Throughout the Middle East and beyond, the name Nawal El Saadawi is not one that can be received with indifference. During her lifetime and even after her passing on 21 March 2021, the Egyptian author, physician and activist evokes intense feelings that range from love and respect to hatred and offence.
This comes as no surprise. Nawal was someone who unabashedly crossed all boundaries set by religious, political and societal authorities. When I had the privilege of meeting her, we immediately became friends.
Something in her eyes, manner and voice gripped my attention. She spoke for me and for millions of others who were silenced by layers and layers of falsehoods and banal obligations in the name of honour and duty. She ‘adopted’ me, like she did with many of the young people she met.
Nawal said that she realised from a tender age that she was born into an undeniable hypocritical patriarchal standard that colours every aspect of life. The standards which set boundaries against the forbidden seemed to vanish when it came to her brother and other men.
Social norms and religious orders not only protected men but bestowed many liberties on them, from sexual freedom to rights of education and self-expression. The young Nawal’s sharp analytical mind soon realised that the same double standards applied to colonial powers, who gave themselves the right to plunder, abuse and occupy poor and underprivileged societies in the name of enlightenment, science and progress.
Finding herself and fellow Egyptians suffering under patriarchal and British colonial rule, Nawal went on a personal search for God, truth and justice.
In her search she went beyond everything presented to her as a given: the sacred and profane, the divine and blasphemous, the allowed and the forbidden.
The girl who tipped the coffee tray
Her life took a natural course of militancy and dissidence when she had to stand up for her rights at an early age. Born in a small village in Kafr Talha in Egypt in 1931, Nawal, as was common with girls of her age, was presented with a suitor at the age of 10.
Without consulting or fearing anyone, she tipped the coffee tray over him as a sign of disrespect. With the same tenacity, she fought to become a psychiatrist and excelled academically.
Later, in her medical clinic in the village, women facing the threat of an ‘honour killing’ were brought to her for examination, accused of having lost their virginity before marriage. Nawal discovered that many of these women were still virgins, scapegoats for the impotence or fickleness of their partner.
Outraged by the prevailing double standards, she wrote Women and Sex to educate the public, particularly about female genital mutilation, starting a campaign against the practice.
Her action was seen as outrageous; not only was her book banned – the first of many – but Nawal also lost her job in the country’s health ministry and the health magazine she headed was closed down. Not to be stopped, she founded one NGO after another, the most famous of which is the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association, which became synonymous with the slogan “lifting the veil from the mind”.
She said that:
Solidarity between women can be a powerful force of change and can influence future development in ways favourable not only to women but also to men.
Later, in exile mostly in the US and the UK where she was frequently hosted by universities, she recorded her struggles in her three-volume autobiography and in her many talks and teachings.