Nawal El Saadawi
Women’s rights activist, founder and president of the Arab Women's Solidarity Association, co-founder of the Arab Association for Human Rights
"Nawal El Saadawi is an Egyptian feminist writer, activist, physician, and psychiatrist. She has written many books on the subject of women in Islam, paying particular attention to the practice of female genital mutilation in her society. She has been described as "the Simone de Beauvoir of the Arab World".
She is founder and president of the Arab Women's Solidarity Association and co-founder of the Arab Association for Human Rights. She has been awarded honorary degrees on three continents. In 2004, she won the North–South Prize from the Council of Europe. In 2005, she won the Inana International Prize in Belgium, and in 2012, the International Peace Bureau awarded her the 2012 Seán MacBride Peace Prize.
Nawal el Saadawi has held the positions of Author for the Supreme Council for Arts and Social Sciences, Cairo; Director General of the Health Education Department, Ministry of Health, Cairo, Secretary General of the Medical Association, Cairo, Egypt, and medical doctor at the University Hospital and Ministry of Health. She is the founder of the Health Education Association and the Egyptian Women Writers' Association; she was Chief Editor of Health Magazine in Cairo, and Editor of Medical Association Magazine.
Saadawi graduated as a medical doctor in 1955 from Cairo University. That year she married Ahmed Helmi, whom she met as a fellow student in medical school. The marriage ended two years later. Through her medical practice, she observed women's physical and psychological problems and connected them with oppressive cultural practices, patriarchal oppression, class oppression and imperialist oppression.
While working as a doctor in her birthplace of Kafr Tahla, she observed the hardships and inequalities faced by rural women. After attempting to protect one of her patients from domestic violence, Saadawi was summoned back to Cairo. She eventually became the Director of the Ministry of Public Health and met her third husband, Sherif Hatata, while sharing an office in the Ministry of Health. Hetata, also a medical doctor and writer, had been a political prisoner for 13 years. They married in 1964 and have a son and a daughter. Saadawi divorced Hetata after 43 years of marriage.
In 1972, she published Woman and Sex (المرأة والجنس), confronting and contextualising various aggressions perpetrated against women's bodies, including female circumcision. The book became a foundational text of second-wave feminism. As a consequence of the book and her political activities, Saadawi was dismissed from her position at the Ministry of Health. She also lost her positions as chief editor of a health journal, and as Assistant General Secretary in the Medical Association in Egypt. From 1973 to 1976, Saadawi worked on researching women and neurosis in Ain Shams University's Faculty of Medicine. From 1979 to 1980, she was the United Nations Advisor for the Women's Programme in Africa (ECA) and the Middle East (ECWA).
Long viewed as controversial and dangerous by the Egyptian government, Saadawi helped publish a feminist magazine in 1981 called Confrontation. She was imprisoned in September by President of Egypt Anwar Sadat. She was released later that year, one month after the President's assassination. Of her experience she wrote: "Danger has been a part of my life ever since I picked up a pen and wrote. Nothing is more perilous than truth in a world that lies."
Saadawi was one of the women held at Qanatir Women's Prison. Her incarceration formed the basis for her memoir, Memoirs from the Women's Prison. Her contact with a prisoner at Qanatir, nine years before she was imprisoned there, served as inspiration for an earlier work, a novel titled Woman at Point Zero.
In 1988, when her life was threatened by Islamists and political persecution, Saadawi was forced to flee Egypt. She accepted an offer to teach at Duke University's Asian and African Languages Department in North Carolina, as well as at the University of Washington. She has since held positions at a number of prestigious colleges and universities including Cairo University, Harvard, Yale, Columbia, the Sorbonne, Georgetown, Florida State University, and the University of California, Berkeley. In 1996, she moved back to Egypt. Saadawi thus speaks fluent English in addition to her native Egyptian Arabic.
She has continued her activism and considered running in the 2005 Egyptian presidential election, before stepping out because of stringent requirements for first-time candidates.
She was awarded the 2004 North–South Prize by the Council of Europe.
She was among the protesters in Tahrir Square in 2011. She has called for the abolition of religious instruction in the Egyptian schools.
In July 2016 she headlined the Royal African Society's "Africa Writes" festival in London, where she spoke "On Being A Woman Writer" in conversation with Margaret Busby.
At a young age, Saadawi underwent the process of female genital mutilation. As an adult she has written about and criticized this practice. She responded to the death of a 12-year-old girl, Bedour Shaker, during a genital circumcision operation in 2007 by writing: "Bedour, did you have to die for some light to shine in the dark minds? Did you have to pay with your dear life a price ... for doctors and clerics to learn that the right religion doesn't cut children's organs." As a doctor and human rights activist, Saadawi is also opposed to male circumcision. She believes that both male and female children deserve protection from genital mutilation.
In a 2014 interview Saadawi said that "the root of the oppression of women lies in the global post-modern capitalist system, which is supported by religious fundamentalism".
When hundreds of people were killed in what has been called a "stampede" during the 2015 pilgrimage (Hajj) of Muslims to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, she said:
"They talk about changing the way [the hajj] is administered, about making people travel in smaller groups. What they don’t say is that the crush happened because these people were fighting to stone the devil. Why do they need to stone the devil? Why do they need to kiss that black stone? But no one will say this. The media will not print it. What is it about, this reluctance to criticize religion? ... This refusal to criticize religion ... is not liberalism. This is censorship."
She has said that elements of the Hajj, such as kissing the Black Stone, had pre-Islamic pagan roots.
Saadawi describes the Islamic veil as "a tool of oppression of women". She is also critical about the objectification of women and female bodies without male bodies in patriarchal social structures common in Europe and the US.
In a 2002 lecture at the University of California, Saadawi described the US-led war on Afghanistan as "a war to exploit the oil in the region", and US foreign policy and its support of Israel as "real terrorism". Saadawi has opined that Egyptians are forced into poverty by US aid." (1)