyond.
In The Fall of the Imam (1987), for instance, she condemns the patriarchal regime of President Anwar el-Sadat for using the authority of religion to shore up political legitimacy and marginalise dissidents. The novel was banned by Al Azhar, Egypt’s highest religious authority. In it and God Dies by the Nile (1985), the El Saadawian heroine kills the male authority figures who use religion to oppress them.
In The Innocence of the Devil (1994), El Saadawi goes further: she makes God and the Devil characters in a mental asylum and directly indicts both Islam and Christianity as oppressive of women. Her critique of religion made her an easy target for fundamentalists in Egypt. Her hostility to political Islam was rooted in the personal experience of censorship and death threats.
Her critiques also alienated two other kinds of readers: self-identified Muslims and liberal western academics. As religion was playing a more prominent role in public life in Egypt, many found her views too radical.
For her dissent, she paid a price. In 1981 she was thrown in jail by the Sadat regime along with a thousand other intellectuals. There she wrote Memoirs from the Women’s Prison (1986) using an eye pencil smuggled to her by a sex worker on toilet paper given to her by a murderer.
After her release, she formed The Arab Woman Solidarity Association. It was closed down by Hosni Mubarak’s government in 1991. Unwaivering, she ran against Mubarak in the 2004 presidential elections. During the 2011 uprising that deposed Mubarak, El Saadawi, in her 80s, held seminars in tents in Tahrir Square to radicalise a new generation.
This article is based on Amireh’s chapter in the book Fifty-One Key Feminist Thinkers (Routledge).