This week Egypt lost its most prominent and unabashedly controversial feminist, Nawal El Saadawi. An atypical medical doctor, resolute feminist, daring writer, and public figure of strong character, El Saadawi passed away in Cairo on 21 March after having bowed to the inevitable loss of strength of old age for over a year during which her usual public battles had all but faded.
However, with her death this week, El Saadawi was once again stirring up debates, challenging and even actually battling even as she was being put to rest. The news of her death prompted conservative quarters, Islamist and others, to once again show their contempt for the daring ideas that El Saadawi brought to the table when she revolutionised Egyptian feminism in the 1950s, giving it a strong Beauvoirian streak.
El Saadawi’s bold talk about the oppression of women and the repression of women’s sexuality in the mid-1950s was indeed a huge shift away from the previously cautious discourse on women’s emancipation in Egypt.
In her interviews with Al-Ahram Weekly in the 1990s and 2000s, El Saadawi always said that she knew that she was breaking the silence over issues that had for a long time been left unspoken because people feared to talk. She was not afraid, and she did not mind being controversial, she said.
El Saadawi’s first big battle was against the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM), which for her was not just an act of repression of women’s sexuality, but an ultimate act of gender oppression in every sense of the word. As a young medical doctor in her 20s, El Saadawi dared, in the mid-1950s, to publicly share her own traumatic experience of this practice in her Delta village where her father, a teacher, had not been willing to forgo the tradition despite his university degree and his faith in his daughter that later saw him send her to Cairo to pursue her higher education.
El Saadawi’s 1969 book Women and Sex certainly shocked. She knew that it was going to do so, but she did not mind because, as she told the Weekly, the “mind has to be challenged”. This book has since become a compass of feminism for women of her generation and of subsequent generations in Egypt and across the Arab world.
In her own right and perhaps unintentionally, El Saadawi thus became the new brave face of Egyptian feminism at the time and since and for many years to follow. Her core theories were based on the right of women to be who they were and free from all forms of repression, whether packaged in religious or societal discourse.
This viewpoint started some of her most uncompromising battles against social inequalities, which often hit women and girls hardest, and the dominance of the clergy. For El Saadawi, the clergy of all religions, but particularly of Islam as the dominant religion of the Arab countries, were an essential part of the patriarchal system that she always fought against.
These positions put her on the wrong side of many of the ruling regimes in Egypt and the Arab world. At times, they brought her face to face with apostasy charges. She shrugged these off, and went on her way unashamed. She would often say that she could not care less, even when she would seem legitimately worried for her own safety.
With her signature silver-white hair and black eyebrows and with a way she had of slightly leaning forward, she would insist that she had to speak up against all forms of injustice.
It was in the mid-1950s that El Saadawi published the first edition of another widely read book, Memoirs of a Woman Doctor. This went beyond revealing the many faces of the physical and emotional oppression that women, especially poorer women, were forced to go through. The book also revealed the inefficiencies of the medical services in many rural areas, in one of which El Saadawi had carried out her first posting after graduating from the Cairo University Faculty of Medicine.
Woman at Point Zero, a novel portraying society’s hypocrisy towards women’s sexuality, came out in the mid-1970s and brought El Saadawi unprecedented criticism. In an interview with the Weekly in the 1990s, she said this was because of society’s wish to carry on “hiding behind alleged morals” that are designed to secure the continued oppression of women.
For El Saadawi, the oppression of women was not just about forcing them to follow conservative norms, or the power of the clergy or that of society, but was also about forcing them to fit oppressive criteria of femininity. “Women should not be forced to wear a veil, nor should they be forced to reveal their bodies beyond what they feel comfortable doing,” she said in an interview with the Weekly.
“Women are not sex objects, and they should not accept being treated as such, but at the same time they have the right to celebrate their sexuality,” she added.
El Saadawi could not have been more amused when she was told that she had been blamed for the rebellion of several generations of Egyptian and Arab women. “Women have the right to rebel against oppression. It is only natural,” she said in another encounter with the Weekly. She said that she hoped for nothing more than for her own legacy and for her over 50 books to continue to inspire women to rebel against all forms of injustice.
El Saadawi’s wish was not only for women to rebel, but also for societies to reject unfairness. Her articles, published in Egypt or wherever she might be living as a visiting scholar worldwide, were all about the need for women to reject being confined within the walls of established tradition or socially accepted views on faith.
El Saadawi was born on 27 October 1931. During her long and remarkable journey, she at times went astray — trying to cling too hard to her leadership of the feminist movement in the Arab world or making occasionally confused statements about socio-political developments. But her real legacy remains, which is one of unapologetic feminism and societal rebellion.
El Saadawi was married three times, to a doctor, a lawyer, and a writer. Her marriages ended in divorce. She had two children, Mona Helmi and Atef Hetata. Her family bid her a quiet farewell on Monday in a Cairo cemetery, offering a striking contrast to her remarkably high-pitched life.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly