Nawal El Saadawi -- in Dialogue
by Sara Wajid
Less than a minute in, Nawal El Saadawi, the ideological
godmother of Muslim feminists, flouts author interview protocol rather
fabulously, by pretending she's not really doing one. I'm at a sunny breakfast table in
"It was a surprise. Zed (Books) were not paying attention to my books. They are not really interested in novels or feminism so we had many quarrels over the years," the white-haired iconoclast cheerfully informs me. "Then suddenly they were publishing these three books again and I was astonished. Why they are interested now? Apparently they are relevant again. They are!" The high priestess of first-wave feminism shrugs, pulling off a combination of aloof disinterest and effective book-plugging with panache.
Saadawi wrote these revolutionary, shocking books on the
brutal sexual subjugation of Arab women when in her forties, after working as a
doctor in rural
The books crackle with righteous fury, depicting a world in which little girls are routinely sexually abused by sex-starved male relatives and mutilated by their mothers in the name of Allah. Breaking these taboos in the 1970s made her the internationally recognised authority on the status of women in the Arab world and 'introduced the word feminist into Egyptian culture'. But how do her ideas stand up in a world where 'throwing off the veil' has become as anachronistic as 'burning your bra'?
A new generation outspoken critics of women's status in Muslim societies have emerged, young challengers for the crown. What does Saadawi make of the notoriously right-leaning, controversial, Dutch-Somalian, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who campaigns against FGM and cites Saadawi as an influence? She winces at the mention of her name.
It's become fashionable to talk about female circumcision
but divorced from broader politics. I
look at you as a whole. If you support
the war in
What about solidarity with another woman who has been threatened by Muslim extremists for her defence of womens' rights? "No, it would be ridiculous to make an alliance with her on that basis," she explains and gives me a pitying look for asking such an obtuse question. She ends the discussion firmly saying we shouldn't give the already over-exposed Hirsi Ali any more attention.
She prefers the French feminist and psychiatrist Julia Kristeva as an ideological ally and agrees with her that the hijab has no place in schools and that public space should be secular. "When I was a child there weren't any veiled students around. Of course, we didn't have Sadat who encouraged the Muslim Brotherhood, but we had other oppressions and I don't prefer the past," she says emphatically. "My daughter is happier and has more freedom than me. There is progress and backlash, progress and backlash."
Later, Hirsi Ali's name crops up again when we discuss Saadawi's critics and I glimpse her infamous temper. Saadawi lets rip, "This type of woman, like the Dutch woman, Ayaan, their work is weak and they want to be stars. I'm a hard-working woman; I work and I write and I deserve respect -- these sensationalist women cannot work hard." She does have over forty books as evidence. The day we met she had a tennis injury sustained during her daily 6am exercise regime.
Saadawi is on the road again, partly because the Egyptian
government is threatening to revoke her citizenship. She left
Being an enemy of the state is a point of pride and has been
all her life; she spent a month in prison in 1981 for criticizing the one-party
rule of President Sadat and her husband, a political dissident, did 15
years. In 1988 she made it onto a Muslim
extremist death list and moved to the
But many feel Saadawi no longer deserves to be called the 'leading spokeswoman on the status of women in the Arab world'? "Absolutely not," says Ahdaf Soueif, the Egyptian novelist and cultural commentator.
Nor has she been for the last twenty years. I know women who say she opened their eyes to feminism as we might say about the early iconic feminist writers in any language. But after she was imprisoned along with about 1000 other people, her western career began and from then on her discourse was tailored to the West and she lost touch with her Arab audience.
Soueif echoes a younger generation of Middle-Eastern and
Arab women who are proud of their modernity and resent the prominence given to
Saadawi's writing in the West. Manal Lotfi,
an Egyptian journalist working in
At times, she does seem uncomfortably out of step with Muslim women. In reply to a question about the adoption of the hijab by many young Muslims in the West, she answered unequivocally: "Women who wear the veil and say they choose to do so are either lying or ignorant." I wondered what the two young Muslim women in the audience wearing hijab thought of her answer. But at other times her writing seems uncannily prescient -- she wrote in The Hidden Face of Eve over thirty years ago of an "incomplete or biased understanding of Islam and of the role it has played in social change."
This is in keeping with her analysis of the 'Qatib girl'
case. A rape victim in
This case is horrible but there is also a lot of violation
of human rights in Saudi of people who are fighting against the exploitation of
Saudi oil, which is for the kingdom and for the
Sara Wajid is a writer based in
Please report any
broken links to
Copyright © 1988-2012 irfi.org. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer