“Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in welcoming our guest today, Nawal El Saadawi!”
A somewhat stocky woman got up from one of the chairs facing the audience and tossing her mane of white hair, strode to the podium. There was a scattering of handclaps, mine the most enthusiastic, and I turned around to see that the auditorium was only about half full.
It was a Friday morning and I was at Nebraska Wesleyan University (NWU) in Lincoln, Nebraska. A student myself at the University of Nebraska Lincoln (UNL), I had only the day before found out while scanning the Lincoln Journal that she would be visiting NWU. The year was 2003.
I don’t exactly remember what she talked about but it was definitely anti-establishmentarian. She was open in her criticism of both US policies as well as that of her own native Egypt. This was also my introduction to a socialist feminist.
When she finished her talk and the round of hand clapping had petered out, a few members of the audience went up on stage to talk to her. I joined them, wishing I had brought along a copy of her book to get signed.
“I loved The Hidden Face of Eve,” I piped up from behind her at an opportune moment, knowing if I missed this chance, I might never get to talk to her again.
She turned around immediately and her eyes widened.
“Oh?” she said, perhaps a bit surprised at my brown appearance and Asian features among the otherwise white audience. “Oh!” she repeated, “Where are you from?”
“I’m from Bangladesh,” I reciprocated her smile, pleased to meet another woman of colour.
Her face brightened, and I noticed how the sparkle in her eyes changed her whole countenance.
“You read my books in Bangladesh?” The present tense made a statement out of the question. Her voice exuded the righteous pleasure of a writer surprised at how far her fame had spread. I did not know enough about her then, to note the nuances of someone used to being criticised and marginalised in her own country.
I rattled on nervously that her book had been an eye opener for me. We had read The Hidden Face of Eve for one of our book club meetings. It had opened up a whole new world for me, the world of female “circumcision” or Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). She listened attentively and shaking me by the hand said, “It’s a pleasure to meet someone from Bangladesh”. I said something asinine, probably, “The pleasure is all mine.” And then the others closed in on her and moved towards the exit, and I was left with the feel of the warm pressure of her hand.
When I met her that Friday in NWU in 2003, I knew this about her: she was a controversial feminist writer, that she had been subjected to Female Genital Mutilation when she was six, that she had been in prison and that she was the author of The Hidden Face of Eve. I did not know that at ten she had tipped the coffee tray over a suitor to scare him off and smeared raw aubergine to blacken her teeth. I did not know that while in prison, she had written bits of her memoir on a roll of toilet paper with a smuggled eyebrow pencil. I had no idea that her writing would affect my own views on feminism so strongly, that I’d end up not just reading her books but teaching some of her novels.
Nawal El Saadawi was born in 1931 in the village of Kafr Tahla in the Egyptian Delta, the daughter of Zaynab (from an Ottoman Turkish family), and Al-Syed El Saadawi, a teacher. She was the second in a large family of nine children. Her father, despite trying to marry her off at the age of ten, believed strongly in education and ensured all his children got one. After public school she went on to study in the faculty of medicine at the University of Cairo. She would have studied literature, but her parents persuaded her that there was no future in that. She was also interested in dancing but here, too, there were objections. She was told dancing was for prostitutes. She realised way early in her life that she was born into a hypocritical patriarchal system that would affect every aspect of her life.
She graduated in 1955, one of a handful of women among hundreds of men. After qualifying as a doctor, she developed a passion for health education. As a village doctor her efforts to raise awareness among those who were involved in basic medical procedures—local barbers and midwives—about unhygienic medical practices, including circumcision and FGM, upset the authorities. She was appointed to the ministry of health in 1958, but was dismissed 14 years later, because of her frank writings on sexuality, especially about women.
In less than a decade, she was imprisoned by Egyptian president Anwar Sadat as part of his massive round-up and incarceration of Egyptian intellectuals. As has happened with other writers and thinkers, like Mohandas K Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, to name just a few, her incarceration had a powerful impact on her. In 1981 Saadawi founded the “Arab Women's Solidarity Association” (AWSA) and co-founded the “Arab Association for Human Rights”. Her determination to be a voice of change did not sit well with the authorities or conservative Islamist groups. Her novel, The Fall of the Imam, incensed many and made her name appear on the death list of a fundamentalist group.
In 1993 she decided it was time to leave Egypt. She took refuge in the US and spent the next few years as a writer-in-residence teaching “dissidence and creativity” at Duke University, North Carolina. She also used this time to write her two-volume memoir A Daughter of Isis and Walking Through Fire.
Saadawi started her writing career at a very early age. In fact, she was only thirteen when she wrote her first novel Memoirs of a Female Child Named Su’ad. Since then, she has written more than 55 books and been translated into 30 languages. “When I write it’s like breathing. If I stop, I suffocate,” she shared during a BBC interview in 2018. Her body of work consists of novels, short story collections, poetry, plays, memoirs and lectures. Some of her novels that have been translated into English are: The Hidden Face of Eve, Women in the Arab World, Woman at Point Zero, God Dies by the Nile, Circling Song, The Fall of Imam, Searching, Two Women in One, Memoirs of a Women Doctor and Love in the Kingdom of Oil.
Sadaawi combines autobiographical references and personal opinions to relay her anti-patriarchal messages. In her first book entitled Women and Sex, she explores society’s “fear” of women’s bodies as well as the means and ways used to control them. In The Hidden Face of Eve, she chronicles her own traumatic experience with genital mutilation at the age of six and considers the role of religion in perpetuating female oppression in the Arab World. The Fall of Imam addresses how politics, in addition to religion and morality, is used to control women.
In Woman at Point Zero, she meets up, as a Psychiatrist, with Firdaus, a woman on death row in Qanatir Women’s Prison, for killing her pimp. Through Saadawi’s many meetings with the prisoner the sexual abuse that Firdaus underwent as a child and later at the hands of a husband forty years older than her, and the betrayal she continued to suffer from men she trusted, is exposed. Ironically, Saadawi herself would be incarcerated in the same prison nine years later.
Saadawi did not hesitate to write about topics which were considered taboo subjects, whether political, economic, theological or sexual. Most of these topics are relevant even today, not just in Egypt, but also in other parts of the world: the issues of class, capitalism and colonialism, the oppression of women in Egypt, domestic violence, gender, circumcision, both male and female, sexual rape and economic domination.
She was critical of patriarchy’s objectification of women and female bodies all over the world. She saw both over-covering and wearing revealing clothes as nakedness. “Veiling and nakedness, they are two faces of the same kind. To see a woman naked, that does not mean she is liberated. It means the woman is just a body, not a mind,” she said during a 2009 interview with Natalie Bennett for The Guardian. She saw veiling not as a confirmation of identity but a veiling of the mind.
She won the North-South Prize from the Council of Europe in 2004 and the Inana International Prize in Belgium the following year. In 2011 she won the Stig Dagerman Prize, and in 2012, the Sean MacBride Peace Prize. She was awarded honorary doctorates from three different universities, two from Belgium and one from Mexico. Saadawi’s activism bore fruit when a law was passed in Egypt in 2008 banning FGM.
Saadawi’s writing, though highly controversial in the Arab world, is ironically very popular in the Middle East. Even in the West she is now a familiar name in academia. With her vast literary output, she helped shape the consciousness of millions of women in Egypt and beyond.
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In the five decades of her intense feminist, social and political activism, Saadawi has gained different monikers: “the Simone de Beauvoir of the Arab World”, “Egypt's most radical woman”, “The Godmother of Egyptian Feminism”, as well as “a savage dangerous woman”. She continued her activism till 2011, taking part in the Arab spring protests at Tahrir Square.
The following lines from her Memoirs from the Women's Prison reveal the power of her piercing observations:
“Now although I am out of prison, I continue to live inside a prison of another sort, one without steel bars. For the technology of oppression and might without justice has become more advanced, and the fetters imposed on mind and body have become invisible. The most dangerous shackles are the invisible ones, because they deceive people into believing they are free.”
However, to me nothing captures her literary mission better than what she told Natalie Bennett in her Guardian interview:
“My dream is a world without religion, with real morality and one standard for men and women, poor and rich. A world with no war, with equality and justice between genders and classes, real freedom and democracy. That would be to finish with patriarchy and capitalism and class, to have a really human society, to unveil the mind.”
“Point zero,” or the “zero point,” is defined as the point on a numerical scale from which positive and negative readings can be made. By the end of the novel Woman at Point Zero, Firdaus loses her fear and is at peace with herself and her place in the world. For me Nawal El Saadawi, one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential women in the past century was herself a woman at point zero.
Will the world get another woman at point zero again?
Author’s note: Nawal preferred to be called Nawal Zaynab after her mother, as mentioned in an introduction by Monique Samuel in Amsterdam on YouTube. That’s why I have used that name in the title of this article.
Razia Sultana Khan is a fiction writer. At present she is Advisor and Professor of English at Independent University Bangladesh (IUB).