Nawal El Saadawi’s intellectual life reflected eight decades of Arab society and culture

El Saadawi protesting on her 80th birthday.
In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images

Amal Amireh, George Mason University

Egypt’s Nawal El Saadawi was the foremost Arab feminist thinker of the past 50 years. Her ideas inspired generations of Arab women, but also provoked controversy and criticism.

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 into change

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.

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Nawal El Saadawi: Egypt’s grand novelist, physician and global activist

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).

Travels around the world

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.

Feminist manifestos

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.

A woman looks directly to camera, her white hair done in dramatic fashion, her lips appear to be talking.
El Saadawi in 1986.
Anthony Lewis/Fairfax Media via Getty Images

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.

The power of fiction

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.

Religious backlash

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).The Conversation

Amal Amireh, Associate professor, George Mason University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Nawal El Saadawi: Egypt’s grand novelist, physician and global activist

Nawal El Saadawi at home in 2015.
David Degner/Getty Images

Adele Newson-Horst, Morgan State University

Egyptian novelist, physician, sociologist and global activist Nawal El Saadawi died on 21 March 2021 at the age of 89. The author of more than 50 books, she told me in one of our many interviews, in 2007, that she self-identified as

an African from Egypt, not from the Middle East … I am not from the third world. There is one world, that is a racist, capitalist economic world. I became a feminist when I was a child – when I started to ask questions to become aware that women are oppressed and feel discrimination.

Although her autobiography A Daughter of Isis (1986) is among the best known of her publications world-wide, she identified her vocation as that of a novelist: “I am mainly a novelist. Most of my books are novels.”

The novelist

In fact, she was always writing a novel. Her 2004 work titled The Novel begins: “The novel caused tremendous outrage … Her life became her first novel.”

Arguably, the place to start in the evaluation of her works is what she deemed the function and perimeters of the novel. She wrote all her novels in Arabic. When asked about the translations of her works, she responded:

Can you translate music? So you can’t translate novels. At least 30% of of the spirit of the work goes. Language is body, spirit, mind … You dream in your (native) language.

Yet she conceded that she wrote essays in English.

El Saadawi was a global iconoclast in the best sense of the phrase. In a world that has become compartmentalised, tribal, overtly racist, anti-science and unashamedly sexist, her novels espoused truths that made her unpopular with many in government and in the so-called establishment. Asked if there was one politician she respected, she explained, “In a system based on oppression, an angel will be corrupted. I don’t have in mind anyone who kept his promise.”

Her penchant for looking at a situation and calling out its components – even though they were shrouded in deceptive marketing – was remarkable. She once confessed to me, “If I don’t tell the truth, I don’t deserve to be called a writer.” She admitted in her autobiography:

Memory is never complete. There are always parts of it that time has amputated. Writing is a way of retrieving them, of bringing the missing parts back to it, or making it more holistic. If memory involves the recall of the things that happened, then the way to render a thing is to draw on creative thoughts.

A scientist and an artist

El Saadawi believed that to be whole – to recover the missing parts – one must embrace the science as well as the artistic and creative. She said:

I am a medical doctor … immersed in blood. I’d rather be with healthy people. I wanted to be a dancer. My father said, ‘Dancing means prostitution.’

Learning from such contradictions early on, El Saadawi became subversive in life and distinctly political in her writings. People have identified her works as political fiction and biographical fiction. To do so is to ignore the art or creativity of her writing. A more prudent evaluation would rest with the marriage of the politics of her life and the creativity that inspired her soul.

An elder woman in pigtails waves at the camera, standing in front of a sports field.
El Saadawi in her US years, at Morgan State University.
Courtesy Adele Newson-Horst

There is a clinical aspect to her writings. She relentlessly focuses on the issues without the trappings of romantic love and sentimentality. That is the key to evaluating and enjoying her works.

She admitted that she had been nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature a couple of times, “but people don’t like my politics”. In a 2012 interview in Baltimore, El Saadawi told me:

I’m proud of myself. Not because I did fantastic things, but because I never changed. People usually compromise. I’m proud because I didn’t compromise.

This insistence on sharing her view of the truth on the condition of women, religion and politics is the key to the continued interest in her works. She never compromised because in many ways the condition of women globally has not much changed and because there is an ethos that persistently governs women, that, she believed, demanded unequivocal attention.

The life

El Saadawi was born in 1931 in a village outside of Cairo. She refused to accept the limitations imposed on her by the religious, gender and colonial oppression most women of rural origin experienced.

She attended the University of Cairo and graduated in 1955 with a degree in psychiatry and rose to become Egypt’s Director of Public Health. Since she began to write over 50 years ago, her books – including the play God Resigns at the Summit Meeting (2006) have concentrated on women, specifically on Arab women, their sexuality and legal status.

In 1972, her first work of non-fiction Women and Sex evoked the antagonism of highly placed political and theological authorities in Egypt and the Ministry of Health was pressured into dismissing her. Under similar pressures, she lost her post as chief editor of a health journal and as assistant general secretary in the Medical Association of Egypt.

Fame and jail

From 1973 to 1976 El Saadawi researched women and neurosis. In 1977, she published her most famous work The Hidden Face of Eve, which covered a host of topics relative to Arab women such as aggression against female children and genital mutilation, prostitution, sexual relationships, marriage and divorce and Islamic fundamentalism.

From 1979 to 1980 she was the United Nation’s advisor for the women’s program in North Africa and the Middle East. Later in 1980, as a culmination of the long war she had fought for Egyptian women’s social and intellectual freedom, she was imprisoned under the Anwar Sadat regime. She was released in 1982 and in 1983 she published Memoirs from the Women’s Prison in which she continued her bold attacks on the repressive Egyptian government. The year 1983 also marked the year that the English version of Woman at Point Zero was published after appearing in Arabic in 1975.

Two women, one younger and one older, stand facing the camera, smiling.
The author, right, with El Saadawi.
Courtesy Adele Newson-Horst

Even after her release from prison, El Saadawi’s life was threatened by those who opposed her work, mainly Islamic fundamentalists. Armed guards were stationed outside her home in Giza for several years until she left the country to be a visiting professor at European and North American universities.

She devoted her time to being a writer, journalist and worldwide speaker on women’s issues. In 2002, officials tried to forcefully divorce her from her husband, but international solidarity helped her to win her case. In 2004 she presented herself as a candidate for presidential election in Egypt. Then in 2007, the controversy of her play God Resigns at the Summit Meeting erupted. She said that those who condemned her hadn’t even read the play.

This was the power of Nawal El Saadawi, that her books – coldly scientific and endlessly creative – were seen as weapons in a war that is still to be won.

Newson-Horst has published two edited volumes on Nawal El Saadawi. They are The Dramatic Literature of Nawal El Saadawi (2009) and The Essential Nawal El Saadawi: A Reader (2010).The Conversation

Adele Newson-Horst, Professor, Morgan State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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