I do not describe myself, people describe me as they wish…
…but above all I am an international citizen
Women’s Worldwide Web interviews a wonderful woman whose relentless efforts to combat social injustice and to defend women’s rights in the Arab world have attracted both outrage and fierce admiration – the outspoken Egyptian feminist, Nawal El Saadawi.
Dr Nawal El Saadawi shines in a category all her own. She originally trained as a doctor, then worked as a psychiatrist, but is probably best known for her prolific work as a political commentator, journalist, playwright and novelist. Uniting and underpinning all of these activities is Nawal’s lifelong activism to promote women’s rights and social justice. Speaking to Women´s Worldwide Web, Nawal says with a laugh: “I do not describe myself, people describe me as they wish. But if they ask me ´Who are you?´, I tell them: novelist, radical writer, doctor-psychiatrist, I am all of these things, but above all I am an international citizen.”
Nawal was born in 1931 in Kafr Tahla, a small village in the Nile Delta. Though she was raised in a traditional Egyptian household, she learned the “courage to fight for freedom and truth” from her father, one of the heroic participants in Egypt´s 1919 battle for national independence. Nawal´s mother, Zeinab, taught her “how to become a rebel”, encouraging her daughter to pursue her medical studies and later to specialize in psychiatry. In 1955, Nawal graduated from Cairo University Medical School. As a young doctor working in the hospitals of Cairo, she was frequently confronted with cases of female patients suffering terrible complications arising from genital mutilation (which she herself had experienced as a young girl). It is a practice that remains, to this day, widespread in the rural areas of southern Egypt. In her campaign against what she understood to be a damaging act of female oppression, Nawal quickly came to realise that medicine served only to treat the symptoms of her patients’ afflictions—not the root causes. In the eyes of this determined crusader for women´s rights, the key was, and remains, health education: “Good education encourages creativity and critical thinking. These are fundamental if women are to be made aware of their rights and regain their dignity.”
In the 1960s, Nawal’s career in medicine continued to flourish, culminating in her appointment as Egypt´s Director General for Public Health Education in the Ministry of Health. But the pen, she discovered, was a mightier weapon in the battle to spread physical and psychological wellbeing to all men, women and children. Wielding her trusty friend and sword, Nawal concentrated her efforts on writing as a means to counter ignorance and raise awareness about female circumcision, including its disastrous consequences on women´s psychology.
Writing fiction to tell the truth
Nawal´s work is forthright and explosive. Her first publication, Women and Sex (1972), laid bare the brutal realities of the practice of female genital cutting in Egypt. The book ignited controversy, angering political authorities and prompting Nawal’s summary dismissal from her post at the Ministry. Years of persecution were to follow. Yet the pressure, threats, and eventual imprisonment under the Sadat regime did little to stifle Nawal´s dissident voice. Tirelessly, she sought to expose the injustices of a patriarchal system and to celebrate women´s moral strength in resisting poverty, oppression and inequality. Women at Point Zero was published in 1974, followed by The Hidden Face of Eve: Women in the Arab World in 1977. From her cell in Qanatir Women´s Prison, she continued to observe, listen to and reflect upon the experiences and destinies of the women surrounding her. These reflections formed the basis of her moving Memoirs from the Women´s Prison, published after her release in 1984.
A constant thorn in the side of conservative forces in her homeland, Nawal was forced into exile in 1988. For five years she took refuge in the United States, where she taught at Duke University in North Carolina and at the University of Washington State in Seattle. She continued to publish, moving fluidly between fiction and non-fiction, often blurring the boundaries of genre. “I choose the genre according to how I feel about the ideas moving around in my head,” she tells us. “In fact, often I do not make much of a distinction, and in many of my books there are both fictional and non-fictional elements.” In the introduction to her latest publication, The Essential Nawal El Saadawi (2010), which gathers together a heterogeneous range of her best writing, including novels, plays, articles and essays, she states, with characteristic pithiness: “I write fiction in order to tell the truth.”
Writing to change lives
Published in 2008, Creativity and Dissidence revealed a shift in focus as Nawal turned her attention to the act of writing itself, advocating creativity as the most powerful source of any social or political change. According to Nawal, dissidence is related to and opens up the wellsprings of creativity. Intrinsic to both is the notion of relentless struggle: just as the dissident refuses to conform to the situation in which she finds herself, rejecting apathy and actively challenging the status quo, so the writer wrestles with the raw material of ideas and language, constantly seeking fresh configurations of words in order to fashion them into something new. Nawal´s writings display the subversive potential of this kind of creativity, capturing the attention of her public and triggering change, change which has rippled out from individuals to touch the whole of society. “Many young men and women in and outside Egypt tell me that my books have changed their lives,” says the vivacious 79-year-old.
From her home in Cairo, where she has continued her activist duties since her return in 1996, she oversees the Nawal El Saadawi Forum, bringing young men and women together once a month to discuss philosophy, literature and politics. In 2004, Nawal was awarded the prestigious North-South Prize by the Council of Europe. And, on January 25th of this year, she witnessed the revolution that propelled millions of Egyptian men, women and even children from their homes, driving them onto the streets of all the provinces, to make their voices heard, protesting against a system that had worked so hard to silence those, like Nawal, who dared to speak against it. A proud participant in the demonstrations in Cairo´s Tahrir Square, the spirited Nawal drew on the insights she has gathered throughout a lifetime of investigating and exposing discrimination: “Women and men need awareness and organization if they are to be empowered,” she wrote, on January 26th. “Only the collective power of a united people, bound together by shared knowledge, can triumph in the fight for freedom, justice and truthfulness.”
© Women’s Worldwide Web 2011