Nawal El Saadawi was an Egyptian feminist writer, activist, and psychiatrist

Nawal El Saadawi, ‘Egypt’s most radical woman’

Born in a village just outside Cairo in 1931 into a family of 9 children, one of the most outspoken feminist leaders in the Arab-speaking world, El Saadawi wrote her first novel at the age of 13 years old and continued to write about her own experiences and those of fellow Egyptians until she died in 2021. Despite attempts by her family to marry her off at ten years old, El Saadawi qualified as a psychiatric doctor from the University of Cairo and specialised in women’s health. Throughout her medical career, she used her psychiatric knowledge and experience to connect discrimination against women in society and its effect on women’s mental and physical health. 


El Saadawi’s literary work

Over her career, El Saadawi has written several fictions and non-fiction works united in the stories of injustice that women face daily in the Arab-speaking world, which El Saadawi often links to religious fundamentalism. The result is usually based on El Saadawi’s experiences as a women’s psychiatric doctor. One example is ‘Woman at Point Zero’, based on a real experience El Saadawi had whilst treating a female prostitute facing the death penalty for murder. It was shocking in its sympathetic depiction of prostitution and also the suggestion that, in some cases, prostitutes had more freedom over their bodies than married women. El Saadawi’s 1972 non-fiction book Women and Sex angered the religious authorities in her native Egypt to such an extent that she lost her job and was forced to shut down her women’s magazine. The book heavily criticised female genital mutilation and the sexual oppression of women by religious authorities. Her writing means she is now considered one of the founders of second-wave feminism. El Saadawi’s work has been translated from the original Arabic into more than 30 languages, although she often felt ignored for writing in Arabic. 


El Saadawi’s views and political persecution 

El Saadawi faced clashes with successive governments in her native Egypt throughout her career. While working as a doctor in her birthplace Kafr Tahla, she observed the hardships and inequalities faced by rural women. After attempting to protect one of her patients from domestic violence, El Saadawi was summoned back to Cairo. Long viewed as a controversial and dangerous figure by the Egyptian government, Saadawi was imprisoned by Egyptian president Anwar Sadat for criticising his actions as undemocratic. While in prison, she formed the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association, the first legal and independent feminist group in Egypt. She continued writing in prison, using a “stubby black eyebrow pencil” and “a small roll of old and tattered toilet paper”. Of her experience, she wrote: “Danger has been a part of my life ever since I picked up a pen and wrote. Nothing is more dangerous than truth in a world that lies’’. In 1993, when Islamists threatened her life for political reasons, Saadawi was forced to leave Egypt and spent time teaching in the USA, returning to Egypt in 1996. 


Later years 

Saadawi participated in the 2005 Tahrir Square protests calling for religious teaching in Egyptian schools to end. Her asylum in the USA did not prevent her from criticising its foreign policy, as she denounced USA’s ‘collaboration’ with the Egyptian government to end the 2011 Egyptian revolution, adding that she remembered seeing then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Tahrir Square handing out dollar bills to the youth to encourage them to vote for the Muslim Brotherhood in the upcoming elections.


El Saadawi’s feminism

El Saadawi’s feminism has been equally controversial; she has consistently expressed the belief that “the root of the oppression of women lies in the global post-modern capitalist system, which is supported by religious fundamentalism” and opposed the Islamic veil. She has equally angered other feminists by denouncing make-up and revealing clothes as tools, leading to objectifying women’s bodies. Yet El Saadawi has always defended the right to disagree with her. When asked how she felt about being considered a heroine by some Egyptian women, she replied that women should become their heroes. El Saadawi’s legacy is one that, above all, encourages women to speak out.


Olivia Winnifrith


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