Nawal Al Saadawi is legend. The 81-year-old feminist, physician and author is as polarizing as the controversy she constantly arouses. She was imprisoned under Sadat and summoned to court countless times under Mubarak’s rule and always speaks her mind regardless. We met up with the legendary Nawal Al Saadawi on a Friday morning at the Club for a chat on life, hardships and success.
With only a time and a place given by Nawal Al Saadawi on the home phone two days before the interview, since she doesn’t believe in cell phones, our search began at 9am at the Tea Garden of Al Gezirah Club in Zamalek on a Friday morning (mind you that she had already finished an hour of swimming, an hour of exercising and a sauna visit, touch wood).
Sitting in front of the woman who wrote more than 49 books, translated in multiple languages across the world, and who treats her time as gold, our questions had to be precise and to the point. Every so often we get interrupted by visitors shaking hands with the iconic woman and telling her how much she inspired them, it was as if we were sitting with the goddess of wisdom, who had all the answers.
It wasn’t long until we got into the most intimate discussions of what it means to be a woman in today’s world of global repression and objectifying women as sex symbols. Al Saadawi had a very big yet simple idea on the oppression of women saying, “women are half the society, so anything that affects the society affects women and anything that affects women affects the society”. Although it is simply put, but to explain more what she means, she takes a pen and paper, and with her frail hands underneath the white lace gloves she draws a circle and cut in half writing on one half women and points arrows to it saying, “Egypt is 90 million, so how to control us, is divide us. They divide us by religion. Religion is a very important weapon in dividing people. Women are half of Egypt, we are colonized inside our colonized country, by our husbands and we are colonized by the US. So women oppression is much more, because of the marriage system because of the family.” Having been married four times herself, Al Saadawi says, “just to continue to write I had to divorce three husbands. Because in marriage there is contradiction, women are oppressed by external power; colonialism, oppression by the state, and oppression by the family, so our oppression has three dimensions”.
On the question of how the Muslim Brotherhood rule will affect women’s liberation, Al Saadawi didn’t hesitate to conclude that this was some an external plan from world powers to control Egypt further: “This affects women negatively, because when you have revival of any kind of religion Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, women are affected because women are inferior in religions. That’s why when Sadat came to power in Egypt, in the ‘Sadat/Reagan’ era, the Muslim Brothers had a free hand to fight the left, the socialists, and the Nasserists, and this affected women negatively, we started seeing increase in veiling and circumcision, they went hand in hand”, she explains.
The physical symbolization of women using themas objects, to cover or undress, are two faces of the same coin for Nawal Al Saadawi. When we asked her about what she thought of Alia El Mahdy’s expression in response to the constitution or her post on her blog she said: “I am not very much with this nakedness, because we cannot fight patriarchy by taking off our clothes. It’s a way of dissidence, a way of rebelling. It’s not positive. Islamists talk about me even though I’m never naked, and they say about Aliaa the same. What really annoys me here is that this young woman read my work, and her friend Karim Amer read my work and the group that comes to me read my work, so my work does not lead to that. What patriarchy and capitalism do to women, either they veil them under religious slogans or they make them naked for the market. Veiling and nakedness are two faces of the same coin. Like Bin Laden and George Bush are two faces of the same coin”.
Nawal Al Saadawi is a strong believer in the idea that a woman’s body, mind and soul are interlinked. “Since I was a child I love sports, I wanted to be a dancer when I was seven, I loved to move and dance and I loved music and swimming. Writing is a self-expression, writing like dancing is a self expression. It’s not just the body, it’s the body and the mind. It’s very important, and I am a medical doctor, you cannot have a good mind except in a good body, you cannot have a strong mind except in a strong body. I am over 80 now, some people my age cannot walk but I walk, I exercise, I swim. I was playing tennis.” For us this is what keeps Nawal Al Saadawi creating books, art, and ideas that are very relevant to our generation, who is attached and dependent on the digital world, which reflects our lack of mobility in day-to-day activities.
The stream of creativity runs deep with Nawal Al Saadawi, not only did she teach it in universities all over the world, she is one of the main advocates for it. “The school is a police, they use the school as a police to the mind for girls and boys that’s why I am very much against education here and we need to change the education, even the medical education, because we were treated badly, I was not able to be creative in medicine. On the contrary they kill your creativity, so that’s why creativity means you go to the roots of the problem, so if I am giving you an interview about women now, we have to go to yesterday andto the past. You cannot understand today without understanding yesterday, and this is linked to the future. Creativity is the link between past present and future”, she tells us.
On the question of sexuality and the woman’s body, Al Saadawi was the first person to speak against circumcision of women. “The clitoris is a symbol of the power of women, because the name of the father, this is the problem of women. The name of the father had to be known, because you carry the name of your father, so you have to cut the clitoris and diminish the sexuality of women, so that fatherhood is known and dominant. We can make a revolution if we say that the name of the mother should have the same honor as the name of the father. If we insist on this, then we will never have illegitimate children”, she points out with distinction.
At a time when the question of women liberation is widely raised especially with politcial Islam in power, we asked Nawal Al Saadawi if there was one book that she wrote that is very important for people to read regarding this subject, she said with a wide smile, “I think one of the revolutionary books I wrote is ‘Women and Sex’ because I spoke about virginity, about double morality, and about circumcision. All this package, oppression of women is sexual but it is political”.
Al Saadawi’s philosophy in life is to never be afraid of anything, she was jailed, defamed as a lesbian, accused as an agent of the west, and even dragged to court to be divorced by the state, and despite all this she still believes in her ideas, in creativity, and in fighting for women liberation through everything she does. At 81, her mind and body are as strong as her soul and her will to fight for a better world through her writing, inspiring people all around the world, we might not agree with everything she preaches, but at least we respect her for her courage and will to continue in the struggle for humanity.