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Meet The Middle East’s Most Important Feminist Thinker

The great Egyptian author and activist Nawal El Saadawi has written more than fifty-five books. Yep, Fifty-five. Her work spans poetry, plays, autobiography, political manifesto and novels. And at the age of 85, she is still writing, and still challenging the status quo when it comes to prescribed gender roles within Arab culture.

El Saadawi has protested tirelessly against the practice of female genital mutilation; has recently spoken out against women wearing the veil (it’s a no from her); and fiercely believes that women must be freed from the political and social oppression they face not only in countries in the Middle East, but across the globe.
I met with El Saadawi for an early lunch while she was in London a few weeks ago, and found her midway through a gin and tonic. My relief must have been palpable as I quickly ordered one too – anything to assuage the nerves that preclude an hour with one of the world’s most important thinkers.

Boldly calling out the injustices of numerous Egyptian governments over the years, from President Anwar Sadat's to President Hosni Mubarak's, El Saadawi is a dissident voice that cannot be suppressed.

She wrote her first autobiography when was just 13 years old. It was called Memoirs of a Child. In the 1950s, and during her twenties, El Saadawi wrote her first big manifesto on gender. At the time, she was working as a doctor in Egypt, and the role put her into contact with victims of female genital mutilation.

El Saadawi recalls that she saw a great number of girls – and boys – dying from medical complications following circumcisions. Her experiences compelled her to write Women and Sex, a eulogy to the state of affairs for women in the Arab world at the time. It remains as poignant as ever today, although sadly, has never been translated into English.

Women and Sex was so controversial that, after it was published, the book was immediately banned in Egypt and El Saadawi lost her job. She also received death threats. “I’d be a liar if I said I have not been afraid,” she tells me. “But I got rid of my fear. I managed and I got rid!” El Saadawi has a philosophy, she says: “In order to survive you need hope. Hope is power.”

In the 1980s, several books later, she was sent to jail by President Sadat because she was viewed as a threat to the State. Still, she reflects, she never lost hope. “When I was in prison, I told my cellmates… I told them ‘we will survive and Sadat will die’… and that is exactly what happened.”

During her time in the jail, El Saadawi penned the book Memoir From a Woman in Prison. “I changed prison from a negative experience to a positive experience by writing a book,” she remembers, "and it is one of my best books. I wrote it on toilet paper – a prostitute smuggled to me her eyebrow pen and I wrote it with that.” I laugh, but El Saadawi remains serious. “Creative power: That is survival,” she says.

El Saadawi was eventually released from prison, but was forced to flee Egypt in 1988 after receiving more death threats, so she moved to America to teach writing and political dissidence at left-wing universities. Now back in her homeland, I ask if she’d choose to live anywhere else. “No!” She snaps. “I cannot live anywhere except Egypt because I have to change from the inside. In my country, I have a role.”

Still, it’s not all been plain sailing since she moved back in the late 90s. El Saadawi ran for the post of Egyptian President in the 2004 elections, but was forcibly made to stand down. “The government prevented me,” she recalls.

She doesn’t think it’s her gender that made her a worthy candidate to run for government, but her political outlook. “I do not divide people by their gender, I divide people by their mind. There are men who are much more progressive and against class hierarchy and against oppression. And then there are women like Angela Merkel, Margaret Thatcher and Hillary Clinton… all those women are very patriarchal.”

El Saadawi's feminism is not confined to her gender. “It is not enough to be a woman if your brain is patriarchal,” she says.
Despite being nominated for the Nobel Prize more than once (she would not accept it – and seems pleased with herself about this), El Saadawi is still marginalised in Egypt by “the government and external powers,” but the important thing, she says, is that young people are hungrily consuming her books and engaging with her work – “which is why I am giving you this interview,” she adds.

Today, female genital mutilation remains near the top of El Saadawi’s priority list when it comes to human rights issues in her own country, and beyond. Despite being outlawed in 2008, the practice is still rife, with more than 90% of Egypt's female population estimated to be victims. That’s around 27 million girls and women.

“Some women in my region think it is their identity to be circumcised,” says El Saadawi on the issue. “It’s ignorance. It’s brainwashing by religion and politics.”

So, what needs to be done? “You cannot eradicate just a law,” she says. “When it comes to power and identity, you need education to undo brainwashing.”


Nawal's books are available from Zed publishing.