Monday, March 29, 2021 10:39 pm
By Nehru Odeh
Nawar El Saadawi was under no illusion why she was born. And she held on to her convictions with clenched fist even till death.
Her peculiarities are legendary. As a child, she informed her peasant grandmother that she did not intend to marry. And when her parents wanted to marry her off at 10 she blackened her teeth to ward off potential suitors. Though she got a beating for it, that paid off.
Still, when her grandmother told her that a boy is worth more than 15 girls at least, she stamped her feat in protest.
At six, she underwent the process of female genital mutilation, which she described vividly in her book, The Hidden Face of Eve, and spent all her adult life writing about and criticizing the practice.
Yet, she later married and divorced three husbands at different times, proclaiming with pride in a 2015 interview with The Guardian that she was “not really fit for the role of a wife.”
When President Anwar Sadat arrested her in September 1981 as part of round- up of dissidents and detained her for three months he wrote her memoirs on a toilet paper using a eye- pencil smuggled to her by a jailed sex worker.
When her publisher burnt her play in which God was out-argued in 2007, she declared that if she said all she wanted to say she would be burned herself, like Joan of Arc.
Not only were her writings censored, her books were banned and she was stripped of her job in 1972, after publishing, Women and Sex, a non-fiction which railed against FGM and the sexual oppression of women. And her magazine, Health, was closed down in 1973.
These significant but sometimes tragic milestones partly describe the incredible life of the Egyptian feminist, writer, activist and medical doctor who passed on on 21 March 2021 in a Cairo hospital at 89.
El Saadawi, who spent her life defending women’s rights, fighting patriarchy, female genital mutilation and the enclosure of women, believed the liberation of women should be holistic and not divorced be from class, gender and religious oppression. Little wonder she railed against the veil, preferential treatment given to the male child and relegation of women to the background. And she described the religious headscarf and veil as “a tool of oppression of women.”
“Women cannot be liberated in a class society or a male-dominated patriarchal society. This is why we have to get rid, fight against class oppression, gender oppression, and religious oppression,” El Saadawi told CNN in an interview in 2011. “We cannot speak about revolution without women,” she said.
El Saadawi was not just the nemesis of successive regimes in her home country, Egypt, she was indubitably the most vocal voice against female oppression in the Arab world and was thrown into prison several times for her fight against patriarchy as well as class, gender and religious oppression.
“I’ve participated in many demonstrations since I was a child. When I was at medical college, I was fighting King Farouk, then British colonisation, against Nasser, against Sadat who pushed me into prison, Mubarak who pushed me into exile. I never stopped.
“Sadat put me in prison along with some other men. Under [longtime President Hosni] Mubarak, I’ve been ‘greylisted’. Although there is no official order banning me, I can’t appear in the national media – it’s an unwritten rule. There is no chance for people like me to be heard by the people, ” she said, recounting her experiences.
Still, the intriguing thing about El Saadawi is that she was unrelenting in her struggles and participated in several demonstrations in Egypt even when she was already advanced in age. “I am becoming more radical with age. I have noticed that writers, when they are old, become milder. But for me it is the opposite. Age makes me more angry, ” she claimed in 2010 and in February 2011, true to her word, she joined the anti-Mubarak protesters in Tahir Square, ready, she said, to fight in what she saw as a “real revolution”.
Though she initially wanted to be a writer, her parents persuaded her to be a medical doctor, on grounds that there was no future in studying literature. And she attended a medical school. However, she reverted to her first love and ended up writing over 55 books, including plays, short stories, fiction and non-fiction, in the course of her life. Her works include: Memoirs of a Woman Doctor, Women and Sex, The Hidden Face of Eve, God Dies by the Nile, , Woman at Point Zero, Memoirs from a Women’s Prison
“I’ve written all my life,” she said in a 2011 interview. “What really encouraged me to write was my dissatisfaction with my surroundings …. I can describe my life as a life devoted to writing
“I write in Arabic. All my books are in Arabic and then they are translated. My role is to change my people.”
“The colonial capitalist powers are mainly English- or French-speaking…. I am still ignored by big literary powers in the world, because I write in Arabic, and also because I am critical of the colonial, capitalist, racist, patriarchal mindset of the super-powers.”
After she was jailed by Anwar Sadat, she was famously quoted as saying that she was arrested because she believed him. “I was arrested because I believed Sadat. He said there is democracy and we have a multi-party system and you can criticize. So I started criticizing his policy and I landed in jail.”
Though she was released that year, one month after Sadat’s assassination, she later 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.”
Asked by the BBC’s Zeinab Badawi if she had toned down her criticism in 2018, she retorted: “I should be more aggressive, because the world is becoming more aggressive and we need people to speak loudly against injustices.”
And In 2020 Time magazine made her one of its 100 most influential women of the past century.