Nawal el-Saadawi – The free voice of Egypt

Her entire life, Egyptian writer, activist and physician Nawal el-Saadawi defends women’s and human rights. She broke many political, religious and sexual taboos, and remains a passionate foe of rulers and their use of religion – all rulers, all religions. At 83, she is as outspoken as ever. ‘Religion is a disaster for women.’

All along her long life Nawal el-Saadawi has been an indefatigable defender of women’s and human rights, a consummate breaker of political, religious and sexual taboos and first of all a passionate foe of rulers and their use of religion – whatever rulers, both in the region and in the West, whatever religion. Her public, radical-leftist positions in speeches and prodigious writings brought her more often than not in harsh conflict with Egyptian authorities and with religious individuals and groups. She has been the target of death threats from various sides and even has spent time in prison. But she is not afraid. She became immune from threats, she says in an interview by telephone from Cairo.

Saadawi was born in 1931 in a small village in the countryside, and like almost all girls in Egypt was circumcised at the age of six. It made her fight tirelessly against female genital mutilation (FGM) after she completed her medical studies. Her efforts contributed to the law the Egyptian government issued in 2008 against FGM. ‘Although the percentage of circumcised girls did not decrease, the law is a tool you can use against doctors.’

Egypt in the meantime has become infamous for sexual violence against women. Saadawi considers this part of a worldwide phenomenon, the result of the capitalist patriarchal system increasing in power everywhere to bring back religion. ‘And religion to me is a disaster for women, because women are inferior to men in all religions.’

Because he got rid of the Muslim Brotherhood, Saadawi is not as critical of Egyptian president Sisi as one might expect from this radical leftist woman. Still his government doesn’t allow her to organise women outside the official women’s organisations. So she is at present a full-time writer. ‘As a writer they [the government] cannot touch me. And they respect me. I am very much respected. They know I really write my opinion. I am not a hypocrite like the others. I am even respected by my enemies.’

A publisher in Cairo reprinted many of her fifty books and plays, although some works remain censored. Now she is the star of the new film The Free Voice of Egypt, which is shown at the Movies that Matter Festival. True to type she objects to the word ‘star’: ‘It oppresses others. In the capitalist system they make artifical stars. Political stars. Filmstars. I don’t want to be a novelist star. I want to be a creative writer who is fighting together with others to liberate ourselves.’

By Carolien Roelants