Radical media, politics and culture.

"Egypt's Leading Feminist Unveils Her Thoughts"

"Egypt's Leading Feminist Unveils Her Thoughts"

Ahmed Nassef Interviews Nawal El Saadawi

[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 --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

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

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

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

[Ahmed Nassef is editor in chief of Muslim WakeUp!, a
progressive Muslim online magazine.]