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Nawal El Saadawi (1931-2021) - name also written: Nawal al-Sa'dawi


Egyptian novelist, essayist and physician, whose feminist works widened the boundaries of the Arab novel. Nawal El Saadawi's central theme is the oppression of women and womens' desire for self-expression. She first gained fame with her nonfictional writing. Many of her books were banned in Egypt and some other Arab countries. In Egypt she was criticized as being a Western voice, whose work has conformed to the Western image of the subordinated position of women in Arab societies. Also her criticsm of Islam and religions in general stirred much debate and made her a target of death threats. 

"The novel is tormenting me. I've freed myself completely to write it, letting everything else go for its sake. It's intractable, like unattainable love. It want's me, my entire being, mind and body, and if it can't have that it will not give itself to me at all. It wants all or nothing - it's exactly like me. To the extent that I give to it, it gives to me. It wants no competition for my heart and mind - not that of a husband, nor a son or daughter, nor preoccupation with of any sort, not even on behalf of the women's cause." (from Memoirs from the Women's Prison, 1983)

Nawal El Saadawi was born in Kafr Tahla in Lower Egypt's Dealta. Her father was a civil servant at the Ministry of Education. He had been active in the 1919 Egyptian revolution and was wounded in one of the demostrations.  "In many ways he was a model father," recalled El Saadawi in A Daughter of Isis: The Early Life of Nawal El Saadawi (1999), "rarely beat his children as other fathers did, played games with them, and gave them space to discuss and agree even in religious matters." Zaynab Shoukri, her mother, came from an upper-class family of Turkish background. She died at the age of 45, having rised nine children. A powerful figure in El Saadawi's life, she later described her as "a woman full of pride, a goddess like Isis".

Against the common practice, her parents insisted that all their children receive an education, not only boys. El Saadawi started to write as a child, but her dream was to be a dancer. In her first letter to God, she asked why he had not made her mother and father equal. While attending a British missionary school,  El Saadawi read Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, and Emily Brontë. Taha Hussein's  autobiography Al-Ayyam impressed her deeply.

Already as a girl, El Saadawi started to develop a strong social conscience about societal injustices. She admired her grandmother with whom she went in a demostration against King Farouk and British influence in Egypt. In 1943 she moved to Cairo where she lodged with an aunt and attended a secondary school for girls in Abbasieh district. Its headmistress was Nabawiyya Musa (1886-1951), cofounder of the Egyptian Feminist Union; the pupils' nickname for her was "Bo'o Bo's Effendi" (the big bad witch/wolf). El Saadawi found Musa cold, humorless spinster. Learning under her became "like a funeral where everything was the colour of mourning".

El Saadawi was educated at the University of Cairo, and received her M.D. in 1955. "I was a very young woman, extremely idealistic, daydreaming that I would live in a poor, sick village where I would treat everybody without ever charging them, where I would never be afraid of contagion, where I would work day and night until I died of a contagious disease." (The Nawal El Saadawi Reader, 1997, p. 2) After graduation, she worked as a physician at the university and two years at the Rural Health Center in Tahla. Later she studied at Columbia University, New York, earning her Master of Public Health degree in 1966. Her marriage to Ahmed Helmi, a medical-student and freedom fighter, ended in divorce. Her second husband was a wealthy traditionalist, whom El Saadawi divorced when he did not accept her writing.

In 1964 Nawal El Saadawi married Sherif Hetata, a physician, former long-term political prisoner, and author in his own right. Hetata has translated into English several of her books. The marriage lasted over 40 years. "Nawal and I no longer have any division of roles. If I'm writing she cooks, and if she's writing I cook. She washes my clothes and I wash hers depending on who has the time. We share all the domestic chores alternately. If we're both writing or engaged in some activity we do the strict minimum and do it quickly. She travels alone and so do I, but it's best when we're together." ('Husbands of the Nile' by Sherif Hetata, New Internationalist, Issue 175; September 1987) El Sadaawi divorced Hetata in 2010, following an alleged affair he had with a woman 50 years his junior. 

From 1958 to 1972, El Saadawi was Director General of Public Health Education in the Ministry of Health. She worked as also the editor-in-chief on the Health magazine and assistant general secretary for Egypt's Medical Association. In 1972 El Saadawi was dismissed from her post in the ministry for publishing Al-mar'a wa-al-jins (Women and Sex), which dealt with sexuality, religion, and the trauma of female clitoridectomy - taboo subjects in the country. Her traditional Muslim mother had insisted on El Saadawi's circumcision at age 6; the details were recorded in the book. Although the practice of female genital mutilation was outlawed for a time, it was legalized again in the 1990s. Health was closed down and her books were censored. "Everything in our country is in the hands of the state and under its direct or indirect control, she later wrote in Memoirs from the Women's Prison, "by laws known or concealed, by tradition or by a long-established, deeply rooted fear of the ruling authority."

