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SHE lies on a sofa in front of me. Legs stretched out under a coat, her white cotton hair incandescent against the dark room. The author is resting before confronting her readers in a London club but I was granted a quick audience.
“Come closer,” she says when I introduce myself, and I pull my chair nearer. Nawal El Saadawi is Egypt’s most famous novelist. A psychiatrist, feminist, former political prisoner and Nobel nominee, the power of her words is such that she has recently been cited as the inspiration behind US pop-singer Ariana Grande’s new album.
I am not a little intimidated by her. I ask her about her best-known novel, Woman At Point Zero, the real story of a woman whose lifelong abuse led her to prefer execution over contesting her wrongful death sentence. “I never forget her. I met her. I’ve never met a woman like that in my life,” Saadawi says in a whisper. “The most honourable woman I met was this woman.”
Firdaus, the hero of her story, is the kind of character that every woman I spoke to who’s read the book cannot help but identify with. It’s not that our lives have many similarities, but her despair over a world where men always have the upper hand resonates deeply with women everywhere. I couldn’t put down the book, myself.
It felt as if the book had been written for me and about me, though I never went through any of the terrors Firdaus went through — FGM, sexual abuse, forced marriage, domestic violence, rape, prostitution and betrayal.
Later, when Saadawi finally meets her British readers, I see women of all ages nodding vehemently along during a discussion on Woman At Point Zero. Saadawi makes sure Firdaus is understood, though. “She didn’t hate men. In fact she was in love with men. She was disappointed with men.”
But she preferred to die, I add. “Because she was at point zero. She experienced everything and she was not ready to live in such a jungle. Some say it is despair because she should have fought against her death. She shouldn’t have died. Some people say it’s pessimism, it is rejection. [I say] it is a woman ready to die for her cause. She was very positive.”
What could Firdaus teach us about the fight for women’s rights? And what does her love for men, some of whom become her worst torturers, say about the contradictory nature of heterosexual relationships under capitalism?
Saadawi — with three husbands behind her — admits the dynamic is always fraught, even with liberal or socialist men. “Psychologically, patriarchy affects the psyche of men. My third husband was a Marxist and progressive and he translated many of my works, including Woman At Point Zero.
“We lived together 43 years. He wrote books about women, novels about women. But all the time I felt that he could not cope with a woman as a wife.
“When we were friends he was so proud of me, happy, boasting. When we married he was boasting but he was jealous. He couldn’t cope with a woman who is not a wife. I cannot play the role of a wife. I’m a writer, I’m a doctor, I’m like him. And I am more successful.”
I open up. I too have shared my life with a Marxist and at points wondered about the seriousness of his commitment to women’s equality. Under capitalism, and when confronted with their own privilege, can men ever be fully feminist?
“It’s very easy from the rational point of view, from the intellectual point of view, for the man to be a feminist. But from the psychological, the deep psyche of the man … Patriarchy is embedded in childhood, [man] cannot get out of childhood.”
I ask for answers from the octogenarian in front of me, lying quietly with a naughty twinkle in her eye.
“The solution, it will come. Younger generations are much better now. It will come, but it takes time.”
And harsh capitalism, as she calls our times, is making things worse. In her own country sexual harassment has become rife in the backlash to the revolution of 2011.
In a way she blames the populist Muslim Brotherhood for the return of conservative mores and an interpretation of Islam that sees women as second-class citizens. But “these backward religious conceptions” go “hand in hand with neoliberalism and capitalism.”
“Islamic fundamentalism is a phenomenon related to Islam, but the religious fundamentalist movement includes all religions: Christianity, Judaism.
“And in fact, postmodernism, neoliberal postmodernism, and religious fundamentalism are two faces of the same coin.
“World capitalism, this harsh capitalism, the mentality of money and profit is like a jungle, we live in a jungle. Women are at the core of that. Women, blacks and the poor.
“[Politicians] use religion, we cannot blame religion. In fact religion is a political ideology itself. The books, the holy books, the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Koran, the Gita in India, all those books, of course created by people, not divine books, are very reactionary, very against women and against the poor.
“The political powers, the capitalist political powers, in the West, in the States, in Europe, they use religion, they use God, to justify injustices. And that’s why God is very prominent now, everywhere.”
Saadawi laughs, the simple laughter of someone outwitting a great charade. It’s contagious, I laugh too. Her readers start walking into the room, staring at Saadawi’s small frame as she keeps chatting to me about feminist films and British austerity cuts which are costing women’s lives.
She has to go and face her audience, they are waiting. A room now packed to the brim mostly with women awaiting their heroine to speak. She starts standing up, turns to me and winks.
“You don’t mind if I mention you during the talk? I like what you said about Firdaus,” she says as she takes the stage. She takes a little bow and the event begins. Saadawi’s feminist inspiration might have been an Egyptian woman on death row, but she, alive and kicking, cannot help but be an icon herself.
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