By Ahmed Nassef
Wednesday, February 25, 2004
In an interview with Women's eNews, prominent feminist and human rights activist Nawal El Saadawi discusses the current crisis of Egyptian feminism and the role of progressive activists living under repressive Arab regimes.
CAIRO, Egypt (WOMENSENEWS)--The subject of this interview, Dr. Nawal El Saadawi, one of the most well-known feminists and political dissidents in the Arab world, was born in 1931 in Kafr Tahla, a small village north of Cairo.
A psychiatrist by training, she first rose to international prominence with her 1972 book, "Women and Sex," which dealt with the taboo topic of women's sexuality and led to her dismissal as Egypt's director of public health. She also lost her positions as the chief editor of the medical journal, Health, and as the assistant general secretary of the Egyptian Medical Association. Since then, her many books and novels, most focusing on issues of Arab and Muslim women and sexuality within the context of repressive religious authority and tradition, have made her the target of both Egypt's secular regimes and the Muslim religious establishment.
In 1981, El Saadawi was imprisoned by President Anwar Sadat after her outspoken criticism of his unilateral peace deal with Israel as well as his domestic economic policies. Upon her release in 1982, she founded the Arab Women's Solidarity Association, Egypt's first legal, independent feminist organization dedicated to furthering women's active participation in Arab society. But soon after the group opposed the first Gulf War in 1991, it was banned by Egyptian authorities.
In 2001, religious conservatives took El Saadawi to court to annul her marriage with the novelist Sherif Hetata on the grounds that her public statements and writings placed her outside the bounds of Islam. The case was eventually dismissed after an international outcry by human rights organizations.
El Saadawi continues to live with her husband in the working-class neighborhood of Shubra northwest of Cairo.
Women's eNews: You and your husband have been targeted by extremists who have tried to divorce the two of you on the grounds that you are an apostate. Can you give us an update on your personal situation?
Nawal El Saadawi: We have had a lot of support, and we won our case in the courts.
I am always optimistic. When you are active, you are in action, and you win sometimes. I have lost my job; they tried to divorce me; kill me; they put me in prison, but I am still winning. I still have a voice. And I still write.
Women's eNews: Recently, the Egyptian media has been in an uproar over the proposed French law banning hijab, or head covering, in public schools, but little is ever mentioned regarding human rights and civil rights violations here in Egypt. Do you think the general public is aware of this contradiction?
Nawal El Saadawi: I think ordinary people see those contradictions very well. This is a political movement using the head of women for political reasons. The veil is a political symbol and has nothing to do with Islam. There is not a single verse in the Qur'an explicitly mandating it. My father graduated from Al-Azhar University and he never advocated veiling. They are using women as a political tool in a political game. Many people are aware of that, but the educational system puts a veil on the mind. The veiling of the mind is more serious. Our slogan at the Arab Women's Solidarity Association is "Unveil the Mind."
Women's eNews: What's your view on the recent controversy over Egypt's Sheikh Al-Azhar's religious decree where he supported the French government's position on the law banning hijab at public schools while at the same time affirming hijab as a religious obligation for women?
Nawal El Saadawi: He made a mistake. He said the veil is a divine law. If he was serious, then he does not know Islam. But the reality is that he made a political statement. He knows very well that the veil is not a divine law, but he is under the impression that fundamentalists are powerful. So he made a statement that was paradoxical. Part of what he said is true: that France is free to do whatever it wants. But the other part of the statement is not correct. This is dangerous. Since he is the top official religious authority in the country, then all women should be veiled. But since many Egyptian women are not heeding his advice, including the wife of President Mubarak, he should resign.
Women's eNews: How are today's feminists different from your generation of feminists?
Nawal El Saadawi: We don't have feminists any more. Feminism to me is to fight against patriarchy and class and to fight against male domination and class domination. We don't separate between class oppression and patriarchal oppression. Many so-called feminists don't. We can't be liberated under American occupation, for example. The new women are not aware of that.
These days, there is also a phenomenon I call "false awareness." Many women who call themselves feminists today wear makeup, high heels, tight jeans and they still wear the hijab. It is very contradictory. They are victims of both religious fundamentalism and American consumerism. They have no political awareness. They are unaware of the connection between the liberation of women on the one hand and of the economy and country on the other. Many consider only patriarchy as their enemy and ignore corporate capitalism.
Women's eNews: Why have Egyptian feminists and liberal intellectuals failed in capturing the imagination of grassroots Egyptian society and why aren't we seeing an active independent grassroots movement today?
Nawal El Saadawi: The elite secular Marxist and socialist groups were always separated from the peasants and poor people. They were busy looking up to the rulers and gave their backs to the people. They were speaking all the time on behalf of the masses only to achieve political aims.
Sadat put me in prison along with some other men. Under Mubarak, I've been "gray-listed." Although there is no official order banning me, I can't appear in the national media--it's an unwritten rule. There is no chance for people like me to be heard by the people.
Even the nongovernmental organizations are controlled by the government. When I was at Mumbai recently at the World Social Forum, they were calling them "Go-En-Ghee-Ohs," or government NGOs. Most of the NGO's in Egypt are co-opted by the government. There is no real opposition party that represents the people's interests either. Even the Tagammu', the so-called leftist political party, was created by Sadat along with all the other official parties. All the party leaders cooperate with the government.
Women's eNews: What are the greatest challenges faced today by progressives?
Nawal El Saadawi: Progressive groups should unite. We are divided and scattered. There must be efforts for unity. Women and men fighting against the IMF (International Monetary Fund) and the World Bank should fight together. Local and global resistance should not be separated. We must give a lot of attention to organization and unveiling of the mind. The new superpower of the people should be organized. We should unveil the mind, like your online magazine does, to unite people with different backgrounds.
Women's eNews: Are there ways of engagement between progressive Muslim forces and progressive secular movements?
Nawal El Saadawi: All progressive forces have a common ground. Religion is a personal matter. A progressive Muslim is a Muslim who respects all religions. He doesn't politicize his God. God is not a book. God is justice and freedom and love and honesty. That is what my father taught me--to be honest.
Ahmed Nassef is editor in chief of Muslim WakeUp!, a progressive Muslim online magazine.
Nawal El Saadawi:
Arab Women's Solidarity Association: