The Egyptian writer, doctor, and agitator Nawal El Saadawi passed away in Cairo on March 21, 2021, at the age of eighty-nine. Despite decades of threats, lawsuits, censorship, and disregard, she had never been able to leave permanently a city that was, she wrote,
the nightmare of being hunted down, besieged, imprisoned, the pulsations of love, the pain of defeat, the exhilaration of resistance, the falling down then standing up again and again and again in a struggle that has no end.
I interviewed El Saadawi in 2004. I was a twenty-five-year-old journalist who had read a few of her books. She was one of the best-known Arab feminists in the world but a marginalized figure in her own country—banned by the authorities from government posts and media appearances, railed at by Islamists, at odds with much of the Egyptian public because of her criticism of practices such as veiling, polygamy, unequal access to divorce and inheritance for men and women, and female genital mutilation.
In our interview, El Saadawi denounced the Iraq War and insisted that “the veil is not Islamic at all.” She was funny, opinionated, and—as I had been warned—a bit full of herself. “I could have been a prime minister, or the minister of health,” she declared. What struck me was the extent to which such a formidable figure had been sidelined by history and the extent to which she did not accept it.
El Saadawi’s mother once said, “You can throw our daughter Nawal in the fire and she will come back safe.” She seems to have adopted this as her credo; her fearlessness and unshakable belief in herself (sometimes bordering on egocentrism) were her defining traits. All her life El Saadawi was someone who could not hold her tongue, who sought an audience and then reveled in making it uncomfortable by telling unpleasant truths. She wrote dozens of books, including novels and plays that skewered male religious authority and exposés and polemics that detailed the worst abuses and inequalities Egyptian and Arab women faced. There was probably nothing she hated more than being silenced.
El Saadawi was born in 1931 in the village of Kafr Tahla, in the Nile Delta. This was the hometown of her formidable peasant grandmother Sittil Hajja, an illiterate widow who spared no effort to ensure that her son Sayed Saadawi, Nawal’s father, received an education. Sayed, who was cultured, kind, and open-minded (for his time), married the youngest daughter of an impoverished family from the Ottoman aristocracy and became an official in the Ministry of Education. He opposed British control of Egypt—London propped up the Egyptian monarchy and managed the country’s economy and military despite having granted it formal independence in 1922. As a result he spent many years in the provincial town of Menouf and was passed over for raises, promotions, and transfers.
In her three-part autobiography (the first two volumes of which are available in English as A Daughter of Isis and Walking Through Fire), El Saadawi writes about both her parents with great affection. She admired her father and his sense of principle, and never stopped trying to impress him. And she adored her mother, Zaynab, who died of cancer at forty-five after having nine children. Her memories of her mother—of her smell, her laughter, the way she taught Nawal to swim and to write—are suffused with deep sadness and a sense of injustice:
She owned nothing, had no money. According to divine and to human law, her children, including me, were her husband’s property. So, I never carried the name of my mother. Her name was buried with her body and disappeared from history.
From a young age, El Saadawi, the family’s second child, was determined not to disappear. The preferential treatment of her older brother, Tala’at, was her first experience of gender discrimination. Why, although she ran faster than him and was better than him at school, was Tala’at given so much attention, spared chores and tiresome rules and prohibitions? El Saadawi also noticed the way domestic servants, young girls her age, were treated—beaten, made to sleep on the floor and eat leftovers. One girl who worked in the household ran off and was never found; another became pregnant and was sent away. El Saadawi’s grandmother proclaimed, “A boy is worth fifteen girls at least.”
El Saadawi figured out early that education was her best chance to escape the life prescribed for her. She excelled at school and dreamed of becoming a writer; she started keeping her first journal at age ten, the day after she drove away a suitor by spilling a tray of coffee on him. Eventually, she won her parents over to the idea that she should continue her studies rather than get married. It helped that Tala’at was an academic disappointment, more interested in music than school. “I had to have a brother who was a failure to become an object of interest,” she wrote later. Her family did not consider literature a career, so in 1948 she enrolled in the Faculty of Medicine at Cairo University.
In medical school, El Saadawi noticed how disrespectfully and roughly the doctors treated poor patients. When exam results came in, they were hung in the entrance of the school, and she and her classmates “would discover all of a sudden that the sons of our professors were all geniuses, since their names always came at the top of the list.” Students were taught nothing about sex, the clitoris, or the hymen, or the practices related to them.
