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Nawal el-Saadawi: Profile

Nawal el-Saadawi is an internationally recognised Egyptian novelist and psychiatrist.

Last Modified: 20 May 2004 10:17 GMT
Saadawi's controversial writing has often landed her in trouble

Nawal el-Saadawi is an internationally recognised Egyptian novelist and psychiatrist.

She was born in 1931 in the village of Kafir Tahla and qualified as a doctor in 1955.

A leading feminist, whose novels have stirred controversy in Egypt and throughout the Arab world for the past 30 years, she rose to prominence in 1972 with her book, Women and Sex. The book, which dealt in a forthright manner with a topic that is not openly discussed in Egypt, led to her dismissal as the country's director of public health. 

Her magazine Health – which she founded in 1972 and edited – was also shut down.

Imprisoned

She was jailed under President Anwar Sadat's rule being released only after his assassination in 1981.

El-Saadawi often raised the ire of Islamic groups, who saw her as a destructive force in modern Egyptian social and cultural discourse. Her name was reportedly included in death lists issued by some groups.

In June 1991, the Arab Women's Solidarity Association, founded in 1982 with el-Saadawi as its president, was shut down by the Egyptian government. The association's funds were ordered to be transferred to the Association of Women in Islam.

El-Saadawi has been critical of all religions, but focuses on Islam since she believes that "the struggle starts locally."

Western interest

She has addressed audiences throughout the world and has been invited as a keynote speaker by major US universities and academic institutions.

Her attacks on Islam and the Egyptian political system helped her to generate attention in the West but also ignited criticism among those who believed she was pandering to Western prejudices about Islam.

She said: "When you criticise your own culture, there are those in your culture who are against you, who say: 'Don't show our dirty linen outside.' I don't believe in this theory. I speak one language, whether inside the country or outside. I must be honest with myself."

El-Saadawi worked as a visiting professor at Duke University, in the US, between 1993 and 1994, headed the Women's Programme in the UN-ECWA, in Beirut, between 1978 and 1980 and worked as an author at the Supreme Council for Arts and Social Sciences in Cairo in 1974.

On writing

She has written more than 24 books in Arabic.

"I write in Arabic. All my books are in Arabic and then they are translated. My role is to change my people. I cannot change people in America and leave my country," she said.

In 2001 Saadawi was charged
with heresy in Cairo

In June 2001, she appeared before a criminal court in Cairo charged with heresy. An Egyptian lawyer, Nabil al-Wahsh, lodged a complaint against her for "non-respect of religions". Cairo's civil affairs court exonerated her on 30 July and threw out all charges against her.

On her troubles with the government, she said: "Sadat put me in prison along with some other men. Under Mubarak, I've been 'grey-listed'. 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."

On political opposition in Egypt, she said: "Most of the NGOs in Egypt are co-opted by the government. There is no real opposition party that represents the people's interests either. Even the Tagammu, the so-called leftist political party, was created by Sadat along with all the other official parties. All the party leaders cooperate with the government."

Feminism

And finally, on today's feminism: "We don't have feminists any more. Feminism to me is to fight against patriarchy and class and to fight against male domination and class domination. We don't separate between class oppression and patriarchal oppression.

"Many women who call themselves feminists today wear makeup, high heels, tight jeans and they still wear the hijab"

"Many so-called feminists don't understand this. We can't be liberated under American occupation, for example. The new women are not aware of that.

"These days, there is also a phenomenon I call 'false awareness'. Many women who call themselves feminists today wear makeup, high heels, tight jeans and they still wear the hijab. It is very contradictory.

"They are victims of both religious fundamentalism and American consumerism. They have no political awareness.

"They are unaware of the connection between the liberation of women on the one hand and of the economy and country on the other. Many consider only patriarchy as their enemy and ignore corporate capitalism."

Source:
Aljazeera
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