When you hear the name Nawal El Saadawi, what springs to mind: Activist, writer, feminist, trouble-maker? Saadawi is a renowned Egyptian feminist writer who has written a large selection of books that focus on women in Islam. As a qualified physician and psychiatrist, her concerns over the patriarchal exploitation of women are explored through writing that challenges the practices of female genital mutilation. Her published work has got her into a lot of trouble with her country’s state government.
This summer, Saadawi will be headlining The Royal African Society’s annual African literature and book festival Africa Writes. From listening to her in interviews and lectures across the world, it is evident that Saadawi is an outspoken and very intelligent woman so we are really excited to have her on one of our panels. With three ex-husbands, imprisonment, the threat of death, and even exile, the writer and campaigner’s life has undoubtedly been very momentous so far. And for the most part, she believes that the injustice she has endured stems from an ingrained social stigma geared towards women. Saadawi has tirelessly fought gender discrimination on a number of fronts. Yet even in her old age, you can still feel the warmth of her fiery zeal for social justice both in her conduct and in her expressive speech. Age- as she fittingly says- make her more angry; feeds her passion.
A passion as bright and as striking as her silvery hair; a passion that first began to flourish and take shape in the small village of Kafr Tahla. Saadawi was born in 1931 to an Arab family that was at once traditional and progressive. The second eldest of nine siblings, Saadawi was circumcised at six years of age. She first began to understand how the world worked through her interactions with her siblings. Saadawi was an excellent student at school but her brother was lazy; she noticed that her efforts were rewarded with housework whilst her brother’s was rewarded with more leisure time. She couldn’t understand why this was so, and felt disadvantaged, even in her own home:
I was born with this feeling that there is something wrong in being a girl, in being poor. And I had to fight against that because I felt there was a lot of discrimination against me…
It’s interesting that Saadawi links her gender with her impoverished history. The former and the latter are inseparable when advocating for social equality for women. The nature of her family’s economic status helped her understand the need for education to liberate the people. Saadawi’s mother came from a higher social class than her father, but it was her fathers’ education and position as government official in the Ministry of Education that made him a suitable spouse. Mr Saadawi was exiled for campaigning against the British occupation of Egypt and Sudan during Egyptian Revolution 1919. Despite his hardships, Mr Saadawi built up his daughter’s confidence and taught her how to speak her mind. Similarly, motherhood had an incredible impact on the writer’s childhood. In an interview, Saadawi recounts:
My mother was crying on her wedding night because she loved school, she wanted to see the world, she wanted to invent something…
Ultimately, it was the unfulfilled dreams of Saadawi’s parents that helped set her on a course of female social liberation. Her father gave her the education she needed to adequately investigate the inequality of women as a scientist. Her mother, pressured into the social gender role of wife, gave the writer the motivation to live out her own dreams through her thwarted potential. One thing Saadawi continues to mention is just how fortunate she is to have been born into a family that inspired- in both good and bad ways- her ability to critically think and write for herself.
Be sure to BOOK YOUR TICKET to enjoy an audience with Nawal El Saadawi at The Royal African Society’s annual literature and book festival Africa Writes, this July! Saadawi’s books are also available to buy on Zed Books.
Keep a lookout on our blog for more fascinating content about this year’s African literature festival! Follow us on twitter and Facebook: @AfricaWritesUK and Africa Writes.
Written by Kelechi Iwumene.
Picture Credit: Nawal El Saadawi, Kazbah/ Walking Through Fire, Goodreads