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.
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.
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 and shame associated with being a woman in a repressive patriarchal society. These themes are repeated throughout El Saadawi's writings. In Emra'atan fi emra'ah (1968; Two Women in One), Bahiah, the protagonist, goes to attend university and begins to make choices for herself concerning love and her future. Her father is unhappy with her stance that she is free to make these decisions, so he sells her into marriage. She flees and is eventually imprisoned. El Saadawi's own imprisonment in 1981 is the basis for her autobiographical Memoirs from the Women's Prison. A Woman at Point Zero was inspired by meetings El Saadawi had with a female prisoner at Qanatir, a prostitute named Firdaus, in 1974. El Saadawi creates a story around Firdaus, who seeks to gain financial independence through prostitution. After she is labeled as dishonored, she decides to turn to a more traditional career. Although she rises quickly to the top echelon of female workers in her field, the realization that she has not regained respectability and that she is still selling her body—albeit in a different way—prompts complete disillusionment with society and causes her to return to her former life as a prostitute. The exploitation and subjugation of women is the focal point of Mawt el rajoh el waheed ala el ard (1976; God Dies by the Nile) and Ughniyat al-atfal al-da'iriyah (1978; The Circling Song). God Dies by the Nile centers on two sisters who are molested at a young age by the local magistrate. When the official finds that one of the sisters is pregnant, he murders an innocent man from the village and frames the girls' father for the murder. The Circling Song also portrays two siblings—this time Hamida and her twin brother, Hamido. Hamida is repeatedly molested by neighbors and extended family members. When she is found to be pregnant, her mother sends her away in secret, to protect her from repercussions that will surely follow. Her brother is sent by the men in the family to find her and kill her to regain the family honor. Her innocence and the fact that the pregnancy is the result of rape are not issues the men feel are worth contemplating; in their minds her condition is the result of the inferior morality of women. El gha'aeb (1965; Searching) focuses on a woman striving for love and self-actualization. Fouada is a high-level government employee whose personal quest is to make a positive impact in the world around her. She begins a romance, meeting her new man each week at a local restaurant. When he ceases to show up for dates and is unreachable by telephone, she grows despondent. She begins to feel that she has deluded herself and believes that she will never be able to make a significant mark in her career because women are not taken seriously in her professional world. The limitations of women's roles in a repressive society are further explored in Suqut al-Imam (1987; The Fall of the Imam) and Ganat wa iblis (1992; The Innocence of the Devil). The Innocence of the Devil has been viewed as a modern fable that draws heavily on allegory and magical realism to tell the story of Ganat, a woman who is institutionalized. The novel examines the dangers of religious fanaticism and asserts that women are often the most susceptible to abuse and suffering when religious laws become more stringent. Many of El Saadawi's recurring themes are brought together in The Fall of the Imam: abuse of power by male officials, rape, exploitation, and the unjust punishment of women for crimes committed by men. The story follows Bint Allah, a woman born out of wedlock whose father is the religious leader of the community. Throughout the novel he continually strives to have her killed and discredits her existence as a sin against God, refusing to acknowledge his paternity. El Saadawi has also written two autobiographies. A Daughter of Isis (1999) covers El Saadawi's childhood and describes her activist role in Egyptian feminism; Walking through Fire (2002) continues to outline her political battles to change the role of women in Middle Eastern society.
Although El Saadawi enjoys predominantly favorable critical attention among Western reviewers, a handful of Middle Eastern and Islamic commentators contend that instead of simply exposing injustices, her negative depiction of religious laws, Middle Eastern culture, and Islamic men actually reinforces Western stereotypes. Some critics maintain that because El Saadawi consciously writes for Western audiences, her works accomplish little more than raising indignation and a political backlash that further represses the marginalized women whose condition she wishes to expose. Both Western and Eastern commentators applaud El Saadawi for attempting to expose the mistreatment of Middle Eastern women, but they differ in their assessment of the effectiveness of El Saadawi's writings and politically-charged activism in bringing about change. Feminists applaud El Saadawi's courage in writing texts that are considered revolutionary and politically subversive.