Al Waref Figure of the Month
By Alissa Orlando
The Al-Waref Institute recognizes Dr. Nawal El Saadawi as the Figure of the Month for August. Despite political prosecution, Saadawi has been a strong voice for political reform and women’s rights. Her writings continue to inspire the international community to fight for an end to aggression against women.
Dr. Nawal El Saadawi is an internationally revered and respected Egyptian feminist and political writer. She has had to pay steep costs for her controversial writings. However, Saadawi insists, “There is no power in the world that can strip my writings from me.”
Saadawi grew up in Kafr Tahla, a small village in Egypt. Her father was a progressive, as he encouraged his children to get an education and learn Arabic. However, he still enforced the tradition of female circumcision, a practice Saadawi would vehemently oppose in her later works and would be banned in Egypt in 2008. Saadawi’s childhood was tragically cut short when both her parents died and she was forced to care for her eight siblings.
Despite this personal hardship and cultural norms, Saadawi earned a degree in psychiatry from the University of Cairo. Through her medical practice, Saadawi was exposed to the problems facing women in the domestic and public spheres.
She was eventually appointed Director of Public Health, a coveted government position. While working at the Ministry of Health, she met her husband, Sherif Hetata. Hetata shared her contempt for Egypt’s oppressive regime and had been imprisoned for 13 years for his leftist political views.
Saadawi channeled her ideas for reform into her writings. Her first non-ficiton work, Women and Sex, detailed female sexuality and sparked anger amongst conservative politicians and theologians. The book’s controversial content led to her dismissal from the Ministry of Health. It would not be the last time her works comprised her career and her safety.
Her most famous work, The Hidden Face of Eve, condemns the use of Islamic fundamentalism to justify physical and physcological aggressions against women. Her taboo writing advocating for political and economic reform for women also cost her other positions including chief editor of a health journal and Assistant General Secretary of the Egyptian Medical Association. Her writings were considered “dangerous for society” and were banned from Egypt and the Cairo International Book Fair. In 1981, she was considered such a threat, she was imprisoned by Anwar al-Sadat’s regime.
Prison could not squelch Saadawi’s passion for articulating the needs of repressed women. She scribbled on pieces of toilet paper until she was released, two months after Sadat’s assassination. Upon her release, she published Memoirs from the Women’s Prison, in which she claims to be imprisoned because she believed Sadat’s rhetoric, which called for a transparent government open to criticisms from its people.
Even after her release from Qanatir Women's Prison, her life in Egypt was dangerous. Islamic fundamentalists sent her frequent death threats, and armed guards were stationed outside of her home. Therefore, Saadawi fled to the United States, where she taught at Duke University’s Asian and African Languages Department.
Since then, she has lectured at numerous prestigious academic institutions and international conferences. She has also been given many international honors, including working as an advisor on women’s issues for the United Nations. Her works have been translated into over 30 languages so that her strength, vision, and courage can inspire feminists around the world.
Saadawi is a woman who accepts that change must come at a cost. In her own words, “Danger has been a part of my life ever since I picked up a pen and wrote. Nothing is more perilous than truth in a world that lies." But despite copious obstacles, Saadawi has continued to tell the truth. And with the truth that streams from her pen, she has realized reform.