Homage: Nawal El Saadawi – Godmother of Arabic Feminist Revolution

Nawal El Saadawi - the ‘godmother’ of Arabic feminism, a grand novelist, physician, and globalist, whose maverick ideas inspired generations of Arab women, but also stirred controversy.

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Nawal El Saadawi - Egypt’s Godmother of Feminist Revolutionary Consciousness
Credit | morrocanladies.com

As a young boy, I enjoyed reading books by Chairman Mao Tse Tung; at most I enjoyed reading his poetry and volumes of selected essays. I enjoyed his essay on the theory of contradiction as a natural phenomenon which expressed in simple language as ‘there is contradiction in everything-happiness and sadness, revolution and status quo, success and doom, life and death as so forth. It is this very saddening contradiction that can be juxtaposed with eventuality in the death of Nawal El Saadawi. Given that her life and work was central to human rights and human dignity, it thus behooves that homage to Nawal El Zaynab Saadawi will make the center-piece of this article.

It is always troubling and humbling for me to learn about the death of dedicated icons of human freedom such as of Nawal El Zaynab Saadawi, the Egyptian author, activist, and physician. She died March 21, 2021 at the age of 89. She was a prolific Arabic writer with dozens of novels, short story collections, plays, and memoirs on her name. The most famous of her novels in the English-speaking world is “Woman at Point Zero (1975)”.

It is promised in the holy Qu’ran that, ‘every living soul must taste death.’ But Saadawi’s life comes out beautifully a monument of a woman in Africa that dedicated her life to the work of defending rights of the poor, protecting social freedom of women, upholding rights of children as well as the basic rights of the vulnerable members of our economically polarized Societies.

I chose to write about her, not for anything, but because of her charisma throughout all days of her life. She has always spoken truth to power against the vicious power syndrome which believes that the purpose of power is to oppress the powerless.

She has been writing in defense of human rights, speaking about human rights, defending those with violated rights and as well as resisting the social and political systems that thrive on oppressing the powerless, both in Egypt, and around the world.

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Nawal spend her life as a freethinker, an organic intellectual, a revolutionary, a tireless intellectual warrior, a non-conformist Muslim, a medical doctor, a fearless writer, de-constructivist, an unwavering feminist and an unapologetic African.

Nawal El Saadawi was a woman of many firsts. She was the first woman to be an Egyptian physician, psychiatrist, the first feminist writer from the world that is substantially Arabic and Islamic. She was the pioneering activist in the Egyptian world of gender rights movement and feminist politics.

She is a pioneering psychiatrist that generously committed her life to the liberation of women and speaking truth to power through her writings on the subject of women in Islam, paying particular literary and gender activism attention to fighting the vulgar practice of female genital mutilation. She was the first medical practitioner to bring to public attention the systematic thinking on why poor people are often sick, and why they are sick in such particular manner?

She looked at human diseases, not only through the traditional strait-jacket out-look of microbial infections, but also through the gender lenses of social stratification.

Those in power never regarded Nawal El Saadawi in a good way, instead they initiated snares and ploys that led to Nawal suffering stints of imprisonment, detention without trial, irrational censorship, state sponsored ignoble, and other forms of religious as well as politically sponsored brutality.

Nawal was an organic intellectual with unique spiritual strength that was evinced in her writing to promote protection of poor man’s rights, freedom and basic justices. The bourgeoisie and traditionalist scholars have on several occasions equated Nawal to Simone de Beauvoir, the French woman-writer and feminist Marxist. But in the really sense Nawal towered above De Beauvoir in her categorical capacity of revolutionary praxis, intellectual bravado, class consciousness and social cosmopolitanism.

She was an intellectual above the trappings of racial and Snobbish bias.

We all know that Nawal lacked not because she was lazy, but because she was betrayed. Poverty to Nawal was a social and economic condition hatched to her by decades of politically instigated systematic oppression, betrayal and unfair censorship of her books.

Nawal came face to face with systematic oppression of the vulnerable at her youngest age. Reading the biographies and Auto-biographies about Nawal reveal that she grew up in rural Egypt in a society that had justified and socialized oppression of women.

Egypt of that time had complicated and multifaceted patriarchal culture which was perhaps a moniker of a history inherited from the past social-economic heritage of slavery. For example, before she was before ten years, her grandmother, told her on several occasions that, ‘a boy is worth fifteen girls at least.”

Nawal El Saadawi philosophized her grandmother’s statement in her books and writings that she could not understand how a boy can be worth fifteen girls when she was always on top in her class.

Maybe this was the emotional impetus that made Nawal to venture very early into the world of writing, as a front of struggle and resistance against the oppressive cultural and political systems. She wrote the first epistle in her life when she was 7. It was a letter of complaint to God, asking God why he had failed to be just and fair by not making her mother and father to be equal.

Apart from writing in Arabic Nawal El Saadawi also writes in English. She is the author of sixteen spell binding novels, fifteen critical nonfiction books, nine gender focused short story collections, and six memoirs that reflect her life as a freedom fighter, a critic, a freethinker, an organic intellectual of liberal and progressive feminist.

Nawal also tried her hand in writing drama and plays with a focus on the dramaturgy of the oppressed. She earned three successful plays to her name.

Nawal’s writings posed facts-backed challenges to the moral quality of political Islam. This was supposed to perfect soul searching for dialog among those in power, but unfortunately, the tradition of Sisyphus syndrome could not allow them to reach such virtues.

Nawal’s presence in the police detentions and cells sent her cellmates to irrational fear that maybe President Anwar Sadat would give them all the death penalty for being closer to Nawal.  In contrast, Nawal remained staid, calm and unmoved. She was also very prophetic and optimistic that she would outlive her Jailer. And she did. In October 1981, a month after she was arrested, President Anwar Sadat, her jailer, was assassinated at a military parade by officers opposed to his system of politics.

This was shortly realized when the persistent intellectual audacity to speak for rights of women in Islam made Muslim political leaders to put Nawal on the same list as Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasreen. The Name of Nawal El Saadawi was third on fatwa list or simply death lists that were circulated by Islamist groups in 1991.

In 1992, the Egyptian writer Farag Foda was murdered by the Islamic extremist group that carried out hundreds of killings, this was the time around which the Japanese and Italian translators of Rushdie’s Satanic Verses were shot dead in assassination, the Norwegian translator of the same book was grievously wounded by an Islamic extremist in assassination attempt. Luckily, Nawal El Saadawi was miraculously safe even though her name was the next on the list.

After undergoing stints of unfair detention in Egypt, Nawal El Saadawi had no option but to move out of Egypt and hence, she reluctantly accepted an offer to teach at Duke University in North Carolina.

Firmness in resistance to religious and cultural fundamentalism was the center-piece of Nawal’s social thoughts. She considered herself a Muslim, although does not base her beliefs on any religious texts. She believed that religious sacred texts such as the Bible and Quran are patriarchal texts used to oppress otherness. Thus, she encouraged people to think critically and creatively, and keep their religious beliefs separate from government ideologies.

This is why Nawal El Saadawi was also the subject of a 2018 BBC feature. She went on record for having spoken the Unspeakable on behalf of those silenced by tyranny of faith, brutality of political power and pinching power of poverty.

Nawal El Saadawi, a grand novelist, physician, and globalist, born 27 October 1931; died 21 March 2021. She is survived by her daughter and son.

Alexander Opicho

I am a poet, essayist, freelance writer and a short story writer based in Lodwar Kenya. Lecturer of Conservational Biostatistics.