Egypt’s pioneering writer Nawal El Saadawi died on Sunday at the age of 89, after a lifetime fighting for women’s rights and equality.
The feminist author of more than 55 books first highlighted the issue of female genital mutilation (FGM) with Eva’s Hidden Face in 1980. A trained physician, El Saadawi also campaigned against veiled women, polygamy and inequality in Islamic inheritance rights between men and women.
He died in a Cairo hospital after a long battle with the disease.
Born in October 1931 in a town on the Nile Delta, north of Cairo, El Saadawi studied medicine at Cairo University and Columbia University in New York. The novelist, who wrote regularly for Egyptian newspapers, also worked as a psychiatrist and university professor.
One of the leading feminists of her generation, El Saadawi’s 1972 book Women and Sex, sparked a backlash of criticism and condemnation from Egypt’s political and religious establishment, causing the activist to lose her job at the Ministry of Health.
She was imprisoned for two months in 1981 by the late President Anwar Sadat during a broad political crackdown in which several intellectuals were detained. While incarcerated, El Saadawi wrote about her experience in Memories of the Women’s Prison, writing on a roll of toilet paper with an eyebrow pencil smuggled in by a fellow inmate.
The writer became a target of Islamist militants, with her name on death lists that included the Nobel laureate for Egyptian literature Naguib Mahfouz, who in 1994 was stabbed in an attempt on her life.
“This refusal to criticize religion… This is not liberalism. This is censorship, ”he said.
Speaking to The Guardian in 2009, he said: “I don’t regret any of my 47 books. If I started my life over, I would write the same books. They are all very relevant even today: the issues of gender, class, colonialism (although of course he was British and now he’s American), female genital mutilation, male genital mutilation, capitalism, rape and economic rape.
After undergoing female genital mutilation at the age of six and seeing the damage it could cause during her work as a village doctor, she campaigned against the practice.
“Since I was a child, that deep wound that she left on my body has never healed,” she wrote in an autobiography.
El Saadawi also established and directed the Solidarity Association of Arab Women, as well as co-founding the Arab Association for Human Rights.
El Saadawi moved to Duke University from North Carolina in 1993 due to death threats. After returning to Egypt, he ran for the presidency in 2005, but abandoned his campaign after accusing the security forces of not allowing him to hold rallies.
In 2007, she was condemned by Egypt’s top Sunni Muslim authority, Al-Azhar, for her work God resigns at the summit meeting, in which God is questioned by Jewish, Muslim and Christian prophets and finally resigns.
Her views led her to face various legal challenges, including accusations of apostasy from Islamists.
Despite challenges from authorities, the writer said in 2010 that she was motivated to keep going by the daily letters she received from people who say their lives have been changed by their writing. “A young man came to see me in Cairo with his new wife. He said, I want to introduce my wife and thank you. Your books have made me a better man. For them I did not want to marry a slave, but a free woman. “
In 2005, El Saadawi received the International Inana Award in Belgium, one year after receiving the North-South award from the Council of Europe. In 2020, Time magazine named her on its list of 100 women of the year.
Egypt’s culture minister, Inas Abdel-Dayem, mourned El Saadawi’s passing and said his writings had sparked a great intellectual movement.
El Saadawi was married three times and is survived by a daughter and a son.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism