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OBITUARY Subversive in her life, political in her writings

Adele Newson-Horst pays tribute to the great Egyptian writer NAWAL EL SAADAWI

NOVELIST, physician, sociologist and global activist Nawal El Saadawi died on March 21 at the age of 89.

The author of more than 50 books, she once told me in one of our many interviews that she self-identified as “an African from Egypt, not from the Middle East … I am not from the Third World. There is one world, that is a racist, capitalist economic world.

“I became a feminist when I was a child — when I started to ask questions to become aware that women are oppressed and feel discrimination.”

Although her autobiography A Daughter of Isis (1986) is among the best known of her publications worldwide, she identified her vocation as that of a novelist.

El Saadawi was a global iconoclast in the best sense of the phrase. In a world that has become compartmentalised — tribal, overtly racist, anti-science and unashamedly sexist — her novels espoused truths that made her unpopular with many in government and in the Establishment.

“If I don’t tell the truth, I don’t deserve to be called a writer,” she said.

El Saadawi believed that to be whole — to recover the “missing parts” —  one must embrace the scientific as well as the artistic and creative: “I am a medical doctor … immersed in blood. I’d rather be with healthy people. I wanted to be a dancer but my father said: ‘Dancing means prostitution’.”

Learning from such contradictions early on, El Saadawi became subversive in life and distinctly political in her writings.

People have identified her works as both political and biographical fiction but to do so is to ignore the art of her writing —  a marriage of the politics of her life and the creativity that inspired her soul.

There is a clinical aspect to her writings. She relentlessly focuses on the issues without the trappings of romantic love and sentimentality and that is the key to evaluating and enjoying her works.

She was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature several times “but people don’t like my politics.”

She was, she told me, proud of herself, “not because I did fantastic things but because I never changed. People usually compromise. I’m proud because I didn’t compromise.”

This insistence on sharing her view of the truth on the condition of women, religion and politics is the key to the continued interest in her works.

She never compromised because in many ways the condition of women globally has not much changed and because there is an ethos that persistently governs women that, she believed, demanded unequivocal attention.

Born in 1931 in a village outside of Cairo, she refused to accept the limitations imposed on her by the religious, gender and colonial oppression most women of rural origin experienced.

She graduated in 1955 from the University of Cairo with a degree in psychiatry and rose to become Egypt’s director of public health.

Since she began to write over 50 years ago, her works — including the play God Resigns at the Summit Meeting (2006) — have concentrated on women, specifically on Arab women, their sexuality and legal status.

Her first work of non-fiction, Women and Sex (1972), evoked the antagonism of highly placed political and theological authorities in Egypt and the Ministry of Health was pressured into dismissing her.

Under similar pressures, she lost her post as chief editor of a health journal and as assistant general secretary of the Medical Association of Egypt.

From 1973 to 1976, El Saadawi researched women and neurosis and in 1977 she published her most famous work The Hidden Face of Eve.

It covered a host of topics relating to Arab women such as aggression against female children and genital mutilation, prostitution, sexual relationships, marriage, divorce and Islamic fundamentalism.

From 1979 to 1980 she was the United Nations adviser for the women’s programme in north Africa and the Middle East.

Later in 1980, as a culmination of the long war she had fought for Egyptian women’s social and intellectual freedom, she was imprisoned under the Anwar Sadat regime.

She was released in 1982 and in 1983 she published Memoirs from the Women’s Prison, in which she continued her bold attacks on the repressive Egyptian government.

1983 also marked the year that the English version of Woman at Point Zero was published after appearing in Arabic in 1975.

Even after her release from prison, El Saadawi’s life was threatened by those who opposed her work, mainly Islamist fundamentalists.

Armed guards were stationed outside her home in Giza for several years until she left the country to be a visiting professor at European and North American universities.

She devoted her time to being a writer, journalist and global speaker on women’s issues.

In 2002, officials tried to forcefully divorce her from her husband but international solidarity helped her to win her case. In 2004 she presented herself as a candidate for presidential election in Egypt.

Then in 2007, the controversy of her play God Resigns at the Summit Meeting  — in which the prophets and great women gather for a meeting with God, Satan arrives to tender his resignation but neither Jesus nor Mohammad nor Moses are willing to replace him and, finally, God himself resigns —  erupted.

She said that those who condemned her hadn’t even read the play.

This was the power of Nawal El Saadawi. Her books, coolly scientific and endlessly creative, were seen as weapons in a war that is still to be won.

Adele Newson-Horst is professor at Morgan State University. She has published two books on Nawal El Saadawi, The Dramatic Literature of Nawal El Saadawi (2009) and The Essential Nawal El Saadawi: A Reader (2010). This is an edited version of a review that first appeared in The Conversation,


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