For Nawal El Saadawi (1931-2021)

Writing: such has been my crime ever since I was a small child. To this day writing remains my crime. Now, although I am out of prison, I continue to live inside a prison of another sort, one without steel bars. For the technology of oppression and might without justice has become more advanced, and the fetters imposed on mind and body have become invisible. The most dangerous shackles are the invisible ones, because they deceive people into believing they are free. This delusion is the new prison that people inhabit today, north and south, east and west…We inhabit the age of the technology of false consciousness, the technology of hiding truths behind amiable humanistic slogans that may change from one era to another…Democracy is not just freedom to criticize the government or head of state, or to hold parliamentary elections. True democracy obtains only when the people – women, men, young people, children – have the ability to change the system of industrial capitalism that has oppressed them since the earliest days of slavery: a system based on class division, patriarchy, and military might, a hierarchical system that subjugates people merely because they are born poor, or female, or dark-skinned.

Nawal El Saadawi, Memoirs from the Women’s Prison

For Nawal El Saadawi, feminist, marxist, anti-imperialist, atheist, revolutionary, physician and psychiatrist, activist, political prisoner … the list of “identities” fail to exhaust her. She was perhaps above all an artist, a writer, someone for whom rebellion was life itself. Nawal El Saadawi died this last 21st of March. In her memory, we share words given out in interviews, and a short article.

Who is Nawal El Saadawi? Her story has an epic quality, as if it were one of her own novels or one of those old and overblown Egyptian films. She was born in 1931, in the village of Kafr Tahla, just north of Cairo, the second of nine children in what she describes as a more than usually “complicated” family. Yes, she was cut as a child. But she was also encouraged to study. “I was brought up in two different classes: the poor peasant class of my father [a government official] and the upper bourgeois class of my mother, who went to French schools and wanted to ride horses and play the piano. My father came from the village. His mother went hungry to pay for his education, and it was his education and his ambition that enabled him to marry my mother. He was 30, she was 15. Of course, my parents preferred my older brother. But he was spoilt, and he didn’t study, and was always failing, while I was good in school. So they began to support me. They wanted to marry me when I was 10, but when I rebelled, my mother stood with me.” She was, she thinks now, lucky to be a girl: “It was a handicap that pushed me.”

Her first dream was to be a dancer; she loved music, and she was beautiful. But her father could not afford to buy a piano, so she turned her attention instead to reading and writing. “I hated doctors, and didn’t want to be one,” she says. “But I was top of my class at high school, which meant that it was [almost automatic] that I would study medicine. I got a scholarship.” She graduated from the University of Cairo in 1955, specialising in psychiatry, and returned to Kafr Tahla to work as a doctor, over the years becoming increasingly prominent. In 1963, she was appointed the director general for public health education. However, her political activities were now beginning to work against her. In 1972, she published Women and Sex, the first of a series of books in which she attacked the aggressions carried out against women’s bodies: not just female circumcision, but also the brutal rituals associated with society’s fixation with virginity (the same dayas [midwives] who circumcised children were often required to prove a girl’s hymen was intact on her wedding night). Soon after this, she lost her job, and al-Sihha [Health], the magazine she had founded three years previously, was closed down.

Was she allowed to marry for love?

“No, no, that’s the problem. My first husband was a great man, my colleague in the medical college. He was fascinating, and he was the father of my daughter. My father didn’t want me to marry him because he had gone to Suez to fight the British. But then [after Suez] the guerrilla fighters were betrayed, many of them imprisoned. This crisis broke him, and he became an addict. I was told that if I married him, he might stop his addictions, but he didn’t. He tried to kill me, so I left him.”

And husband number two? “He was a man of law, very patriarchal.” A snort. “I’m telling you frankly: I am not really fit for the role of a wife, you must be sure of that.”

She divorced again. “My third husband [Sherif Hatata], the father of my son, was a very free man, a Marxist who’d been imprisoned. I lived with him for 43 years, and I told everyone: this is the only feminist man on earth. And then I had to divorce him, too. He was a liar. He was having relations with other women. Oh, the complexity of the patriarchal character. He wrote books about gender equality, and then he betrayed his wife. Ninety-five per cent of men are like that, I’m sure.” Is it hard to be a divorced woman in Egypt? “If you are an ordinary woman, it is. But I’m very extraordinary. People expect everything of me.” She laughs heartily, her nimbus of white hair bouncing up and down in time to her breath.

All the while, she continued to write – Woman at Point Zero was published in 1973, and The Hidden Face of Eve in 1977 – and the state continued to make her life difficult. It was inevitable that they would one day come for her, and eventually they did.

“It was 6 September, 1981. I was in my old apartment in Giza, alone. The children were with the father in the village. I was writing a novel when I heard a knock on the door, and then the words: ‘Open up! Didn’t you hear the president’s speech last night? We are the police.’” Sadat, it seemed, had announced that 1,000 dissidents would be arrested, that they would be “smashed”. El Saadawi tried to stay calm. “I was frightened, my heart was beating wildly, but I’m very obstinate. I asked them if they had a warrant, and when they told me they did not, I replied that I could not open the door. They disappeared for half an hour. I put on my shoes, and I got my key and bag, and I was ready. When they came back, they broke down the door: 30 of them, very savage. They pushed me out into the street, where there were 10 police cars. I could see my neighbours peeping out of their windows, all very frightened.”

At the prison, she shared a cell with 12 other women: some were Marxists, others was Islamists. “They were crying all day and night because they thought Sadat was going to kill them. But I was sure of myself. Every morning, I did my gymnastics. I danced, I sang. One of the prostitutes who came with our jailer to bring our breakfast smuggled an eye pencil to me, and I wrote my memoirs with it on toilet paper.”

She had a feeling that everything would be all right – and so it proved. On 6 October, Sadat was assassinated. “We knew this had happened, because we had smuggled in a small transistor. When we heard, the Marxists all knelt and prayed, and the fanatical Islamic women who considered dancing a taboo took off their veils and danced. But we had to pretend we didn’t know [to the guards]. We had to act normal, to hide our happiness.”

Four weeks ticked by. Eventually, she was taken to see the new president. “Suddenly, I was in front of Mubarak. He invited some of us to his palace: he chose 20, of which two were women. I was one, the other was a religious woman. I thought I was being taken to another prison. They didn’t tell me I was going to be released. He sat with us for two hours, and then he told us we could go home. But I was angry. I said I was going to sue the government. You can’t hold someone for three months who hasn’t committed a crime, who doesn’t know what has happened to her husband and children, and keep her in conditions that even animals wouldn’t live under, and then just say: go home. No! You must be accountable. I was the only prisoner who sued the government, and I won my case and millions of dollars, though I never saw them.”

What happened after this? She shrugs. “I went on as before. I wrote exactly what I wanted.”

This time, the government took a different approach. She was allowed to live at home, but she was effectively isolated. Her work was censored, threats were made against her life. She was included on a “death list” that was published in a Saudi newspaper. One evening, she even heard her name during the call to prayer: “Nawal El Saadawi should be killed,” said the muezzin. Mubarak sent guards to her house, ostensibly to protect her. But she knew better than to take this at face value. People like her were often murdered by their so-called guards. “My husband said: you have to leave, and I am coming with you. So, we went into exile.” For the next few years, she taught at universities in Europe and the US.

But she couldn’t stay away forever, and in 1996, she returned. “Mubarak was still insisting Egypt was a democracy. But I could see the situation. He paid people to stand against him. It was a facade. So [in 2004] I decided to stand against him. The government was frightened because I was very popular, and they sent the police to my village, where I was having meetings, and they went to every home and they made threats: if you are a teacher, they said, you’ll be dismissed if you support her; even prison was threatened. So then I declared I was boycotting the election.”

She moved to her current flat in 2009, and from the moment she arrived, she sensed things were going to change sooner rather than later. “It was always filled with young people who’d read my work. Small demonstrations started, against Mubarak’s son at first, this idea that the presidency could be inherited. Slowly, slowly, the idea of revolution was propagated until… we moved to Tahrir Square.”

We’ve already talked about the revolution, and the coup that followed it. But how does she believe that it, and connected events elsewhere, have affected the position of women in the Arab world? The Hidden Face of Eve, published almost 40 years ago, was shot through with an optimism for the future that seems misplaced now (she saw the revolution in Iran, the Marxist government in South Yemen and the struggle of the Palestinians as agents for the liberation for women). As a campaigner against the veil, it must dishearten her that more women are covered now than in the middle of the last century. “Well, the veil is a political symbol,” she says. “It’s also a fashion. Some women who wear it, they wear tight jeans, they show their thighs and their breasts and their stomachs.” But then she can contain herself no longer. A wail goes up.

“Something has happened over the last 45 years. The brains of women and men have been ruined, ruined! Doctors, even university professors, are veiled.” What about FGM [female genital mutilation]? When she wrote her book, 90% of girls in Egypt were cut. But the government made the practice illegal in 2008. Is that number now beginning to fall?

“No, it has stayed the same. You can’t change such a deep-rooted habit by passing a law. You need education. The law was passed to satisfy the west. They wanted to cover that disgrace, not to eradicate the practice itself. You have to change the minds of the mothers and fathers and even of the girls themselves, who have been brainwashed to accept it.” How long will it take to change attitudes? “It depends on the courage of writers. But it will come. Fifty years ago, when I opened my mouth, you couldn’t speak against it. Now you can. Even some religious figures are saying it is against Islam.”

Not that she thinks the west can afford to be smug. For one thing, she believes religious fundamentalism is on the rise in all faiths, everywhere. For another, she regards nakedness and veiling as two sides of the same coin. “No one criticises a woman who is half-naked. This is so-called freedom, too. The problem is our conception of freedom. Men are encouraged neither to be half-naked, nor veiled. Why?” She gives me a fierce look. “Liberate yourself before you liberate me! This is the problem. I had to quarrel with many American feminists – Gloria Steinem, Robin Morgan – because I noticed that many of them were oppressed by their husbands, and then they came here to liberate me!”

She contemplates me, beadily. “Do you feel you are liberated?” Tentatively, I nod my head. “Well, I feel I am not.” Another look. “The problem, by the way, is not Egyptian men. I have Egyptian friends who married British and American men, and they lived in hell. Maybe your husband is very good, but theirs weren’t. Egyptian men are not violent relative to American men. They’ve been conquered by colonialism, so they’re not so full of machismo.” She sighs. “Well… It’s a battle, but we shouldn’t be miserable. Now, please, eat a biscuit.”

(“Interview: Nawal El Saadawi”, Rachel Cooke, The Guardian, 11/10/2015)

Hans Ulrich Obrist: What encouraged you to start writing? Was there an epiphany that brought you to literature, or literature to you?

Nawal El Saadawi: What encouraged me to write? Well, since my childhood my dream was to be a dancer. To express my feelings in dance. I loved to see dancers perform. Then, I wanted to be a musician, to express myself on the piano. However, dancing wasn’t possible, nor was the piano, because we were not rich. I would have needed to have a piano at home to be able to practice. I loved writing, too. I love any creative form of self-expression, be it dancing, music, writing. I didn’t dream of being a doctor at all. I never dreamt about that—I hated doctors! I hated teachers and professors and all that too, and I ended up being both a doctor and a professor. But I’ve written all my life. What really encouraged me to write was my dissatisfaction with my surroundings. I was angry with society. As a girl, I felt there was something wrong in the world around me, in my family, school, in the streets. I also felt there was something wrong with the way society treated me. So I can tell you writing came from dissatisfaction, from anger.


HUO: So you see yourself as part of a tradition of revolutionary writers?

NS: Yes. In fact, since I was ten years old I’ve been participating in revolts—in my primary school, my secondary school, and in medical school. I was basically dreaming of the revolution since I was ten. For me, the January 2011 revolution was delayed seventy years!


NS: When I was in Tahrir Square, young men and even veiled women with the niqab came to me. They came and hugged me. And the younger generation of the Muslim Brotherhood also came and hugged me. They told me: we’ve read your work, we disagree with some of what you’ve written, but we love you. So in Tahrir Square I felt I was surrounded by people who loved me. And then, because we were spending so many hours together, walking, shouting, and so on, they invited me to sit in the tents. The tents became like small houses. “Please come talk to us about your knowledge, about your book, the revolution, Mubarak, Sadat, America and Israel, about creativity.” So while moving around I was invited by different people in Tahrir Square to do seminars on things like music, creativity, revolution.

HUO: And how can one teach creativity?

NS: We simply cannot teach it—though I spent my years in exile doing precisely that. I hated being in exile without work so I accepted an invitation by Duke University in the US. They asked me to be a professor and teach whatever topic I liked. I told them I hated teachers, so I didn’t know what to teach. I wanted to do something related to writing and creativity. So I invented the topic “Creativity and Dissidence,” on the relationship between creativity, dissident work, and being revolutionary. Since January 1993 I’ve been teaching this topic. Usually, on the first day of class I tell my students that I cannot teach creativity. What I can try to do is to undo what education has done to them, because educational systems everywhere in the world kill creativity.

HUO: You basically try to remove the damage of education. As Ivan Illich proposed, you try to de-school people.

NS: Yes. Decolonizing the mind, undoing the damage of education, of fear towards the media, of religion, religious education, and so on.

HUO: Rainer Maria Rilke, the German poet, wrote a little book of advice to a young poet. I was wondering, what is your advice to a young revolutionary?

NS: Number one, I don’t like to give advice. Number two, I wouldn’t know how to do it. I try to let my students discover themselves, and I tell them not to listen to me too much. I tell them that they should try and listen to their own voices, their own advice and not expect me to give it to them. They need to look for a deep inner voice that they haven’t heard since childhood, a voice that has been stifled and silenced since then. Giving advice means killing the inner voice. And I want them to flourish.

HUO: Like an awakening.

NS: An awakening, yes, exactly.


HUO: You were once saying that writing is like an orgasm.

NS: Yes, creativity is more pleasurable than sexual orgasm. Creativity gives more pleasure than food, sex, money, or anything else. And that pleasure is what kept me going. Many people ask me where my energy comes from. And I tell them: creativity!


HUO: And amongst all your books, do you have any unrealized projects or dreams?

NS: I have man y. We still live in a jungle, but I want to live in a human world. The world we are living is very inhumane. This is not a human world. I am dreaming of a world where people are peaceful. These past two days I’ve been walking the streets of London, under the sun. Children were walking and playing in Hyde Park, men and women were happy. I thought to myself, why isn’t everybody like that?

HUO: They were beautiful sunny days. So that’s your unrealized project—peace?

NS: Real peace. Not the peace of Sadat. Real peace, real social justice, real happiness, real equality between people, regardless of gender, class, nationality, religion. Why don’t people become equal human beings? Why do America and the EU invade us and take our resources? Why did the British colonize us? Why has America colonized the world? Why is Israel taking another people’s land? Nobody answers these questions. That’s my dream, my unrealized dream. Peace and justice. There is no peace without justice. Politicians always try to separate peace from justice, and this usually means humiliating a country or women.


HUO: Your work has been pioneering for feminism. How do you see feminism now in Egypt, and in the world?

NS: Well, there was a backlash against feminism, especially from the right wing. What is feminism? Feminism is humanism. Feminism is social justice. I was a feminist when I was a child because I was angry that my brother had more rights. So feminism, to me, is not a theory that I read in English. It’s a way of life, like socialism, like equality. And I don’t believe in feminists who separate sexual rape and economic rape. In the West, in England, in America, some feminists are very fond of speaking only about sexual rape. And they separate it from economic, mental rape, as when someone is brainwashed by the media or education. So I see all that as feminism in a broader sense.

HUO: So you would have an expanded notion of feminism.

NS: Yes. Socialism, feminism, humanism, creativity—I want to link all that. There are many splits, many divisions, one of which is the global and its separation from the local, which is wrong. There really should be no separation whatsoever between the global and the local. The very, very local is the very, very universal.

(“In Conversation with Nawal El Saadawi”, Hans Ulrich Obrist, e-flux, Journal #42 – February 2013)

You camped out in Tahrir Square day and night. Did you see or hear anything that surprised you?

I didn’t expect 20 million people on the streets. This has been my dream since I was child, that one day the Egyptian people would wake up and revolt against slavery and colonization. I’ve participated in many demonstrations since I was a child. When I was at medical college, I was fighting King Farouk, then British colonization, against Nasser, against Sadat who pushed me into prison, Mubarak who pushed me into exile. I never stopped. It was like a dream; it was the accumulation of small revolutions.

A lot of your work and ideas focus on intersecting forms of oppression—class, patriarchy, colonialism. How do you overcome those oppressive forces? How can you convince someone to cede authority or resources?

[Laughs.] Well, it’s very difficult. This is everyone’s struggle—whether against men in the family, or against capitalism. It’s power. I don’t think that people in power can be convinced by words or articles. They will never give it up by choice. Even a husband in the house, no—power has to be taken with power. Mubarak resigned because the people showed their power. If it had been only a few hundred protesters, he would never go, but because it was 20 million, the whole country, he had no choice. You can’t eradicate power with weakness. Knowledge and unity—these were power in the hands of the people.

Within a household, the individual woman must have power. It’s not easy—it means political rights, economic independence, knowledge. A lot of women are afraid of loneliness, so when they see a woman who can live alone, then they think, “Hmm, I can do that.” But you need an example, and that is why I am proud to say I have divorced three husbands.

How will these protests and a new political order affect gender relations in Egypt?

Well, it’s also a process. First you need economic independence, so you can divorce your husband if he treats you badly. Then it becomes like a virus, infecting other women. And then women start to organize and talk about it. You need collective power, and that is why we always organize and network. But this is why [former Egyptian first ladies] Suzanne Mubarak and Jehane Sadat banned our union, the Egyptian Women’s Union. Because organizing is power.

Do you have a wish list for the revolution? What are the top three things you’d like to see happen going forward?

I have complete confidence in the young people. I lived with them in Tahrir Square, and we still have discussions in my home all the time, and I always learn from them. We older people must be modest enough to confess that we should not be advising the younger people all the time but should instead have an equal exchange of ideas.

How did women get sidelined so fast after Mubarak left?

We are furious. We participated in every part of the revolution, and then as soon as it ended we were completely isolated. The constitutional committees were all old men, so young people are also angry. But we re-established the Egyptian Women’s Union and we are organizing day and night. We are demanding at least 35 percent female participation in all committees to be formed to change the constitution, at every level, as well as a secular constitution, a secular family code and total equality before the law.

Do you have advice for women in the West on how to advocate for women’s rights elsewhere, without allowing that issue of women’s rights to be instrumentalized?

I always say we need global and local solidarity—what we call “glocal.” Women in the West can support us by fighting their own governments, because your governments are the ones that interfere in our life, by going and invading and colonizing other countries.

Nobody can help anybody. Nobody can help us in Egypt—we did our revolution alone, we liberated ourselves alone. I don’t believe in charity or “helping.” I believe in the equal exchange of ideas, and networking.

Are you ever fearful that when you condemn certain practices such as FGM as “barbaric,” these condemnations will be appropriated by people with an anti-Arab agenda?

Yes, they can use it against us, to say that we are barbaric and need to be colonized to be civilized. But they don’t look to themselves—in Europe and America, women are circumcised mentally. The feminists who are aware of the effects of patriarchy realize that we are all in the same boat from the dangers of patriarchy, and that the oppression of women is universal.

(“An Interview With Nawal El Saadawi”, Anna Louie Sussman, The Nation, 21/03/2011)

“This crush in Saudia Arabia!” she says, referring to the recent deaths at Mecca. “They talk about changing the way it [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.” Her voice is full of disdain. “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 criticise religion?” Perhaps, I say, people worry they’ll be seen as racist. “Well, religion is the embodiment of racism. All gods are jealous. People get killed because they are not praying to the right god.” She let go of God long ago, and never looked back. “These girls [who join Isis]. There is a lot of misery among young people. They can’t get work, they are poor and unemployed. But the nonsense they read about Islam and all that… I had to get educated, I had to divorce three husbands, and there they are: ignorant, brainwashed, reading about the [so-called] equality between men and women in Islam.” She waggles a finger at me, today’s representative of the lily-livered media. “This refusal to criticise religion,” she says, sombrely. “This is not liberalism. This is censorship.”

(“Interview: Nawal El Saadawi”, Rachel Cooke, The Guardian, 11/10/2015)

New song of Egypt’s elite

What makes revolutionary thought unique is its clarity and dignity, and its clear grasp of freedom and justice: simple, clear words that are understood without the need for any help from elite writers or thinkers.

In the columns of many of Egypt’s national newspapers, the same face-lifted, hair-dyed dignitaries who spent years justifying and beautifying the corruption of past rulers still write regularly. They now praise Egypt’s revolutionaries just as they once praised Hosni Mubarak and his ministers.

Their words jumble everything, until the truth disappears – the simple, plain truth that the law and the constitution must be fair, and must be applied equally to everyone; that a leader should not be spared a just trial, nor punishment if he is found guilty of killing demonstrators or stealing money, or corruption, or any other charge.

Mubarak has now been indicted, but the trial is being constantly delayed for health reasons, or political or other reasons. There is pressure from both inside and outside the country to spare him. Some people – the elite thinkers who write in newspapers – want to empty the revolution of its significance. They want to turn it into a song that we listen to yearly on 25 January, just as we listen to “I love you Egypt” songs during processions of national hypocrisy.

All their writings sound the same, revolving around the same concealed idea, as if they meet at night and agree upon it. “Oh, pure youth of the revolution,” they say, “you are noble; you rise above revenge. You are the youth of a pure revolution, not like the French revolution that executed King Louis XVI and his family. Your white revolution shed no blood.”

Their tears pour with the flowing ink of their pens. But they did not shed tears for the youth who were killed and wounded on the streets and in Tahrir Square. They did not cry for the youth who lost their eyesight to the snipers’ rubber bullets, or for the people of Egypt who have suffered hunger, unemployment, and abuse in prisons. They only shed tears for leaders who have spilled blood and taken money.

In their desire to protect fallen leaders from the people’s trials, they say that God alone can punish and reward. “To all the youth of the revolution, trust God and do not listen to the words of infidels who are calling for punishment.”

But how can there be justice without a trial? Why are they afraid of a trial if they are innocent and if their defendant is innocent? Mubarak was the one who gave orders to ministers – and to some of our elite writers, too, as he distributed rewards and positions among them. None of them ever opened their mouth except to shower Mister President with compliments, or to show their loyalty to him by following his orders. None of them ever met the president without emerging from the meeting waxing lyrical about their “unique and unprecedented encounter”.

They tell the youth that everyone makes mistakes. “You are young and pure and romantic,” they say. “You haven’t experienced life; but we are old and have struggled with life; we have all lived through the past regime, we all adapted to it, we the big writers. We had limits that we could not step over or else we would have been dragged to jail or exiled, and our children would have starved. Oh, youth of the revolution, you have to rise above this desire to punish or you risk losing the noble spirit of the revolution. It is enough that the stolen money is returned through the courts; we can spare Mubarak and his family from the humiliation of a trial, and he can leave Egypt.”

This is the new song that the Egyptian elite is singing today. To this day, its members occupy the thrones of culture, information, writing and art. You could almost sense from them that the trial will not take place – and if it did, it would be a sham, and it would end with acquittal and a safe passage outside the country. I hope I am wrong – for the sake of protecting Egypt from another burning revolution.

(From Nawaal el Saadawi’s blog, an article published April 27th in the Guardian, translated from Arabic by Deema Sathame)

Video interviews, a documentary …

Nawal El Saadawi’s novel, Woman at Point Zero is available online here.

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