Woman Against the World

By Cara Jepsen

“In prison you have a lot of time in front of you,” says Nawal El Saadawi. “Time is elongated. You do not do anything. You are shut out from the world. Unless you occupy yourself, you go mad. The only way was to write. Even when I didn’t have paper I wrote in my memory. I turned page by page in my memory, writing memoirs.”

In September 1981 the Egyptian doctor, novelist, and women’s rights activist was imprisoned by the Sadat regime for alleged crimes against the state–namely, criticizing the government in the opposition press. Denied pen and paper, she borrowed a roll of toilet paper and an eyebrow pencil from the woman in the next cell, who’d been arrested for prostitution. “I sat during the night on a tin can because we were not allowed chairs–we had to sit on the ground. I put it upside down and sat on it and placed another in front of me and started writing on toilet paper with this small eyebrow pen. I spent three months writing memoirs on this toilet paper. When I came out I smuggled them out.” Two months after Sadat was assassinated, El Saadawi was freed by Hosni Mubarak, and her toilet-paper opus was published in 1983 as Memoirs in a Women’s Prison.

El Saadawi, currently in residence at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has published 30 books–novels, plays, memoirs, essay collections, and books of short stories–since the late 50s. Her problems with the Egyptian government started with the publication of Women and Sex (1969), which addressed the physical, mental, and social oppression of women in Egypt and the Arab world; she asserted that veiling, female circumcision, and the glorification of virginity were linked to the political and economic oppression of women. El Saadawi lost her job as director general at the Egyptian Ministry of Health, and the authorities shut down her magazine, Health.

El Saadawi was born in the village of Kafr Tahla in 1932 and raised in Cairo. Her father, who worked at the ministry of education, insisted that all nine of his children receive schooling, and El Saadawi has been writing “since learning the alphabet.” Her father allowed her to wear trousers and let her hair down, but despite his liberal leanings she underwent a clitoridectomy at age six, an episode she recorded in The Hidden Face of Eve (1980). In 1955 she earned a medical degree at Cairo University, and the next year she was working as an MD in rural Egypt, treating the physical and psychological fallout of poverty, sexual abuse, and clitoridectomy.

“I asked myself why poor people become more sick than rich people,” she told delegates at the Afrikagrupperna conference in Stockholm in 1993, “and I discovered the relationship between poverty and disease. When I asked myself why people became poor I discovered colonialism and dictatorship and politics. When I asked myself why girls are mutilated by female circumcision I discovered slavery in history and the patriarchal class system.”

El Saadawi’s political awakening caused stress in her personal as well as her professional life. Her second husband gave her an ultimatum–give up her writing or lose him. She chose the latter. “He assumed I would be an obedient wife and mother,” she says. “He did not like my writing because I was critical of the system and his law and his job, so we had a quarrel. I was surrounded by papers, not dishes. He’d come home and say, ‘I see papers everywhere. Where is the food?’ I said, ‘Why don’t you cook for yourself? You should have married a cook.’ People criticize me: How come I chose my writing and not my husband? This is an abnormal woman. A male writer would never face that problem. If a male writer chooses his writing he is a normal writer, a genius.”

Her current husband, Sherif Hetata, is more supportive. A doctor, writer, and activist, he helped El Saadawi found the Health Education Association in the 1960s, and he’s translated her latest memoir from Arabic into English for publication later this year. “Writing is very powerful,” says El Saadawi. “You know me because I’m a writer. If you don’t read my books you will never know me. This is power–that you know me. If I am a housewife and cook for you, you will never know me, never hear of me. What is the difference between the prophet and the ordinary person? The prophet has a message and a book and he is heard. God has three books: the Old and New Testaments and the Koran. I have thirty.”

After she was released from prison El Saadawi founded the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association, which now has affiliates throughout the world. She writes: “AWSA made the link between gender . . . and the political, economic, social, cultural, religious and psychological aspects of life in Arab societies. In addition it insisted on the link between local, national, regional, and international levels.” After she spoke out against U.S. involvement in the gulf war in 1991, the Egyptian government shut down AWSA and its magazine, Noon, and handed its funds over to the Women and Islam Association.

The next year the government placed El Saadawi under 24-hour protection after her name was published on a death list, and she was banned from television. She and Hetata spent the next four years in temporary teaching positions at Duke University and the University of Washington. During that period El Saadawi visited Chicago, where she attended a dinner at Hull-House with a number of prominent western feminists, including Gloria Steinem, Susan Faludi, and Anita Hill.

“I was a bit disappointed,” says El Saadawi. “Most of them were absorbed with themselves and not interested in talking to women who had come from far away. They were very much interested in sexual matters and sexual harassment. I said we had to link it to economics and economic rape by male colonizers of the world–that they have to link it to politics, not as if it has nothing to do with politics or economics or neocolonialism. Feminism and the liberation of women is not separate from international politics. How can women be liberated in a world like that, in a class patriarchal system where money dominates everything, weapons dominate everything, and when you say no in America, they fight against you?”

With her talk of class struggle, El Saadawi has been called a Marxist, but she denies that label. “I do not name myself according to anybody. I am not a reconstituted Marxist or anything. I am myself.” Assured by friends that the political climate in Egypt had stabilized, El Saadawi and Hetata returned to Cairo last year, and AWSA hosted an international conference there in October. El Saadawi is currently a visiting scholar at UIC’s Center for Research on Women and Gender, and will speak at a series of lectures, workshops, and symposia over the next two weeks. On Saturday she’ll present a workshop based on Memoirs in a Women’s Prison at the Loyola University conference “Women’s Experience: The Power of Writing in Women’s Lives”; the event takes place at 1:15 at the Sullivan Center, 6339 N. Sheridan. On Wednesday at 12:30 she’ll participate in a discussion called “When Medicine, Writing, and Politics Collide” in the recovery room of the Chicago Illini Union, 828 S. Wolcott.

Last week, wearing sneakers, she hurried down Clinton Street toward Union Station to catch a train to Urbana, criticizing a recent New York Times article about women in Morocco and the National Public Radio program Fresh Air, which conducted a lengthy interview with her but never aired it. “They try to portray women in our region, in the Arab world, in Islamic countries, as if we are oppressed by Islam. They say Islamic women under Islamic law are so-and-so. They don’t speak about Christian women or Jewish women or Buddhist women or Hindu women. They try to portray it as if women in our region are oppressed by religion only–as if Islam is the only oppressive religion.”

When asked whether she’s religious, El Saadawi hesitates. “Usually I say my parents were Muslims, but I am not in approval of inheriting religions. I am critical of all religions, including Islam. To me all religions are a social phenomenon. They did not come out of the sky. They are political ideologies and have nothing to do with spirituality or justice or freedom or love.”

El Saadawi understands that her work will always cause conflict, but she refuses to take it personally. “It doesn’t happen just to me but to everybody,” she says, “but maybe more to me because I want to write and express myself, so the pressure is greater. I fight more than the others, so people usually fight against me more than the others. I am not afraid of being shot. I am on death lists, but I don’t care. If they shoot me, there are still my books. They cannot shoot my books.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Nawai El Saadawi.