Lucy Stewart discusses the Festival of Ideas’ talk by Nawal el Saadawi
This article was originally published in Issue 10, December 2015. To read the full print magazine, visit:
‘I wrote one of my best books in prison on toilet paper, smuggled by a prostitute and written with her eyebrow pencil.’
Nawal el Saadawi is fierce, in the best possible way. When she walks into the auditorium at the Bristol Festival of Ideas it is clear she is not someone to be messed with; her unalterable, unashamed, unflinching nature comes from years of standing up for herself.
‘I was a very angry child,’ is one of the first things she says. ‘Sometimes I had to beat boys in the street… so they were afraid of me.’
Her use of the words ‘had to’ is telling; El Saadawi sees standing up for herself, and for other women, not as an option, but as a necessity. Refusing to be intimidated, El Saadawi has spent a lifetime battling against the injustice she faces for ‘being born a girl.’
Growing up in rural Egypt, El Saadawi’s parents wanted her to marry at the age of 10. El Saadawi changed their minds. She cites her brother’s failure at school as the reason: if their son wasn’t going to be successful, maybe their daughter would.
Eventually, her parents, simultaneously both traditional and progressive, decided she would go to medical school and, although she continued to write, keeping a diary all her life, El Saadawi’s career path turned medical as she became first a chest surgeon and then a psychiatrist. It is this career path that has undoubtedly influenced many of El Saadawi’s beliefs.
Most notably, it was her exploration of the psychological problems linked to oppressive cultural practices that led to her decision to never perform a circumcision, either female or male, during her years as a doctor. What makes El Saadawi’s brand of feminism so important is this intersectional focus, this determination to address not just sexism, but what she considers all debilitating aspects of society, primarily religion and capitalism.
It would be easy to reel off El Saadawi’s career: she is the founder and president of the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association, worked for the Ministry of Health in Egypt, is the founder of the Health Education Association and the Egyptian Women Writer’s Association, is the author of many books and the winner of many prizes. But the only way to truly understand her, to get a glimpse of the woman behind these titles, is to hear her speak.
Only through hearing her speak can one truly understand her message that ‘women’s issues are not separable from global issues.’ For example, she refuses to accept the practice of circumsision regardless of gender. This is on the grounds that both practices stem from religious beliefs and go ‘against common sense’; it is not ‘common sense’ to cut a child, who, can die of bleeding and infection as a result.
As someone who was a victim of FGM herself and a doctor who witnessed it first hand, El Saadawi provides a voice of reason on this subject. FGM also proves her main belief: that women’s oppression cannot be separated from that of capitalism and religion. El Saadawi uses circumcision, a primarily religious tradition, to prove that there is no morality in religion. After all, she expands, morality can only occur alongside equality and this is impossible considering the double standards for men and women in every religion.
‘Women are oppressed in all countries, because we live in one world.’ That is, El Saadawi confirms, one capitalist and patriarchal world.
El Saadawi’s words have not always been met with support. They still aren’t. Her 1972 book about sex lost her a job at the Ministry of Health in Egypt. It explained that 30 per cent of girls don’t bleed on their wedding night because of their hymens, but are killed regardless as they are assumed unvirginal.
In 1981, El Saadawi helped publish a feminist magazine called Confrontation. She was consequently imprisoned for talking about ‘taboos’: sexual, political and religious taboos, the taboos she is still having to address.
El Saadawi points out that she’s been censored by Channel 4, by CNN, by New York Times: she is censored even now. She explains that because all governments are the same, all governments are against what she says.
If her words do anything, it is reminding the audience, watching her in undeniable awe, that the progress we have made is minimal. Misogyny, whether merely internalised or open, exists in all and any societies, and breaking free from this is more than just abolishing sexism.
For years a campaigner against FGM and the voice of Egyptian feminism, at 84 years old El Saadawi shows no sign of losing her formidable self. In a recent Guardian she affirms this point:
‘I have noticed that writers, when they are old, become milder. But for me it is the opposite. Age makes me more angry.’
It looks, then, like we can expect a lot still to come from El Saadawi.
Illustration by Miriam Cocker