She Spoke Her Mind
April Simpson '06
After intense evening lectures with Egyptian feminist Nawal El Saadawi,
some walked away persuaded by her argument, while others left moved
by her resolve.
Saadawi traveled the Five College community last fall, arguing that female
circumcision, which she calls "genital mutilation," and the Arab
veil have no basis in the Koran and instead are political tools used to further
She even equated the veil to the use of make-up by Western women.
"Both of them, the veil and the make-up, conceal the real face of the woman," said
Saadawi, a doctor whose books on women in Arab society have been banished and
censored. "The veil is made of
cloth and make-up is made of powder, but the mask is the mask. I am against
both of them."
As the Smith College William A. Neilson Professor in Comparative Literature -- a
professorship that rotates among departments each year -- Saadawi spoke
her mind during her campus stay this fall.
She has suffered imprisonment, exile and the threat of government-imposed divorce
from her husband, on accusations that she was anti-Islamic.
Yet Saadawi exhibits a joy that hides the intricacies of her private self.
"She has a wonderful sense of mischief," observes Ann Jones, Esther
Cloudman Dunn Professor of Comparative Literature, who calls Saadawi a real feminist
in theory and in practice. "I think that she's one of those people
whose oppression has the effect of making her stronger."
In 1981, speaking freely against Egyptian president Anwar Sadat's one-party
rule earned Saadawi a three-month stay in prison. She remembers sitting on
an upturned aluminum container, recording her thoughts on strips of toilet
paper using an eyebrow pencil smuggled to her by a prostitute in a neighboring
Amid oppressive heat, Saadawi contemplated her surroundings. Cockroaches whistled
as they crawled across the damp cement floor. Shrieking voices that "seemed
to come from the depths of the earth" threw curses from below the wall.
"Time and the wall have merged into one," she writes in Memoirs from
the Women's Prison. "The air is motionless. Nothing moves around
me except the cockroaches and rats, as I lie on a thin rubber mattress which
gives off the odour of old urine, my empty handbag placed under my head, still
wearing the white dress and shoes in which I left the house."
Following her release from prison, one month after Sadat's assassination,
Saadawi began the Arab Women's Solidarity Association, which promotes
Arab women's participation in social, economic, cultural and political
life. In 1991, its Egyptian branch was shut down after criticizing U.S. involvement
in the Gulf War. The following year, Saadawi's name appeared on a death
list issued by a fundamentalist group, forcing her into five years' exile.
Despite all, her efforts were successful. Today, AWSA boasts thousands of members
and will hold its seventh international conference in Cairo this summer.
"Nawal is a woman who has revolutionary ideas," notes Dee Patters
AC, a student assistant who spent about 20 hours with Saadawi each week. "She's
very steadfast in her beliefs, and while I think that she listens to other people,
it doesn't necessarily mean that she compromises easily."
Saadawi's writings have been translated into more than 30 languages.
Her most famous book, The Hidden Face of Eve: Women in the Arab World, covers
topics concerning Arab women, including sexual relationships, prostitution
and Islamic fundamentalism.
"She is one person who is very polemical in her thinking and writing," says
Katwiwa Mule, an assistant professor of comparative literature whose classes
have read and discussed Saadawi's work. "You think you know something,
but she keeps engaging you on a higher plane."
During lectures, Saadawi emphasizes that politics pervade every aspect of life,
from water to war, and all are interconnected.
Saadawi grew up in Kafr Tahla, a village in the Nile River delta, and the small
town of Menouf. Her father was an official with the Ministry of Education.
Her mother was a housewife.
As a child, she was frustrated with life. She questioned God when she noticed
gender and class discrimination in her home and in the larger Egyptian society.
Her older brother's poor grades overshadowed Saadawi's academic
success. Her wealthier classmates enjoyed greater privileges in school. Her
mother, whose influence she credits with shaping the course of her life, cared
for nine children, yet dreamed of finishing her own education.
Growing up, Saadawi had to defend her right to an education. Women were expected
to marry and have children, but writing was central to Saadawi's life.
"Creativity means that your body, mind and spirit come together," says
Saadawi, whose English bears an Arabic accent. "When you are creative,
when you are writing, you don't feel limited because your imagination can
Saadawi's outstanding grades earned her a spot in a top Egyptian medical
school. Although she says her degree in psychiatry has helped her understand
the psyche of her people, she felt that her medical training wasn't enough
to address ingrained inequities, so she turned to political writing.
Her strong convictions and passion for writing do not preclude a successful
family life. Saadawi has been married to her third husband, Sherif Hetata,
also a doctor and political activist, for 40 years. Saadawi has two children,
from her first marriage a daughter, who is a poet and writer, and with Hetata
a son, who is a film director. And still she pursues her writing.
"When you express yourself, you breathe. You feel like you are living," she
insists. "Writing to me, like breathing, it's part of my life. If
I don't write, I die."