El Saadawi would encounter these practices while running a rural health unit in her native village. This was one of the initiatives of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s socialist regime, which replaced the monarchy and the British after the Free Officers’ coup of 1952. El Saadawi witnessed the physical and psychological harm done by the daya, the traditional midwife who was called upon to affirm girls’ virginity on their wedding nights (by puncturing their hymens with her finger and producing blood) and to practice genital cutting on young girls.
Female genital mutilation, or female circumcision (as it’s called in Arabic), is practiced in many West and East African countries and some Middle Eastern ones. It predates Islam but has acquired religious justification from Muslim authorities. In Egypt, it consists of removing all or part of the clitoris with a razor. The rationale for it is to reduce a woman’s sex drive and thus the risk that she will engage in dishonorable sexual conduct. A girl who has not undergone the procedure may be viewed as “loose” and not a good marriage prospect.
El Saadawi was circumcised at age six. She wrote about it more than once. In The Hidden Face of Eve (1977), she recounts being snatched from her bed one night and dragged to the bathroom by strangers who clamped a hand over her mouth, spread her legs, and “cut off a piece of flesh from my body.” She cried for her mother, but
the worst shock of all was when I looked around and found her standing by my side. Yes, it was her, I could not be mistaken, in flesh and blood, right in the midst of these strangers, talking to them and smiling at them, as though they had not participated in slaughtering her daughter just a few moments ago.
The Hidden Face of Eve was one of several books El Saadawi wrote in the 1970s that made her reputation as a feminist firebrand. She had already had a number of clashes with the authorities. She was forced to leave the rural clinic after trying to help a young woman from the village who was said to be possessed by evil spirits; El Saadawi discovered that she was being raped and abused by her husband. The woman was nonetheless forced to return to him and killed herself. El Saadawi was transferred back to Cairo because, she writes, a male colleague had reported her: “Dr Nawal El Saadawi…had exhibited a signal disrespect for the moral values and customs of our society and had incited women to rebel against the divine laws of Islam.”
In her 1969 book Women and Sex, El Saadawi criticized the preoccupation with female virginity and the double standards it imposes, writing, “Can honor possibly be an anatomical feature that some human beings are born with and some not? And if the hymen is evidence of a woman’s honor, what is evidence of a man’s?” The book led to her dismissal from a post at the Ministry of Health and to the closure of Health, a magazine she had founded.
In 1975 El Saadawi published the novel Woman at Point Zero, the melodramatic story of Firdaus, a prostitute and murderer ostensibly based on a woman El Saadawi had met while visiting a prison. Firdaus is less a real person than a composite of female suffering and resilience through whom El Saadawi indicts Egyptian society. Toward the end of the book, Firdaus reflects:
All women are victims of deception. Men impose deception on women and punish them for being deceived, force them down to the lowest level and punish them for falling so low, bind them in marriage and then chastise them with menial service for life, or insults, or blows.
Now I realized that the least deluded of all women was the prostitute. That marriage was the system built on the most cruel suffering for women.
El Saadawi herself married and divorced three times. This was fairly unusual, given the pressure on women not to expose themselves and their families to the shame of divorce, and the fact that getting one in Egypt generally requires a husband’s consent (whereas men can divorce their wives unilaterally). El Saadawi, as usual, defied social norms; she entered her marriages with doubts and misgivings but embraced her divorces with joy. She describes her first divorce as “a glimmering, shining moment in my life,” and says of her second, “I could see the word ‘divorce’ creeping over the horizon like the light of dawn.”
Her first husband, Ahmed Helmi, with whom she had a daughter, was a fellow medical student who participated in guerrilla attacks on British forces stationed in the Suez Canal Zone. But after the 1952 coup, he became disillusioned with politics, addicted to drugs, and violent. One night he tore up many of El Saadawi’s photographs and papers and tried to strangle her. With her father’s support, she was able to get a divorce by returning her dowry and giving up any alimony.
Her second marriage was a loveless one to a prominent lawyer. In her memoirs she recounts how he threw the draft of one of her books out the window. She jumped after it, ending a pregnancy that she had already attempted to terminate. When she told him she wanted to end the marriage, he said, “It will be easier for you to see the stars at noon than to have a divorce, dear doctor.” She grabbed a scalpel from her purse and advanced on him in a cold fury, terrifying him so much that he conceded.