For some time she published her non-fiction, such as Al mar'a wal sira' al-nafsi (1976), about woman and psychological conflict, and The Hidden Face of Eve (1977), in Lebanon (Beirut). The English translation by Sherif Hetata begins with the author's memory of her clitorectomy at the age of six. Memoirs from the Women's Prison was published in London by Women's Press. After The Fall of the Imam (1987), which contained more or less explicit references to Sadat and his regime, she started to receive threats from fundamentalist religious groups. The novel was written in part when she was in prison. 

From 1973 to 1978 Nawal El Saadawi was a writer at the High Institute of Literature and Science. She was also a researcher at Ain Shams University's Faculty of Medicine in Cairo, and worked for the United Nations, as the director of African Training and Research Center for Women in Ethiopia (1978-80), and adviser for the United Nations Economic Commission for West Africa in Lebanon. In 1981, El Saadawi criticized President Anwar Sadat's one-party rule, after which she was arrested and imprisoned for two months in Qanatir Women's Prison under Egyptian "Law for the Protection of Values from Shame." Her cellmates feared that they all would be condemned to death. The prison was already familar to her because she had done reseach among its inmates in the 1970s. She wrote Memoirs from the Women's Prison on toilet paper using an eyebrow pencil. Before she was taken home, she met the new president, Hosni al-Mubarak.

In 1982, El Saadawi established the Arab Women's Solidarity Association (AWSA), the first legal, independent feminist organization in her country. Its aim was to "liberate all Arab people especially women by freeing Arab land, economy, culture, and knowledge." Following El Sadaawi's criticism of US involvement in the Gulf War, the Egyptian Branch of AWSA was closed by the government in 1991. El Sadaawi accused Suzanne Mubarak, the president's wife, for killing the feminist movements in Egypt.

For reasons that were never fully explained, the government assigned armed guards to El Saadawi's apartment from December 1988 until December 1990.  When her name appeared on a fundamentalist death list, she fled with her husband to the United States, where she taught at Duke University – the topic was "Creativity and Dissidence" – and Washington State University in Seattle. El Saadawi once argued that creativity gives more pleasure than food, sex, money, or anything else. During this period, when she worked as a visiting scholar, she wrote a memoir, A Daughter of Isis, in which she described her childhood and her early experiences as a doctor and human rights activist.

In 1996 El Saadawi returned to Egypt, settling in Cairo. "The threat of death seemed to give my life a new importance," she wrote in Walking Through Fire (2002), "made it worth writing about. . . . Nothing can defeat death like writing." El Saadawi stood as a candidate in 2004 in the presidential elections to challenge Mubarak and encourage other women to do it, but she was eventually forced to withdrawn from the race.

"The more you study religion, the more you see it is ridiculous," El Saadawi said once in an interview. ('Keeping the Faith' by Orlando Crowcroft, Newsweek International, June 22, 2018) Her play, God Resigns at the Summit (2006), portrayed (among other characters) God and Prophet  Muhammad. Noteworthy, El Sadaawi was fully aware that it is forbidden to represent them in a figurative fashion on stage in Muslim countries.This work created an immediate uproar and the police ordered the publisher to burn the work. "While El Saadawi's main concerns, as a feminist writer, are usually women's issues, in this play she combines feminists's resentments of patriarchy, represented in God and his prophets's sexism, with a strong critical stance towards organized religions. Her criticism implies that religions are all man-made constructions that the modern person should interrogate." (Dina Amin, in African Theatre 10: Media & Performance, guest editor David Kerr, reviews editor Jane Plastow, 2011, p. 153) 

El Saadawi was a regular columnist for Al-Ahram, a government newspaper. After President Obama's speech in Cairo in June 2009, she wrote: "They applauded strongly when he said that Muslim women should wear the veil if they choose to wear it. As if veiling (or nakedness) is something to be chosen! As if oppression is something to be chosen by the oppressed." At the age of 79, she joined the Tahrir Square protesters calling for Mubarak's resignation. She stated in an interview that Mubarak should be put on trial "for the robbery, for making Egypt a poor country". (Democracy Now!, February 10, 2011) El Saadawi welcomed the downfall of the Muslim Brotherhood's leader Mohammed Morsi, who won the presidential election of 2012. 

Nawal El Saadawi received several awards, including High Council of Literature Award (1974), Literary Franco-Arab Friendship award (1982), Literary Award of Gubran (1988), and First Degree Decoration of the Republic of Libya (1989). In 2010 she received the doctorate honorary degree from Mexico University. El Saadawi died in a Cairo hospital on March 21, 2021, aged 89. She once said that she regrets none of her books.

Nawal El Saadawi's early stories were published in newspapers and magazines. Her first books appeared in the 1950s. In 1958 she made her debut as a novelist with Memoirs of a Woman Doctor, a partly autobiographical work. It is considered the pioneering work in modern feminist fiction in Arabic, although at the end the rebellious protagonist accepts her lot. In the 1970s she began to attack openly the patriarchal system and touch taboo problems, female circumcision, abortion, sexuality, child abuse, women's oppression in different forms. 

While in Addis Abeba she wrote the short story 'The Veil' (1978), in which the protagonist reveals her thoughts to the reader, but not to her lover. "A woman's repulsion is the other face of the male deity," she thinks, looking at the body of her lover, seeing "the strength and youtfulness and cleanliness and good eating." But when her lover becomes the object of her gaze, their roles are reversed, and he hides his body. Evetually she pics up her veil and replaces it once again on her face.

Sexual and social oppression is associated with religious doctrines in the short story 'She Has No Place in Paradise' (1972). The nameless protagonist is a woman, who has never taken the black shawl off her head, and her robe had been long and thick. She has been obedient to her husband her whole life, and never stolen or lied. She wakes up in Paradise, sees her husband in bed with two women. "Her husband's face was not turned towards her, so he did not see her. Her hand was still on the door. She pulled it behind her and closed. She returned to the earth, saying to herself: There is no place in paradise for a black woman."

Woman at Point Zero (1975) was partly based on material on women's mental health Nawal El Saadawi collected at Ain Shams University. In Qanatir Women's Prison she met the title character, a prostitute named Firdaus, whose abuse from her childhood and search for freedom eventually ends in a revenge and the murder of her pimp. A psychiatrist interviews her on the eve of her execution. Death becomes for her a victory: "I want nothing. I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. Therefore I am free. For during our life it is our wants, our hopes, our fears, that enslave us." The book was translated into French (Ferdaous, une voix d'enfer) by Assia Djebar and Assia Trabelsi.

Typical for El Saadawi's stories are the mixing fiction with nonfictional elements, her wide knowledge of medical sciences, autobiographical details, and depiction of social ills. She  has denounced the patriarchacy of all three great Near Easter religions, and argued for the theory that the ancient Egypt was originally matriarchal. Western feminist readers have criticized her fiction as repetitious in theme and programmatic. Referring to Hilary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice and Theresa May, El Saadawi once said that there are women who are more patriarchal than the men. ('Keeping the Faith' by Orlando Crowcroft, Newsweek International, June 22, 2018)

For further reading: Woman Against Her Sex: A Critique of Nawal al Saadawi, with a Reply by Nawal al Saadawi by Georges Tarabishi (1988); El-Saadawi, Nawal,' in  World Authors 1980-1985, ed. by Vineta Colby (1991); Nawal Saadawi in the Dock (1993); Opening the Gates: A Century of Arab Feminist Writing, ed. Margot Badran and Miriam Cooke (1994); 'Mon expérience de création' by Nawal al-Sa'dawi, in Quantara: Cultures en Mouvement 10 (1994); Woman's Body, Woman's Word by F. Malti-Douglas (1991); 'Sa'dawi, Nawal al-' by Sabry Hafez, in Contemporary World Writers, ed. Tracy Chevalier (1993); Gender Writing/Writing Gender by Nadje Sadig Al-Ali (1994); Men, Women, and God(s): Nawal al-Sadawi and Arab Feminist Poetics by Fewda Malti-Douglas (1995); Nawal al-Sa'dawi' by Thérèse Michel-Mansour, in Encyclopedia of The Novel, ed. Paul Schellinger (1998); 'Nawal El Saadawi' in Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, vol. 4, ed. Steven R. Serafin (1999); 'Framing Nawal El Saadawi: Arab Feminism in a Transnational World' by Salma Khadra Jayyusi, in Intersections: Gender, Nation, and Community in Arab Women's Novels, edited by Lisa Suhair Majaj, Paula W. Sunderman, and Therese Saliba (2002); Contemporary Arab women Writers: Cultural Expression in Context by Anastasia Valassopoulos (2007); 'Nawal El Saadawi: Woman at Point Zero,' in Of War and Women, Oppression and Optimism: New Essays on the African Novel by Eustace Palmer (2008); Emerging Perspectives on Nawal El Saadawi, edited by Ernest N. Emenyonu and Maureen N. Eke (2010); 'Nawal El Saadawi,' in Contemporary African Writers, edited by Tanure Ojaide (2011); 'Nawal El Saadawi and J.M. Coetzee as African Writers?' by Stephen Ese Kekeghe, in The Crossroads: African Literature and the Emerging Global Cultures, edited by Ayo Kehinde, Rotimi O. Fasan (2017); 'Keeping the Faith' by Orlando Crowford, Newsweek International , Vol. 170, No. 23 (June 22, 2018) 

Selected works:

  • Ta'lamt al-hub, 1958
  • Mozakkerat tabiba, 1958 - Memoirs of a Woman Doctor (translated by Catherine Cobham, 1988)
  • Hanan qalil, 1959
  • Lahdhat sidq, 1962
  • Al ghayib, 1965 - Searching (translated by Shirley Eber, 1991)
  • Imra'atan fi imra'ah, 1968 (Al-bahitha 'an al-hub) - Two Women in One (translated by Osman Nusairi and Jana Gough, 1986)
  • Al-mar'a wa-al-jins, 1971
  • Al-khait wa'ayn al-hayat, 1972 - The Well Of Life and The Thread: Two Short Novels (translated by Sherif Hetata, 1993)
  • Kanat hiya al-ad'af, 1972 - She Has No Place in Paradise (translated by Shirley Eber, 1989)
  • Al-khait wa-al jidar, 1972
  • Al-rajul wa-al-jins, 1973
  • Al-mar'a hiy al-asl, 1975
  • Emra'a 'inda nuqtat al-sifr, 1975 - Woman at Point Zero (translated by Sherif Hetata, 1983) - Nainen nollapisteessä (suom. Kaija Anttonen, 1988)
  • Al mar'a wal sira' al-nafsi, 1976
  • Mawt al-rajul al-wahid 'ala al-ard, 1976 - God Dies by the Nile (translated by Sherif Hetata, 1985)
  • Ughniyat al-atfal al da iriyah, 1977 - The Circling Song (translated by Marilyn Booth, 1989)
  • Al-wajh al-'ari lil-mar'ah al-'Arabiyyah, 1977 - The Hidden Face of Eve: Women in the Arab World (translated and edited by Sherif Hetata, 1980) - Eevan kätketyt kasvot (suom. Anniina Palomurto, 1992)
  • Mawt ma'ali al wazir sabiqan, 1979 - Death of an Ex-Minister (translated by Shirley Eber, 1987) - Herra ex-ministerin kuolema ja muita novelleja (suom. Pirkko Talvio-Jaatinen, 1990)
  • Ferdaous: une voix en enfer, 1982
  • Al-insan, 1983 (Ethna ashra Imra' a fi zinzanah)
  • Muzakkirati fi sijn al-nisa', 1983 - Memoirs from the Women's Prison (translated by Marilyn Booth, 1986)
  • Izis, 1986 - Isis (in God Resigns at the Summit, foreword by Adele S. Newson-Horst, 2009)
  • Rihlati hawla al-'alam, 1986 - My Travels Around the World
  • Dirasat 'an al-mar'ah wa-al-rajul fi al-mujtama' al-'Arabi, 1986
  • Suqut al-Imam, 1987 - The Fall of the Imam (translated by Sherif Hetata, 2002) - Imaamin tuho (suom. Leena Tamminen, 1989)
  • Mudhakkirāt ṭiflah ismuhā Suʻād, 1990 - Diary of a Child Called Souad (introduced and translated from Arabic by Omnia Amin, 2016)
  • Jannatah wa-Iblis, 1992 - The Innocence of the Devil (translated by Sherif Hetata, 1994)
  • Ma 'raka jahida da fi qadiyat al-mar'a, 1992
  • Hubb fi zaman al-naft, 1993 - Love in the Kingdom of Oil, (translated from the Arabic by Basil Hatim & Malcolm Williams, 2001)
  • The Nawal al-Sadawi Reader: Selected Essays 1970-1996, 1997
  • Al-Mar'ah wa-al-ghurbah, 1997
  • Taw'am al-sultah wa-al-jins, 1999
  • A Daughter of Isis: The Autobiography of Nawal El Saadawi, 1999 (translated by Sherif Hetata)
  • Qadaya al-mar'ah wa-al-fikr wa-al-siyasah, 2001
  • Walking Through Fire: A Life of Nawal El Saadawi, 2002 (translated by Sherif Hetata)
  • Al-Riwayah, 2004 - The Novel (translated by Omnia Amin & Rick London, 2009)
  • Kasr al-hudud, 2004
  • Allah yastaqil fi al-qimma, 2006 - God Resigns at the Summit Meeting  (in God Resigns at the Summit, foreword by Adele S. Newson-Horst,  2009)
  • Zaynah: riwayah, 2009
  • translator (with Kenneth Rosen): Musafirah ila al-muhal = Traveling into the Impossible by Mona Helmy, 2009 
  • The Essential Nawal El Saadawi: A Reader, 2010 (edited by Adele Newson-Horst)
  • Imraʼah tuḥaddiqu fī al-shams, 2012
  • Nawāl al-Saʻdāwī wa-al-thawrāt al-ʻArabīyah, 2013
  • Nawāl al-Saʻdāwī wa-ʻāydat al-Jawharī fī ḥiwār ḥawla al-anūthah wa-al-dhukūrah wa-al-dīn wa-al-ibdāʼ, 2014

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