President, Consortium of Pan-African University Press
The news of Nawal El Saadawi’s death hit the world on Sunday, March 21, 2021. Nawal, a vocal feminist, change agent, and an excellent author, took a bow at the ripe age of 89. In bidding the world goodbye in the Women’s History month, Nawal has left enough legacies for us to reminisce on and teach our young ones by. This reflection seeks to look into the life of Nawal, what motivated her, her activism, her achievements, and her legacies.
How the Nawal We Know Was Molded
Born on October 27, 1931, in Kafr Tahla, Nawal El Saadawi’s childhood was a mélange of support and succour and enforced traditions. In the 6th year of her life, a dehumanizing occurrence happened to her, which contributed hugely to the person she eventually became. At age six, Nawal El Saadawi underwent female genital mutilation. Although her father was supposedly educated and a top official in the Egyptian Ministry of Education, he gave in to traditional ways and subjected his daughter to the throes of female genital mutilation, all in the name of culture. Her dad was a man torn between his progressive thinking and respecting supposed cultural norms. He was vocal against the British in Egypt, and this earned him a delayed promotion. From a very young age, he ingrained in Nawal the goodness attached to speaking up when one needs to, and he was always supportive of her vocal nature. However, this same father gave in to traditional norms and allowed his daughter to be circumcised. And as if that was not bad enough, he tried to give Nawal away in marriage at the seriously unripe age of 11. Nawal survived the circumcision, but she was scarred for life. Thankfully, she channelled the anger towards ensuring that other girls in her Egyptian home country and all over the world do not have to go through the same thing.
Similarly, Nawal’s paternal grandmother encouraged her to be critical and logical in her take on issues, yet, this same grandmother believed that a boy was worth fifteen girls. Suffice to say that Nawal learned from early on to speak up against perceived injustice, yet, she was a victim of a society where female genital mutilation was the norm. In her interview with The Guardian UK, Nawal said that during the age when she was born, all girls underwent female genital mutilation, regardless of their social class or their parents’ education. In this same interview, she made a revelation of how she suffered amnesia, post-circumcision.
The story of Nawal’s early life and how it affected her will not be complete without mentioning how she lost her parents at a very tender age. She lost succour and a supporter of her vocal and radical nature in her father. In her mother, Nawal lost a cool-headed yet firm warrior who stood her ground and ensured that her daughter was not given away in marriage at age 11. The loss of both parents at an early age affects all children; it affects their perception of the world. It affected Nawal too, and though it toughened her up a bit, it equally had its toll on her.
The Artistic Nawal: Education and Early Career
Nawal El Saadawi had always been creative and artistic ever since she was young. There are claims that she had always wanted to be a singer or a dancer, while there are indications in other quarters that she had always wanted to be a writer. Though it was rare for girls to study at the tertiary level during Nawal’s youth, her parents, who were education enthusiasts, convinced her to study Medicine at the University of Cairo. Nawal became a licensed doctor in 1955, at the age of 23. She specialized in Psychiatry. She went back to her hometown to practice, and this also had grave effects on the woman and activist she became.
As Nawal worked in her village, she came in contact with little girls who had gone through female genital mutilation, and those encounters brought back memories of her own ordeal as a circumcised girl. Apart from female genital mutilation, there was another horrendous practice in Nawal’s village that saw the death of girls in their numbers. This was a practice where the bridegroom tried his newlywed wife’s virginity to determine whether or not the bride’s father was worthy of being honoured. To test the bride’s virginity, the bridegroom would violate the bride with his fingers till her hymen got ruptured and she bled. Once she began to bleed, villagers would believe the bride was truly a virgin, and they would hail her father, who would also feel proud of himself. In her interview with The Guardian UK, Nawal narrated how this practice led to some girls’ death, being that they were married off at a tender age then.
These situations spurred Nawal to pick interest in two things: health education and writing. She believed that through health education, she could enlighten the villagers and give them insights into how their practices adversely affected the psychological and physical states of girls—both the direct victims and the indirect victims who watched how society treated their gender. However, Nawal did not stop at health education; she also picked up writing. Angered by the girlchild abuse cases that she witnessed and further fuelled by her own experiences, Nawal El Saadawi resorted to writing to bring about change. Her first published book was written in 1957 when she was 25 years old. The book, a collection of short stories, is titled I Learned Love.
As Nawal committed more time to writing and advocacy, voices started rising against her. At that time, a vocal Arab woman was perceived as a societal anomaly, something out of the known order of things in then Egypt. She was attacked by religious leaders of varying religions—from Islam to Christianity to Judaism. Furthermore, the government soon started to notice her radical writings, and she was laid off from her job as the Director of Egypt’s Ministry of Health, amidst other positions that she lost due to her advocacy.
Nawal the Writer and Righter of Wrongs
Nawal El Saadawi was a prolific writer whose books were translated into thirteen languages. She equally enjoyed praise for her literary work. While Nawal considered herself more of a novelist, the world knew her better for her advocacy writings. Some of her most powerful books include Memoirs of a Woman Doctor (1958), which documents her experiences in the field, how ruralism can affect a people’s way of thinking and mode of acting, and what the average woman in rural Egypt goes through; Women and Sex (1972), which attacks the various atrocities done against women’s bodies and was banned in Egypt for about 20 years; The Hidden Face of Eve (1989), which sheds light on the real causative factors of the oppression of Arab women.
Nawal’s writings and advocacy for morality put her in trouble with the Egyptian government. Upon taking the publisher’s role for a feminist magazine called Confrontation, she was jailed in 1981 by the Egyptian government. Ever resilient and never to be caught dejected, Nawal founded the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association (a legal feminist group) while serving her jail term. Advocacy and righting of wrongs come with heavy criticisms and threats; Nawal’s case was not different. She was threatened several times by extremists who felt that she was fiercely attacking their religion, and when these threats reached a heightened level, Nawal had to seek protection in the United States.
Her move to the United States was a turning point in her life, as she held a number of exalted positions in renowned schools in the country—Harvard, Yale, and the University of California. Saadawi’s activism never waned. Contrary to what is obtainable in many quarters, as Saadawi grew older, so did her voice becomes stronger and firmer in her fight for the equality of all. Saadawi wrote books till 2006, and she frequently commented on social issues, especially the circumcision of children. She wrote a thought-evoking piece on the circumcision-caused death of 12-year-old Badour Shaker. Nawal also spoke extensively and dissentingly on how religious leaders advanced their political causes through religion. She always stood for justice and equal rights, and she never flinched from berating anyone who sought to deprive others of these two things.
Nawal El Saadawi is a decorated writer. She received several prestigious awards in her lifetime, both for her activism and her writings. The years between 2001 and 2015 were years of awards for Nawal El Saadawi. The Council of Europe awarded her the “2004 North-South Prize” for her commitment to human rights advocacy. She also won the “Women of the Year Award” in 2011. Nawal was awarded the “MacBride Peace Prize” in 2012, and the French government awarded her the “French Order of Merit” award in 2013. Apart from these awards, Nawal also held honorary doctorate degrees as awarded her by different institutions in about three continents.
What Has the Resolute Feminist’s Life taught us?
Nawal El Saadawi is gone, and the best things we have left of her are her books, essays, words, videos, and for her family members, fond memories. However, Saadawi’s peaceful soul might not rest easy if we choose to celebrate her without picking lessons from her life, without understanding her stance and advocacy, to strive to bring about change.
Undaunted by threats to her life and unmoved by oppositions from all ends, Saadawi remained firm in what she believed was right. She stood her ground in her fight against oppression, suppression, barbaric and harmful practices, and injustices of any form. Another lesson we should learn from Saadawi’s life is that old age should not necessarily translate to an abandonment of all that one used to stand for. Saadawi remained vocal and advocated for issues that were dear to her till her death. Saadawi’s life, advocacies and achievements are a stimulus for every one of us to rise against injustice and oppression in our locality, state, nation, and the world.