Inspiring Thursday: Nawal El Saadawi

For me feminism includes everything. It is social justice, political justice, sexual justice… It is the link between medicine, literature, politics, economics, psychology and history. Feminism is all that. You cannot understand the oppression of women without this.

Nawal El Saadawi is an Egyptian feminist, physician, psychiatrist, writer, and campaigner against female genital mutilation. Born in 1931, she is the voice of Egyptian feminism and has been described as “the Simone de Beauvoir” of the Arab Word.

Despite persecution and imprisonment, El Saadawi has never been silenced and has continued to address controversial issues such as female genital mutilation, religious fundamentalism, domestic violence and prostitution. She trained as a doctor and worked as a psychiatrist and university lecturer, although she said that “the medical profession and education can kill your creativity”, and her aim was to “decolonizing the mind, undoing the damage of education, of fear towards the media, of religion, religious education, and so on”.

Creativity is her philosophy, which resulted in a prolific career as a writer: she has published almost 50 novels, plays and collection of short stories, tackling problems faced by women in Egypt and all around the world. In her books, El Saadawi links the question of gender and sex to politics, economics and culture, and opposes the veil, polygamy, inequality between men and women. As she explains, “The unifying force in all my work is a mixture of feminism and a strong sense of social justice. I’m a doctor, but I do not separate medicine from politics and economics.”

Her activism came at considerable cost. In 1972 she published Women and Sex, in which she attacked the aggressions carried out against women’s bodies and which was condemned by religious and political authorities. It led her losing her job at the Egyptian Ministry of Health and living in exile. She also contributed to the publication of a feminist magazine called Confrontation, and in 1981 she was imprisoned; in the 1990s, her name was on the death lists of Islamic zealots; and in 2002, she was accused of apostasy.

Nawal El Saadawi is also highly critical towards religion: “Women are oppressed in all religions. The problem is not Islam, it is the political systems that use Islam and religion.” She wrote a book called God Resigns at the Summit Meeting, in which God is questioned by Jewish, Muslim and Christian prophets and finally quits. It proved to be so controversial that the police under the Mubarak regime ordered the publisher to burn the book. She said it happened since the “regime felt God Resigns was a dangerous book because it could open people’s minds. To be a dictator and control people you must veil their minds. Our role, as writers, is to unveil it.” Her criticism of religion (of all religions) was founded primarily on the basis that it oppresses women, and the biggest threat to women’s liberation today is religious extremism. In a 2014 interview, she said that “the root of the oppression of women lies in the global post-modern capitalist system, which is supported by religious fundamentalism”. El Saadawi fears that the global and religious fundamentalist movement is holding back progress regarding women’s rights and issues such as female genital mutilation, especially in Egypt.

Despite her age, Nawal El Saadawi is a fighter to the last and says she is becoming even more radical year after year. For instance, she was on the frontline against the Mubarak regime during the Arab Spring in 2011, fighting for freedom, political self-determination and gender equality before the law. During her life, she has braved prison, exile and death threats to fight against female oppression. This is also the reason why, when talking about younger generations, she said she is dismayed by the relaxed attitude of young women who do not realised the price payed by previous generations of feminists. However, she has something to recommend: “Young people are afraid of the price of being free. I tell them, don’t be, it is better than being oppressed, than being a slave. It’s all worth it. I am free.”

By Elena Floriani, WAVE Intern


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