El Saadawi’s third marriage was to Sherif Hetata, a fellow doctor and writer and a Communist who had spent thirteen years in prison before they met in the 1960s. They had a son, and the union was a happy and supportive one; Hetata produced admirable translations of almost all of her works. Nonetheless, El Saadawi divorced him in 2010, after forty-six years of marriage, when she discovered he was having an affair. In 2015 she told an audience, “The marriage laws do not encourage men to respect women…. Marriage does not suit a women with dignity.”
When it is based on her experience and her fieldwork, El Saadawi’s writing is very powerful. It is easy to see why it caused such a furor and had such an impact on female readers across the Arab world. In The Hidden Face of Eve, she describes the education of a girl in Arab society as “a slow process of annihilation, a gradual throttling of her personality and mind.” She notes that Islamic scholars considered it women’s responsibility to provide men with all the material comforts they needed to pursue religion and knowledge, while assuming that women were unworthy of such pursuits themselves. She takes apart the traditional claim that men’s authority over women flows from their responsibility as providers, pointing out that women are actually exploited, unpaid laborers within the family.
As El Saadawi became an outspoken dissident at home, she also became famous outside Egypt. She remains among the most widely read Arab women writers in the West, where one of her books is often the first and only work by an Arab feminist that college students encounter. Yet some of the editorial choices made in presenting her to a Western audience—choices that seem to downplay her criticism of capitalism and to emphasize the suffering of Arab women—have been called into question. “Chapters in the Arabic edition like ‘Woman’s Work at Home’ and ‘Arab Woman and Socialism’ are omitted from the English translation, which includes instead an entire chapter on female circumcision, the treatment of which is far more limited in Arabic,” notes Ronak Husni in her foreword to The Hidden Face of Eve, without explaining who made these decisions or why.
It is common for Western feminists to focus on the plight of Arab and Muslim women while paying considerably less attention to the ways Western military, political, and economic interventions contribute to the unequal world those women live in. The idea that Muslim women need liberating or saving has even been used to justify military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. On the other hand, it is common for Muslim conservatives and Arab nationalists to try to silence local feminists by accusing them of being traitors to their culture who are playing to foreign audiences.
El Saadawi, in her preface to The Hidden Face of Eve, is at pains to emphasize that discrimination against women in the region is driven by economic and political factors—including “foreign exploitation of resources”—more than cultural and religious ones:
I firmly believe that the reasons for the lower status of women in our societies…are not due to Islam, but rather to certain economic and political forces, namely those of foreign imperialism operating mainly from the outside, and those of the reactionary classes operating from the inside.
She is irritated by women in America and Europe whom she views as condescending and unaware, but in trying to make a valid point she goes too far, creating unconvincing equivalences:
Women in Europe and America may not be exposed to surgical removal of the clitoris. Nevertheless, they are victims of cultural and psychological clitoridectomy. “Lift the chains off my body, put the chains on my mind.”
El Saadawi’s politics were shaped by the struggle against colonialism. As a teenager, she participated enthusiastically in mass protests against the British presence in Egypt. Like most Egyptians her age, she volunteered to fight in 1956 when France, the UK, and Israel tried to reoccupy the Suez Canal, which Nasser had nationalized. She traveled as a medical volunteer to the Suez zone during the Six-Day War in 1967 and to Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan in 1968. Yet she did not blindly support her own government. In her memoir she describes attending conferences put on by the new Nasserist regime. “The faces of the men sitting high up on the platform did not indicate in any way that they were there to serve the people,” she observes.
The ruling classes in Egypt at all stages could not bear young people who organized for a cause. They could be used when needed. After that they had to be suppressed, called back to the house of obedience like a recalcitrant wife.
Here and elsewhere in her writing, she emphasized the connection between patriarchy, political authoritarianism, and religious fundamentalism. Her politics were radical and utopian; mostly she engaged in denunciation. In The Hidden Face of Eve, she argues that “women can only become truly liberated under a socialist system where classes have been abolished and where, furthermore, the systems and concepts and laws of patriarchalism have been completely eradicated.” Such a system, she suggested, was being ushered in by revolutionary movements in Iran, Algeria, and Palestine.
