Nawal El Saadawi ( b. October 27, 1931), is a an internationally renowned Egyptian feminist , doctor and writer, whose feminist works have 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. Her books have been banned in Egypt and some other Arab countries.
“What we require is not a formal return to tradition and religion, but a rereading, a reinterpretation, of our history that can illuminate the present and pave the way to a better future. For example, if we delve more deeply into ancient Egyptian and African civilisations we will discover the humanistic elements that were prevalent in many areas of life. Women enjoyed a high status and rights, which they later lost when class patriarchal society became the prevalent social system”.
Born into a well educated family in 1931 in the small village of Kafr Tahal, Egypt and sometimes described as ‘the Simone de Beauvoir of the Arab world,’ writer, psychiatrist, self-described feminist and militant Nawal El Saadawi has had a major influence on the lives of women of colour all over the world. She has witnessed humiliating and unfair practices, both in her profession as a doctor and later as a writer. This has led her to speak out in support of political and sexual rights for women and constantly reiterate women’s power in resistance. As a result she has been imprisoned (this is detailed in her book My Travels Around the World) and arrested on more than one occasion - as such she is a person that is set in the process of history, making it and challenging its legacy. It would be fair to say that she has, as much as any writer can, changed the world, through the liberation of the mind and expression of millions of women... and men, particularly in those parts of the world called ‘the third’, the ‘non-industrialised’ or ‘the south’.
Refusing to accept the limitations imposed by both religious and colonial oppression on most women of rural origin, she qualified as a doctor in 1955 and rose to become Egypt’s Director of Public Health. Since she began to write over 30 years ago, her books have concentrated on women. In 1972, her first work of non-fiction, Women and Sex, evoked the antagonism of highly placed political and theological authorities, and the Ministry of Health was pressurized into dismissing her. Under similar pressures she lost her post as Chief Editor of a health journal and as Assistant General Secretary in the Medical Association in Egypt. From 1973 to 1976 she worked in researching women and neurosis in the Ain Shams University’s Faculty of Medicine; and from 1979 to 1980 she was the United Nations Advisor for the Women’s Programme in Africa (ECA) and Middle East (ECWA).
Later in 1980, as a culmination of the long war she had fought for Egyptian women’s social and intellectual freedom, an activity that had closed all avenues of official jobs to her, she was imprisoned under the Sadat regime. She has since founded the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association and devoted her time to being a writer, journalist and worldwide speaker on women’s issues. Author of many books, both fiction and non-fiction, which challenge our thinking about the politics of sex, Third World development, the Arab world and writing itself, she has been a constant thorn in the side of the class and patriarchal systems. Despite her imprisonment and subsequent release following Sadat’s assassination, she has continued undeterred to fight for equality – of gender, nation and race – in spite of the banning of her books and the rise of a variety of fundamentalists all over the world.
Her writing presents the full range of her extraordinary work. She explores a host of topics from women’s oppression at the hands of recent interpretations of Islam to the role of women in African literature, from sexual politics of development initiatives to tourism in a ‘post-colonial’ age. She looks at the nature of cultural identity to the subversive potential of creativity, from the fight against female genital mutilation to problems facing the internationalization of the women’s movement. Throughout her writing she sheds new light on the power of women in resistance – against poverty, racism, fundamentalism, and inequality of all kinds. Nawal El Saadawi has received three literary awards.
El Saadawi’s response to the Egyptian Human Rights Organization’s estimate that at least 90 percent of girls in Egyptian villages had been victims of female genital ‘circumcision’ was to state that this is part of the punishment for being born a woman, This conviction led to her dismissal from her position as director of Education in Egypt’s Ministry of Health, and as editor of Health magazine. She was also prevented from practicing as a doctor. Much of her writing, which includes works of fiction, has been published in Lebanon as most of her work has been banned in Egypt. She recently returned to Egypt following a five-year exile.
Nawal El Saadawi never compromised her beliefs just to live in comfort. She says, “When I came out of prison, there were two routes I could have taken. I could have become one of those slaves to the ruling institution, thereby acquiring security, prosperity…Or I could continue on the difficult path, the one that led me to prison…Danger has been a part of my life ever since I picked up a pen and wrote.”
El Saadawi, despite death threats from fundamentalists, continues to maintain her feminist stance, and travels around the world teaching about her life, her writings, and the need to fight for change.
For Nawal, writing and action are inseparable. Her existence has been motivated by a constant battle for justice - a struggle against all forms of oppression - whether it is sexual, religious, racial, economic or political. In her life and in her writings, this struggle has been an indiscriminate crusade for human rights. "I am dreaming of a just society," El Saadawi says.
Her many prizes and awards include the Great Minds of the Twentieth Century Prize, awarded by the American Biographical Institute in 2003, the North-South Prize from the Council of Europe and the Premi Internacional Catalunya in 2004. Her books have been translated into over 28 languages worldwide. They are taught in universities across the world..