Egypt’s fem­i­nist war­rior Nawal el-saadawi has sur­vived prison and out­lived her en­e­mies %ut at she’s still ɿght­ing the pa­tri­archy, re­li­gious op­pres­sion and gen­i­tal mu­ti­la­tion

Newsweek - - News - BY OR­LANDO CROWCROFT @ocrowcroft

Egypt’s Fem­i­nist War­rior Nawal el-saadawi

the first let­ter nawal el-sayed el-saadawi ever wrote was to God. In it, the 7-year-old Nawal asked why—if God was just and fair—he had not made her mother and father equal. Since she had first learned to write, she had al­ways writ­ten her mother’s name, Zaynab, next to her own. But her father said it was his name, Sayed, that she must use, along with that of his father, Saadawi.

Saadawi never got an an­swer, and when her mother died—at just 45, hav­ing raised nine chil­dren—her name died with her. Un­like Saadawi’s father, who could ex­pect 72 vir­gins upon ar­riv­ing in heaven, her mother was due no re­wards, ac­cord­ing to Is­lam, the faith of her par­ents. “A woman is with­out worth,” she wrote in the first part of her au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, A Daugh­ter of Isis, “on earth or in the heav­ens.”

Saadawi, now 86, was not con­vinced by God then, and she isn’t now. “The first let­ter in my life, I told God: If you are not fair,

I am not ready to be­lieve in you,” she says dur­ing a trip to Lon­don to pro­mote the reis­sue of her two-vol­ume au­to­bi­og­ra­phy. It is views like this that have en­sured that Saadawi’s life has been—in the words of her friend Margaret At­wood, the author of A Handmaid’s Tale—“one long death threat.”

Born in 1931 in the vil­lage of Kafr Tahla, Egypt, north of Cairo, Saadawi trained as a med­i­cal doc­tor be­fore be­gin­ning her ca­reer as a writer in her 20s. She was fired from her job as direc­tor-gen­eral of Egypt’s pub­lic health au­thor­ity for her op­po­si­tion to the prac­tice of fe­male gen­i­tal mu­ti­la­tion. Her 1977 book, The Hid­den Face of Eve, in­cluded a har­row­ing ac­count of her own cir­cum­ci­sion at the age of 6 as her mother and aunts watched.

It also out­lined her op­po­si­tion to the forced mar­riages of chil­dren. One of her ear­lier books, a 1975 novel called Woman at Point Zero, told the story of a young woman, Fir­daus, who be­comes a pros­ti­tute in Cairo af­ter flee­ing an abu­sive mar­riage. Af­ter mur­der­ing her pimp and re­fus­ing to atone for her crime, she is sen­tenced to death. In the book, Saadawi paints a pic­ture of Fir­daus—who was a real per­son—as a fem­i­nist hero­ine who re­fuses to be cowed and, ul­ti­mately,

dies free. “With each of the men I ever knew,” Fir­daus says in the final sec­tion of the novel, “I was al­ways over­come by a strong de­sire to lift my arm high up over my head and bring my hand smash­ing down on his face.”

And that in­cluded the most pow­er­ful among them. In 1981, Saadawi was ar­rested and jailed by Egyp­tian Pres­i­dent An­war Sa­dat, the mil­i­tary leader who had re­placed Ga­mal Ab­del Nasser in 1970 and signed a con­tro­ver­sial peace deal with Is­rael. Her cell­mates feared that Sa­dat would give them all the death penalty, but Saadawi was con­vinced she would out­live the pres­i­dent, which she did. In Oc­to­ber 1981, a month af­ter she was ar­rested, Sa­dat was as­sas­si­nated at a mil­i­tary pa­rade by of­fi­cers op­posed to his peace ac­cord.

But the Egyp­tian gov­ern­ment was not the only in­sti­tu­tion an­gered by her work. In 1991, Saadawi’s name be­gan ap­pear­ing on “death lists” cir­cu­lated by Is­lamist groups. The threats were not idle: In 1992 Egyp­tian writer Farag Foda was mur­dered by El-gama’a El-is­lamiya, the ex­trem­ist group that car­ried out hun­dreds of killings dur­ing the 1990s. Saadawi’s name was next on the list and in 1993 she re­luc­tantly left for the U.S., where she would spend the next 16 years in ex­ile, re­turn­ing to Cairo in 2009.

Of­fered a po­si­tion at Duke Univer­sity in North Carolina, Saadawi be­gan her course on cre­ativ­ity and dis­si­dence by telling her stu­dents she could teach them nei­ther. “I said that I can­not undo what ed­u­ca­tion did to you,” she says, “how it makes peo­ple un­aware why they are op­pressed, of the causes in his­tory, in the past, in the present.”

Nev­er­the­less, she strived to do so, start­ing with re­li­gion. Saadawi ob­served that from the time of Egypt’s pharaohs—who ruled over Earth and the af­ter­life—re­li­gious and po­lit­i­cal power have been in­sep­a­ra­ble; there is no such thing as a sec­u­lar state any­where in the world. “[In Egypt] I was link­ing…re­li­gion to cap­i­tal­ism, to women’s rights,” she says. “So they had to stop me. I had to go to prison. They had to cen­sor my work.”

Above all, she goes on, re­li­gion is “silly. To be­lieve that Christ came out of the grave and went to the sky, or he was cru­ci­fied?” Saadawi laughs. “I spent 10 years of my life study­ing Ju­daism, Chris­tian­ity, Is­lam, com­par­ing the Old Tes­ta­ment to the New Tes­ta­ment to the Ko­ran. I even went to In­dia. I stud­ied the Gita and Hin­duism. The more you study re­li­gion, the more you see it is ridicu­lous.”

Dur­ing her time in the U.S., Saadawi saw Bill Clin­ton elected, fol­lowed by Ge­orge W. Bush and then fi­nally Barack Obama. When Hil­lary Clin­ton ran against Don­ald Trump in 2016, she was of­ten asked about the prospect of the U.S. get­ting its first fe­male leader, but—then as now— the ques­tion re­veals a fun­da­men­tal mis­un­der­stand­ing of her fem­i­nism.

“Peo­ple ask: ‘Would you like to have a woman ruler?’” Saadawi says. “It de­pends, be­cause I do not di­vide peo­ple be­cause of their gen­i­tal or­gans. I don’t say you are a man or you are a woman. There are men who are fem­i­nists and against op­pres­sion of women…and there are women like Clin­ton and [Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter] Theresa May and Con­doleezza Rice who are more pa­tri­ar­chal than the men.”

in 2011, saadawi took part in the rev­o­lu­tion that un­seated Hosni Mubarak, lead­ing to the elec­tions the Mus­lim Brother­hood won. Like many Egyp­tian leftists, she wel­comed the down­fall of the Brother­hood’s leader, Mo­hammed Morsi, in July 2013, and ob­jects to the use of the word coup to de­scribe the mil­i­tary over­throw of his gov­ern­ment. “I don’t say coup. The West says it was a mil­i­tary coup that re­moved the Mus­lim Brothers; this is not true,” she says. “It was a rev­o­lu­tion of the peo­ple.”

Se­man­tics aside, the four years since Gen­eral Ab­del Fat­tah el-sissi took power have seen a mas­sive crack­down on hu­man rights in Egypt, with thou­sands of ac­tivists—in­clud­ing lib­er­als in­volved in the 2011 rev­o­lu­tion, writ­ers and Mus­lim Brother­hood mem­bers—now in jail. In 2018, Sissi won 97 per­cent of the vote af­ter any real pres­i­den­tial con­tenders were banned from run­ning or in prison.

Given that, does Saadawi still sup­port the gov­ern­ment in Cairo? “I sup­port no gov­ern­ment,” she says. “I think no gov­ern­ment re­ally works for the peo­ple, in Egypt or in Amer­ica. I don’t be­lieve in in­di­vid­ual rulers, in kings, in [Margaret] Thatcher, or Mubarak, or Sissi, or Sa­dat, no. Peo­ple can­not be ruled by one per­son. You need a rev­o­lu­tion of mil­lions.”

Saadawi points out that while she is still for­bid­den from dis­cussing fe­male gen­i­tal mu­ti­la­tion in the Egyp­tian press—though it’s il­le­gal, rates of fe­male cir­cum­ci­sion are as high as 87.2 per­cent in some ar­eas of Egypt, ac­cord­ing to the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion—she is a reg­u­lar columnist for Al-ahram, a sta­te­owned news­pa­per. “That is a gov­ern­ment pa­per, but I write in it. So

“When this Metoo hap­pened, I said, ‘My God, how are they so late?’”

there is progress. Un­der Sa­dat and Mubarak, I was cen­sored.”

And else­where in the world, other changes sug­gest rea­sons to be op­ti­mistic, she says, not least the #Metoo move­ment in the U.S., which be­gan with al­le­ga­tions against movie pro­ducer Har­vey We­in­stein last Oco­to­ber. (He was fi­nally ar­rested and charged with rape by New York’s dis­trict at­tor­ney in May). Watch­ing events un­fold from Egypt, Saadawi couldn’t help but feel vin­di­cated. “Those women, half my age, dis­cov­ered what I dis­cov­ered 40 years ago,” she says. “I was link­ing pa­tri­archy to class, to cap­i­tal­ism, to re­li­gion, to racism. When this #Metoo hap­pened, I said, ‘My God, how are they so late?’”

For years, Saadawi watched as Arab coun­tries were por­trayed as sex­u­ally re­pressed and back­ward, in con­trast to the pro­gres­sive West. “They thought that is only women in Arab so­ci­eties or in Mus­lim so­ci­eties that are ha­rassed,” she says, “and that women in the U.S. and Bri­tain are free. I was say­ing, ‘No, we are all in the same boat.’ I was say­ing that in the mid-’50s. They laughed at me.”

As she speaks, Saadawi sketches on a piece of pa­per, writ­ing down im­por­tant words, un­der­lin­ing them, draw­ing di­a­grams that il­lus­trate her ar­gu­ments. When asked about the fu­ture, she turns the sheet over and draws a zigzag line. She is di­a­gram­ming his­tory: ups and downs, highs and lows, but al­ways mov­ing for­ward.

“We are here,” she says, mak­ing a mark half­way down a de­cline. “That’s why you have Don­ald Trump and May. We are in the pe­riod of fierce cap­i­tal­ism com­bined with fierce re­li­gious fun­da­men­tal­ism, together, and racism—you see how the Pales­tini­ans are be­ing killed? It is a dif­fi­cult pe­riod, but it will come to an end, be­cause that is how his­tory goes, in a zigzag line.”

DAUGH­TER OF ISIS Clock­wise from top: Saadawi in 2005, at her home in Cairo; for­mer Egyp­tion pres­i­dent An­war al Sa­dat, who im­pris­oned Saadawi in 1981; L.A. pro­test­ers at a #Metoo rally in 2017.

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