In 1981 President Anwar Sadat—who had made peace with Israel, aligned Egypt with the US, and opened the economy to foreign trade and investment (and rampant corruption)—was facing great discontent at home. In response he had nearly 1,600 prominent politicians and intellectuals, including El Saadawi, arrested, and he shut down many political parties and newspapers. El Saadawi’s time in prison was cut short by Sadat’s assassination on October 6 of that year, after which many political prisoners were released by his successor, Hosni Mubarak.
In Memoirs from the Women’s Prison (1983), El Saadawi gives a detailed account of her arrest, interrogations, and months of incarceration, during which she wrote in secret using an eyebrow pencil and toilet paper. As usual, she is a keen and sympathetic observer of the lower-class women she met: Nabawiyya, a female warden who is just trying to get by; Fathiyya, a murderer who is widely respected by the other inmates; and Dhuba, a prostitute who cleans the political prisoners’ cell (class distinctions remain firmly in place). These women agree that “behind every woman who’s entered prison there’s a real son of a bitch. Father, husband, brother, uncle, cousin.” El Saadawi is also a sharp observer of the various forms of male authority—apologetic, disingenuous, blustering, hypocritical—that she faces.
But she has notably little to say about her fellow political prisoners, who included other prominent women writers. When she does describe them, it is critically; the most space is given to Boduur and Fawqiyya, one an Islamist and the other a Communist, “both equally humorless, doctrinal and hypocritical.” Although El Saadawi talks about the camaraderie of prison, she doesn’t credit any of her fellow prisoners with insights or initiatives; she is always the one who leads, who has good ideas, and who squares up bravely against policemen, wardens, and prosecutors.
Many prison memoirs present the experience as a form of painful education. But the main thing El Saadawi seems to learn, again and again, is the extent of her own indomitable will and moral superiority. She was undoubtedly a remarkable person, and yet her emphasis on her remarkableness can become a form of blindness. In her prison memoir, she is so focused on her own experience that she gives almost no sense of what Sadat’s actions meant for others or of the larger political background; one almost gets the sense that the entire crackdown was aimed at Nawal El Saadawi.
This is related to another aspect of El Saadawi’s writing (one that may explain her particular appeal to Western audiences): its focus on individual exceptionalism. Her feminism almost always appears intuitive, personal, and unique; it has little collective or historical dimension. El Saadawi rarely mentions writers or thinkers who have contributed to her understanding of feminism or socialism; she seems to have no role models or peers she admires. Other people, other women, never seem to teach her anything, except negatively. Her stories, whether they are autobiographical or fictional (her victim-heroines often read as idealized stand-ins for the author) center on the repeated revelation of the iniquity the female narrator faces and of her strength as she stands alone in the face of it.
In Memoirs from the Women’s Prison, El Saadawi recounts being interrogated and asked to reread one of her offending articles:
At some point, I forgot that I was the author, and I was filled with admiration for whoever had written it. Suddenly, I remembered that I was the author, and the thought filled me with pride and self-admiration.
This seems tongue-in-cheek. But when talking about her mission as a writer, El Saadawi’s tone is most often dead serious:
The pen is the most valuable thing in my life. My words on paper are more valuable to me than my life itself. More valuable than my children, more than my husband, more than my freedom.
I prefer my place in prison to writing something which has not originated in my mind.
It is perhaps not surprising that the more El Saadawi felt targeted and alienated from her society, the more she clung to her own myth. Self-aggrandizement may have been a defense mechanism.
In 1987 El Saadawi published The Fall of the Imam, a dystopian novel set in an Islamic dictatorship. It is a sort of Arab Handmaid’s Tale, although it has none of Margaret Atwood’s tight focus and plausibility; instead, it grows muddled and grandiloquent, floundering under the weight of its dreamlike imagery. The heroine is the illegitimate daughter of the Imam, a revered political and religious leader:
His desire to possess things was like a chronic disease, like a great hunger, and he had an unlimited faith in God’s power, in what He could do for him. He developed a patch of rough blue skin on his forehead from repeated prostration, and in his right hand he held a rosary of yellow beads for all to see, testimonies of his devotion to God. Over his right buttock hung a sword, encased in a long sheath, and over the left buttock he held his hand, hiding the hole in his trousers.
In the late 1980s and the 1990s, Islamic extremists in Egypt carried out a number of terrorist attacks against tourists as well as public officials and intellectuals. El Saadawi discovered that she had been put on a hit list because of her writing. The same government that had closed the offices of the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association, which she had founded, forced her to accept police protection. El Saadawi and Hetata chose to leave the country instead; she took a position at Duke University.
It is there that she wrote the first two volumes of her autobiography, the best of her books. Whereas many of the others seem to have been dashed off in inspiration or anger, El Saadawi takes her time in these lengthy, reflective volumes. She vividly conjures her childhood and youth in the Egyptian countryside and in Cairo, sketching teachers, relatives, neighbors, and schoolmates in wonderful detail. She shows us herself as a young woman who is impulsive, optimistic, hungry for attention, full of an “anger [that] had never stopped accumulating in me since the day I was born.”
After four years at Duke, El Saadawi and Hetata returned to Cairo. She continued to receive international prizes, honorary degrees, and accolades, and to make statements that were deemed scandalous, such as that certain rituals of the hajj, the holy Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, had pagan origins. As a result of such remarks, in 2001 she was the target of a particularly malicious legal maneuver known as a hisba case, in which a plaintiff takes legal action on behalf of other members of the Muslim community to protect them from moral harm. An enterprising conservative lawyer sought to divorce El Saadawi from Hetata without either of their consent, on the grounds that she was an unbeliever. (The case was dismissed.) She was also sued after writing a play, God Resigns at the Summit Meeting (2006), in which she staged a debate between the deity, the devil, and prophets of different faiths.
In 2004, at age seventy-three, El Saadawi announced a run for president but ultimately withdrew, citing restrictions on her campaign. She supported the Arab Spring protests, and like so many secular Egyptian intellectuals, she also supported the protests against the Muslim Brotherhood government and its violent overthrow by the military. In 2018 she claimed she had personally seen Hillary Clinton give money to young people in Tahrir Square so that they would vote for the Brotherhood—repeating the common conspiracy theory that the US government actively supported the Islamist movement.
Reading El Saadawi’s books and memoirs, one is struck by how daring they still are; I doubt they could be published in Egypt today. This is another way of saying that one is struck by how few of the changes El Saadawi called for have been implemented. The unfair laws she decried—the ones that discriminate against women in matters of inheritance, marriage, and divorce—remain in place, despite a few minor reforms. The practice of female genital mutilation, after decades of public awareness campaigns and a law criminalizing it in 2008, has started to decline but has hardly been eradicated: rates among girls aged fifteen to nineteen dropped from 97 percent in 1985 to 70 percent in 2015. The degree of sexual violence Egyptian women face—including from the authorities—is rampant and shocking.* Meanwhile, El Saadawi’s hopes that Arab countries would see a wave of political, economic, and personal liberation have been disappointed, to say the least.
At its best, El Saadawi’s writing is bracingly honest, a deep and passionate exploration of her particular female experience. In a chapter of her memoirs entitled “Killing the Bridegroom” she recounts telling her grandmother, “I will never marry!” only to hear, “Marriage is your destiny like all girls. It is God’s will, O daughter of my son.” The little girl does not know exactly what God, marriage, or a husband is, but they are linked in her imagination: “To me, a bridegroom was like one of the dolls which my mother made out of the remains of cloth.” In her dreams, God also appears to her
in the form of one of these dolls, dressed in a dark suit, with the red fez on his head and the two black beady eyes shining wickedly in the night. He used to hide in the shadow of the clothes-stand, then move out slowly from behind it.
God pursues her in her dreams, and she and her little sister pursue knowledge as they play with their rag dolls: when the bridegroom beats the bride, they punish him by taking off his pants and cutting open his belly with scissors, looking for the piece of flesh between his legs.
El Saadawi describes the world the girls live in, the two sides of the family, in Cairo and in the village of Kafr Tahla. Already she senses that everywhere one thing is the same, a message she reads in the eyes of others: “I felt it in my body like a shiver of cold: I had been born a female in a world that wanted only males.” Writing becomes her response, a weapon with which to fight back:
I wanted to get hold of something sharp, like scissors, or a razor blade, or a pen, plunge it into those eyes, open them the way my sister and I split open the belly of the bridegroom doll when we played with it.
This remarkable chapter moves fluidly across a lifetime, vibrates with the depth charges of childhood memories, surprises with a chain of emotional and intellectual revelations. The final twist comes when El Saadawi uncharacteristically admits failure:
When I was a child I could not tell who was lying to me, who was drawing an image of me which was not myself, not the original. Throughout the years of my life I wrote trying in vain to abolish the distance between the image and the original, for letters, words on paper are not the body, can never be the body with which I live.