Nawal el-Saadawi and the New Feminist Family
by Katherine Roth
Nawal el-Saadawi is perhaps the best loved, most hated and best known feminist in the Arab world.
Her determination to achieve sexual equality for Arab women, her uncompromisingly aggressive manner, and her demands for liberties such as sex before marriage have drawn the attention of Arabs and Westerners alike.
El-Saadawi stands out among feminists in Egypt and in the region because she is a woman as strong as she is controversial, in a class all her own.
“My role is to link politics and society, to bring the whole thing together in a fight for justice,” she says. “My role is to ask why. Why do I write? Because I’m not satisfied. So long as I’m not satisfied I will fight to change things in Egypt.”
But that fighting spirit has earned her many enemies.
“I’ve been attacked for over 40 years. Either I can look back and attack back or look forward and write more books. When they say I’m crazy, I see it as a compliment. I think they (critics) are crazy. They are miserable. They marry and cannot divorce. I have divorced twice. I want to change the system and I start with myself. Women are buried in the name of good manners, and I try to pull them out of that grave,” she says, and goes on, refusing to be interrupted.
“I’m ready to die if someone tries to stop me from expressing myself.”
Her words are strong because she is fighting to encourage strength among those around her. With shining eyes, a quick mind, and white hair flying in all directions, she’s become more outspoken and controversial all the time.
Criticized by liberals and conservatives alike, “Dr. Nawal,” as she is known, keeps on trucking. But although she is certainly wild, she’s not crazy.
Quietly, and despite the maddening crowds of increasingly conservative Egyptians, her strong talk of willingness to give up everything including her life for the cause of equality has substance. She lost her post as Egypt’s director of public health after the publication of her book Women and Sex, and was one of 1500 opinion leaders jailed by Sadat in September, 1981 for demanding democracy and opposing the peace treaty with Israel. She and the other detainees were freed by Mubarak three months later in one of his first acts as president.
Her conviction that sexual equality is in line with Islam and that a fair division of labor works in practice, as well as in theory, are proven in the most essential unit of society she hopes to change, her family.
Far from being the lone Amazonian warrior she sometimes seems, Nawal is the matriarch of a new kind of Egyptian family — a Muslim, feminist family.
El-Saadawi has been married for 27 years to Sherif Hetata, medical doctor and novelist. They have two children, Mona, el-Saadawi’s daughter by a previous marriage, and Atef.
“We’re still considered an odd family, but we’ve imposed ourselves by working. People can’t say we’re an unproductive family,” says Hetata, a progressive thinker who was jailed for 13 years under King Farouk and Nasser because of his views.
Not only does her family work, but it works hard; father, mother and two children striving daily to make Egyptian society more equitable. Nawal, 59, says she has written 27 books in the last 35 years and is starting on her next novel, which she says is about “the innocence of the devil.” At the same time she works as a political activist and president of the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association.
Hetata, 66, an internal medicine specialist, has now given up his practice to write full time. He has published six novels in Arabic, two of which have been published in English: The Eye with an Iron Lid and The Net. He has also translated four of el-Saadawi’s books and is at work on the third volume of his memoirs. Her daughter Mona, 32, secretary general of the AWSA, is at work on her fourth book, and their 24-year-old son Atef just finished his second film, The Violin, a documentary about a young girl whose marriage gets in the way of artistic expression. It is also, according to el-Saadawi, “about the repression of young people in society in general.”
El-Saadawi’s is a family that has survived against all odds: imprisonment of husband and wife; years of separation; intense social pressure against their views; life in the public spotlight under the watchful eye of the government; and seemingly opposite personalities.
You name it, they’ve been through it.
They are remarkable largely because of their history, which begins with the matriarch herself.
Born to a family of little means in the Delta village of Kafr Tahla in 1931, el-Saadawi says she became a feminist at age seven. “It started unconsciously when I was a child. I felt the discrimination,” she wrote in Opening the Gates (Indiana University Press, 1991). “My parents and my family were relatively quite liberal. But I felt that my brother was privileged. And then when I grew up I became a physician, and I worked in rural areas, and so on, where I started to become aware of the fact that what I had felt years earlier was the truth.”
In 1955, el-Saadawi became Egypt’s director of public health. She began writing novels and short stories over 30 years ago and in 1972 published her first study on Arab women, Women and Sex. This cost the author her position in the Ministry of Health, her post as chief editor of the medical journal Health and her job as assistant secretary general of Egypt’s Medical Association.
She reacted by focusing her energies on the plight of Arab women. From 1973 to 1976, she researched neurosis and women at Ain Shams University and from 1979 to 1980 she served as the UN advisor for the Women’s Program in Africa and the Middle East.
Soon after her return to Egypt, her outspoken views led to a three-month prison term. Her imprisonment did not discourage her fight for increased democracy and justice in the region, and the very day she was released, consistent with the direct style for which she is known, she demanded greater democracy in Egypt under President Mubarak.
El-Saadawi demands democracy right down to the division of labor within her own family. She contends that this egalitarian family structure is in line with Islam, and that veiling and the unequal treatment of women under the law are the result of misinterpretation of the Quran.
But she is the first to admit that the attainment of her ideal marriage has not been easy. “I divorced two husbands before I met Sherif, so you see it is not really easy for an independent, free woman to have a successful marriage,” she says. “It is almost impossible.
“They wanted to dominate me and my life, like most husbands do, but I wouldn’t have it,” she says. “My relationship with Sherif is based on equality and justice. For almost 20 years we shared all the housework and the responsibilities of raising children. It was only four years ago that we started having a houseman — not a housemaid, incidentally.”
Now that the children are grown, the thread linking the family together and representing them to the outside world is the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association, a group fighting to remain alive because of fierce government opposition to their thinking.
With the motto “unveiling the mind,” the 2000-member international association was founded in 1982 by Nawal el-Saadawi and about 50 like-minded members representing different Arab countries. The Egyptian branch of the AWSA boasts 600 members, a surprising 30 percent of whom are men.
The plan was to form a pan-Arab organization with the primary goal of increasing awareness among Arab men and women to help create a more just society. The group is a think tank for men and women interested in working toward greater equality of the sexes.
“The main focus is intellectual, and we try to promote awareness of problems in Arab society and their possible solutions,” explains Mona. “But we’re also trying to work on a practical level.”
The AWSA helps publish work by progressive Egyptian women writers and envisions increased work on a more concrete level to help improve the status of women in rural communities.
Their latest project is setting up a legal committee to assist women who cannot afford court expenses for divorce and other cases. If the project is carried out, it will be the first such legal aid society in the country.
The AWSA’s quarterly review, Noon (named for an ancient Egyptian goddess) remains blocked by the government, which has refused to grant it a license to publish. It was produced as an in-house newsletter for members only until May, when the government stopped its publication altogether.
Although seemingly harmless politically, and not affiliated with any political party, the association is constantly running into obstacles.
“The Ministry of Social Affairs was against us from the start because we were very independent of the government. They are against any independent groups which speak their own minds,” says el-Saadawi.
“Here the rule is you either belong to the left or the right. We belong to ourselves and that makes us suspicious. The left accused us of being too Western, and the right accused us of being communist because we speak about class struggle.”
In 1985, the AWSA finally gained recognition as a non-governmental organization under the United Nations, a move which eased their struggle by allowing them to apply for UN funding. The next step was to seek more overseas funding from other international organizations such as UNESCO.
The AWSA is currently underwritten by UNESCO and other international non-governmental organizations. The yearly budget varies from LE 15,000 to 20,000, depending on the group’s activities.
But the force behind the AWSA remains the outspoken and prolific el-Saadawi. She is no diplomat and, for better or for worse, she has a knack for riling people.
Among the accusations hurled against her are that she uses undereducated, victimized women to further her own reputation in the West and that her attitude towards these women is as patronizing as any man.
“Quite a lot of people, left and right, use my power in the West against me,” says el-Saadawi. “But I write in Arabic and I never write in English, so how can I be working for my image in the West? My name in the West came as a by-product of my work in the Arab region. That’s what people try to ignore.”
She looks to her husband, who continues in her defense.
“If she has been working and living in Egypt ever since 1954, and the translation of her first book into English was in 1980, that means that she has created her foundations mainly in the Arab countries. That’s why people abroad have become interested in her, because she represents something,” he says.
“Anyway, I am damaging my image in the West by being so radical and speaking about US intervention in the Gulf and the link between politics and sexuality,” el-Saadawi chimes in. “I link female circumcision and the veil to class and slavery and patriarchy, not to Islam or the Arab world or Africa. The West doesn’t like that.”
Above and beyond the predictable objections of conservatives that she is out of line in fighting for women’s legal and social equality and against traditional and widespread practices such as veiling and clitorectomies, even her strongest supporters say she fights too fiercely for the good of the cause. Many say she is way out of line when she condones sex before marriage.
Dr. Emad el-Din Ismail, a leading psychologist and author who has been called Egypt’s Dr. Spock, is one of her most enthusiastic yet critical supporters.
“Nawal is a good advocate for the woman’s cause and for equality,” he says. “But she is so free with her ideas she sometimes gets in trouble. It is not her ideas that are the problem, but her means. She is not tactful. She would get through to people better if she had a softer approach.”
He also says that although he supports the AWSA fully and has participated in their seminars, the association sometimes makes it difficult for other progressive groups.
“Her extremism can be inhibiting. When people see this person in front of them they don’t see a role model. Then they don’t want to join any progressive group,” he explains.
Mawaheb el-Mouelhy, a family planner and feminist who belongs to the AWSA and to Zonta the only other feminist group in Egypt, agrees.
“She is just too intense for Egypt. You have to be strong to survive, but not to that extent. We don’t gain fundamentalist support by giving this image of feminism,” she says, specifying that “things like talking about sex publicly is often misinterpreted by people.”
Sex, according to those most established in progressive circles, is el-Saadawi’s real problem and is what separates her from other Arab feminists and would-be supporters.
Ameena el-Said, the first professional woman journalist in Egypt, and an outspoken feminist in her time, was not imprisoned for her activism and fight for equality of the sexes. On the contrary, she was awarded the highest honors by Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak for her activism. Yet she and el-Saadawi were fighting for much the same thing.
Aside from their differing approaches to the problem of sexual inequality, the main difference is that el-Said never went as far as to support pre-marital sex. For the government and for many Arabs, that was taking things a bit too far.
“El-Saadawi has the right idea. But she is going too fast for Egypt,” says el-Said. “She wants a sexual revolution before most women are even literate. That’s no good. Women must be strong and free. But they must respect their bodies. I would never support free sex.”
The bottom line is that for many Egyptians, especially younger men and women, Nawal el-Saadawi’s organization remains the only alternative, the only forum in which to fight for social change.
All association meetings and seminars are held in Arabic, the association has a library of Arabic books on the role of women, and the defunct newsletter, Noon, was written in Arabic by and for Arabs, not Europeans.
It seems that at least several hundred Egyptians want to “unveil their minds” and seek Arab alternatives to social problems.
“Egalitarian thinking seems to be working for el-Saadawi and Hetata. Why can’t it work for others?” says one young AWSA member.
Despite el-Saadawi’s flaws, her domineering personality, and her many enemies, she and her family seem to be fighting the good fight harder than anyone else around.
“Dr. Nawal” meets an otherwise unfulfilled need in the Arab world and even if she is one step more radical than anyone else, her strength and determination earn her at least a few admirers even among the hesitant.
Perhaps it is her husband who put it most eloquently: “You need people who are wise and more compromising. But remember, all great thinkers were once considered radicals.”
Reprinted with permission from Cairo Today, “The Magazine of Egypt,” July 1991, 24 Syria Street, Mohandiseen, Cairo, or PO Box 186, Austin, TX, 78767.
Daughter of the Moon
Mother of the Earth
We were borne in your vessel
And emerged from your Sacred portal
In your image.
Merciful Mother of consciousness
Protectress of women in childbirth
Patroness of women in labour
Goddess of birth