‘Egypt’s Most Radical Woman’
My news feeds are full of stories of the brave, high powered women of Afghanistan, who are now seeing so many of their prodigious achievements tossed aside by men who care nothing for them. It reminded me of another trail blazer, Nawal El Saadawi. The Egyptian writer and feminist was born in 1931 in a village near Cairo, the second of nine children. At the age of six, as was the custom, she was held down by four women while the local midwife cut off her clitoris.
El Saadawi did receive an education, and although she wanted to be a dancer, because she achieved top grades at school, it was decided that she would study medicine. She went on to specialise in psychiatry, and in 1963 she was appointed Director General for Public Health Education. She noted the links between women’s physical and psychological health and the patriarchal and cultural oppression in Egyptian society.
In 1972 her book Women and Sex was published. It was the first in a series of books that attacked the aggressions carried out in Egypt against women’s bodies, including FGM. The book became a key text for 1970s feminism, and as her political activities increased, she lost her job. At the same time, Health, a women’s magazine she had founded, was closed down.
In 1973, her best-known novel, Woman at Point Zero, was published in Beirut, and in 1976, her novel about local corruption, God Dies By the Nile, was published. Then in 1977 she published The Hidden Face of Eve, a study of female oppression in the Arab world. The book included a description of her own circumcision, and how it had influenced her attitudes to men and public institutions.
As her reputation as a radical grew in Egypt, abroad she was increasingly recognised for her contribution to women’s health issues. From 1979 to 1980 she was the United Nations Advisor for the Women’s Programme in Africa and the Middle East. In 1981 she published a feminist journal called Confrontation, and Anwar Sadat, then President of Egypt, had her arrested and imprisoned. One month later, on October 6th, Sadat was assassinated, and she waited in her cell, writing memoirs on toilet paper with an eye pencil smuggled to her by another inmate. A few weeks later she was taken to see the new President Mubarak. He told her she was free to go, but she insisted on suing the government for unlawful imprisonment. She won her case and was awarded a huge sum, which she never received.
After this El Saadawi’s work was censored and she received death threats. Her then husband persuaded her to leave Egypt, and for several years she taught at universities in Europe and the US. But she returned in 1986 and continued as an activist, standing against Mubarak in the 2004 elections until the pressure grew too great.
In 2008 FGM was banned in Egypt, but the practice remains widespread. Aged 80, she was in Tahrir Square in 2011 when President Mubarak was deposed. She was awarded the North-South Prize by the Council of Europe in 2004, and in 2012 received the Stig Dagerman award for advocates of free speech. She was against the objectification of women’s bodies in the West but also supported legislation against Muslim women wearing veils in public. She never shied away from controversy or her beliefs. Her prodigious literary output included fiction, essays, memoirs, plays and short stories. She died in March of this year.