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She Came, She Spoke Her Mind

By April Simpson '06

As the Smith College William A. Neilson Professor in Comparative Literature this past fall, Egyptian feminist Nawal El Saadawi emphasized that politics pervade every aspect of life, from water to war, and all are interconnected. Photo by Fish/Parham.

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 female oppression.

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 cell.

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 transcend anything."

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."

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