Nawal El Saadawi is an Egyptian feminist, activist, writer, scholar and physician. Her writings and activities around Arab women’s rights have cost her a psychiatric job, imprisonment, and a lifetime of struggle. Her resilience and determination has gained her public support, respect and admiration. The author of 27 books, numerous essays and articles, Saadawi’s work has concentrated mainly on Arab women’s sexuality and legal status. Even from the beginning, her work was considered controversial, dangerous, heavily criticized and even banned in Egypt. Her work over the last four decades has had a profound effect on many generations of men and women through out the world.
Saadawi was born in 1931 in the small village of Kafr Tahla. She was one of eight siblings and was ‘circumcised’ at the age of six. While her family live could be considered ‘traditional’, her father was somewhat progressive in insisting all eight of his children be educated. In 1951, Nawal left Kafr Tahla to study psychiatry at Cairo University despite religious and social oppression of women. Upon graduating in 1955, she went on to become the Director of Public Health and began a magazine, Health, addressing issues pertaining to preventative medicine. At this time she also began writing about women’s issues and their particular oppression by the Arab world. She then met her husband, Dr. Sherif Hetata, who was also an activist, revolutionary and doctor at the Ministry of Health. Hetata served thirteen years in prison for his activities in the leftist party. In 1972, Saadawi was relieved of her position at the Ministry of Health in response to the publication of her first book Women and Sex, which had been published in 1969. The book was banned by the political and religious authorities due to the contents of several chapters of the book in which she wrote against Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and linked women’s sexual problems and control to women’s overarching political and economic oppression. Health was closed down in 1973.
In September 1981, Saadawi was imprisoned under the Sadat regime, for alleged “crimes against the state” and held in Qanatir Prison until November 1981 after the assassination of President Sadat, when many political prisoners were released. Yet her imprisonment did not quell, or deter her from, her activism and writing. While behind bars Saadawi formed the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association (AWSA), “the first legal, independent feminist organization in Egypt” and wrote what would become in 1983 Memoirs from the Women’s Prison on toilette paper with an eyebrow pencil smuggled in by a fellow prisoner in the prostitutes ward.
The AWSA has grown to have some 500 members locally and more than 2,000 internationally but was banned by the Egyptian government in 1991 following Saadawi’s criticism of US involvement in the Gulf War. Upon disbanding the organization the government seized and handed over its funds to the association called Women in Islam. Six months prior to the decree banning the organization, the government closed down the magazine Noon, published by the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association and of which Saadawi was the editor-in-chief. Although banned in Egypt, Saadawi continues with her work with the organization.
In 2001, three of her books were banned at Cairo International Book Fair. A year later a fundamentalist lawyer raised a case to have her forcibly divorced from her husband due to her apostasy. She won the case thanks to international solidarity and pressure. In 2006, Saadawi’s play, “God Resigns At the Summit Meeting”, was banned, and in January 2007, Saadawi and her daughter, Mona Helmy, also a poet, writer and activist, were accused of apostasy and interrogated by the General Prosecutor in Cairo. Saadawi faced a new trial on charges of apostasy and heresy in February 2007 because of the play. She won the case in May 2008. While her legal battles and political struggles continue to the present, she continues her work, on female genital mutilation and women’s rights as well as remaining a prominent political activist.