Nawal El Saadawi, Egyptian author and women’s rights icon, dies

The famed writer, feminist and activist passed away at the age of 89 at a Cairo hospital after suffering a long illness, her family says.

Nawal El Saadawi wrote more than 55 books over the course of her life [File: Reuters]

World-renowned Egyptian author Nawal El Saadawi, an outspoken champion of women’s rights in the Arab world, has died at the age of 89, her family said.

El Saadawi passed away in a Cairo hospital after suffering a long illness, her daughter, Mona Helmy, said on Sunday.

The prolific writer was a leading feminist who revolutionised discussions on gender in deeply conservative societies.

Born in the village of Kafir Tahla in 1931, El Saadawi rose to prominence in 1972 with her taboo-breaking book, Women and Sex, but she shot to fame with her widely translated novel Women at Point Zero in 1975.

With more than 55 books to her name, she was briefly jailed by late President Anwar Sadat and also condemned by Al-Azhar, the highest Sunni Muslim authority in Egypt.

“I write in Arabic. All my books are in Arabic and then they are translated. My role is to change my people,” El Saadawi, who faced many death threats throughout her life, said.

Translation: Dr Nawal El Saadawi, the most famous advocate for the emancipation of women in modern Arab history, has died .. The image is from her participation in an episode of the program The Opposite Direction with Sheikh Youssef Al-Badri in 1998.

On her troubles with the government, El Saadawi had said: “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.”

Riz Khan - women of the revolution- Nawal el Saadawi
El Saadawi at Cairo’s Tahrir Square during the anti-Mubarak protests in February 2011 [File: Amel Pain/EPA]

El Saadawi had an outspoken brand of feminism. She wrote on controversial topics including polygamy and female circumcision – among others – which gained her as many critics as admirers in the region.

She had 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.”

In 1993, El Saadawi relocated to North Carolina in the United States for Duke University, where she was a writer-in-residence at the Asian and African languages department for three years.

She returned to Egypt and in 2005 ran for president but abandoned her bid after accusing security forces of not allowing her to hold rallies.

In 2011, she took part in the mass uprising against corruption that removed Mubarak.

Her path-breaking, critical books published in dozens of languages also took aim at Western feminists, including her friend Gloria Steinem, and policies espoused by heads of state such as former US President George W Bush’s invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan.

“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,” she had said.

In 2005, El Saadawi was awarded the Inana International Prize in Belgium, a year after she received the North-South prize from the Council of Europe. In 2020, Time Magazine named her on their 100 Women of the Year list.

“I can describe my life as a life devoted to writing,” El Saadawi, who is survived by a daughter and a son, had said.

“In spite of all the obstacles, I kept writing.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies