Nawal El Saadawi Introduction

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Nawal El Saadawi 1931-

(Name also transliterated as Nawal al'Sadaawi, al-Nawal Sa'adawi, and al-Nawal Sa'dawi) Egyptian novelist, essayist, short-story and novella writer, nonfiction writer, memoirist, and playwright.

The following entry provides an overview of El Saadawi's career through 2003.

El Saadawi is hailed as one of the preeminent voices in Middle Eastern feminist literature and women's rights activism. In her writings she exposes the subservient role that women are expected to play in a patriarchal society and details the tortures, mutilations, and spirit-breaking rules and regulations that contribute to the oppression of women. El Saadawi attacks fundamentalist religious groups of all types, pointing out that these extreme groups are based on a distrust of women and blame women for the sins of mankind. In her works El Saadawi advocates for the separation of church and state, the termination of the practice of female circumcision, and the recognition of women's rights to control their own bodies and destinies.

Biographical Information

El Saadawi was born on October 27, 1931, north of Cairo, Egypt, to El Sayed, a local education director, and Zeinab, a homemaker. Although her family held progressive views and El Saadawi and her sisters were educated, she was forced to undergo a traditional clitoridectomy when she was six years old, a memory recounted in El wajh el ary lilma'ra el arabeya (1977; The Hidden Face of Eve. After secondary school she enrolled in the University of Cairo, where she was one of only a handful of female students seeking a degree as a medical doctor. She specialized in psychiatry and received her degree in 1955. That year she married a fellow physician, Ahmed Helmy, and had a daughter, but the marriage ended in divorce in 1956. In 1958 she began working for Egypt's Ministry of Health in Cairo and was eventually named the department's Director of Health Education, but after the publication of her nonfiction book El ma'ra wal ginse (1971; Women and Sex), she was summarily fired from her position. El Saadawi's writings became censored, and she was forced to publish from Lebanon. In 1978 the United Nations offered her a position in Ethiopia as director of its African Training and Research Center for Women, but in 1980 she resigned and returned to her homeland to concentrate on her writing career. In 1981 Anwar Sadat, the President of Egypt, rounded up political dissidents, both male and female, and imprisoned them for their beliefs. El Saadawi was one of the women held at Qanatir Women's Prison. Her incarceration was the basis for her memoir, Mozakerati fi signel nissa (1983; Memoirs from the Women's Prison). Her contact with a prisoner at Qanatir served as inspiration for an earlier work, a novel titled Emra'a enda noktat el sifr (1975; A Woman at Point Zero). Due to political persecution and threats on her life, El Saadawi left Egypt in 1993 and accepted a post at Duke University. Since that time she has held positions at many prestigious colleges and universities worldwide, including Duke, Cairo University, Harvard, Yale, Columbia, the Sorbonne, Georgetown, Florida State University, and the University of California, Berkeley. El Saadawi has since returned to Cairo, where she lives with her third husband, Sherif Hetata, a physician and the translator of many of her works. In 2001 a fundamentalist Islamic group sued to annul Hetata and El Saadawi's marriage on the grounds that her heresy was causing harm to his soul. The case was eventually dismissed, but it illustrates the continued antagonism toward El Saadawi and her writings.

Major Works

Although Women and Sex created a huge controversy in Egypt for its frank discussion of the sexuality of women, El Saadawi was unknown to most Western audiences until 1980, when The Hidden Face of Eve was translated into English. The essays in this collection describe female genital mutilation, chronicle the rules and regulations governing the lives of women, and tell of the difficulties...

(The entire section is 1,450 words.)