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Nawal El Saadawi (1931-2021)

Nawal El Saadawi

Recently on March 21st, the first day of Spring, Nawal El Saadawi passed away in a Cairo hospital at the age of 89.

El Saadawi was an unwavering advocate of Social justice, human rights, and a firebrand campaigner against brutal discrimination of Muslims and Arab women. She dared to write bravely in her numerous books which were translated in about 40 languages.

El Saadawi was a doctor, psychiatrist, a secularist writer paying particular attention to the practice of female circumcision, and religious Sharia Laws, therefor considered to have been an apostate to most Muslim clerics. She was described as Simon de Beauvoir of the Arab World.

Born on October 27, in the small village of Kafr Tahla outside Cairo. She was the second-eldest of nine children. Her father Al-Sayed El Saadawi was a government official in the Ministry of Education, at the same time a campaigner against the British occupation of Egypt and Sudan during the Egyptian Revolution of 1919. As a result, he was exiled to a small town of Nile Delta, and was punished by the puppet Government through not promoting him for 10 years. He was rather a progressive who taught his children self-respect and speaking their mind. Her mother, Zaynab Shoukry was from a wealthy Ottoman Turkish descendent family.

When Nawal was 10 years old, her family tried to make her get married. She resisted with her mother’s support. Both her parents died at a young age, leaving her with the burden to be the sole caregiver of a large family.

In 1955, Saadawi graduated as a medical doctor from Cairo University. During her practice, she observed women’s dire physical and psychological problems directly tied to the patriarchal coercion, oppressive cultural practices, and class domination of the capitalist system. When practicing in her birthplace of Kafr Tahla, she observed appalling conditions, hardships, and painful inequalities as well as domestic violence. Met by rural women’s calamity and while trying to protect them she was summoned back to Cairo. It was during the Presidency of Jamal Abdul Nasser that she eventually was promoted to become the Director of the Ministry of Public Health. In 1964, she met her third husband, Dr. Sherif Hatata, a communist activist, a writer, and a political prisoner of 13 years. Sherif Hatata translated some of her books to English.

El Saadawi was viewed for a long time as a controversial and dangerous writer by the Government of President Anwar Sadat, jailed in September of 1981, and released later that year one month after the assassination of that President.

In 1988, when her life was threatened by Islamist fundamentalists, and political persecution under the presidency of Hosni Mubarak, El Saadawi was forced to flee Egypt. She accepted offers to teach in several US universities, and finally returned back to Egypt in 1996. In the so-called Arab Spring of 2011, she actively participated and encouraged workers and deprived people of Egypt to fight against dictatorship, corruption and painful class inequality under the puppet Government.

At the Gothenburg, Sweden Book Fair that took place on the 27th to the 30th of September 2018, Saadawi attended a Seminar on the development of Egypt and the Middle East, she mentioned that she saw then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton handing out US Dollars in Tahrir Square so that people would vote for Muslim Brotherhood in the upcoming elections. It is worthy to mention that Muslim Brotherhood was the only “opposition” Party who was allowed to practice under Mubarak Presidency and had a few members in the Egypt Parliament.

Along with her literary works, Saadawi was very active in founding and participating in several organisations seeking for implementation of social justice, peace, and human rights. She was involved in the academic exploration of Arab identity thru her writing career. Hence, she received many honorary awards and prizes.

Saadawi was furious about overt injustice taking place against Palestinian People. She wrote: War Criminals in the U.S. and Israel are not punished; no international court has the courage to put them in trial.

Saadawi spent decades sharing her own story and viewpoints in her short stories, novels, essays, autobiographies, and eagerly attended speeches and interviews. She was ready to listen to other women’s narratives and their harsh experiences. When she saw something wrong she couldn’t be silent, she wrote about it and spoke out loudly about the truth, and “the truth was savage and dangerous”- as she mentioned.

In one of her famous books, The Hidden Face of Eve, (1977), she described with stinging clarity being subjected to agonizing procedure of female genital circumcision at the age of six on the bathroom floor as her mother stood alongside.


Some of her selected works:

  • Memoires of a Woman Doctor (1960, 1980)

  • Searching (1968)

  • Two Women in One (1971)

  • Woman at Point Zero (1973)

  • The Death of the Only Man on the Earth (1975)

  • The Children’s Circling Song (1976)

  • She Has No Place in Paradise (1979)

  • Death of an Ex-Minister (1980)

  • Memoires from the Women’s Prison (1984)

  • The Fall of the Imam (1987)

  • Ganat and the Devil (1991)

  • Love in the Kingdom of Oil (1993)

  • The Innocence of the Devil (1994)

  • North/ South: The Nawal El Saadawi Reader (1997)

  • The Novel (2004)

  • Zina, Novel (2009)



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