‘I had to study medicine to get rid of it. I have to know politics in order to challenge politics’.
There’s something quite ironic in Nawal El Saadawi openly challenging the same structures of professionalism she was educated by. And yet the psychiatrist and self-described feminist does not shy away from its truth. In fact she believes it necessary when challenging the class patriarchy that oppresses the majority—particularly women in society. Saadawi qualified as a doctor in 1955 and rose to become Egypt’s Director of Public Health. Her first work of non-fiction Women and Sex (1972), evoked theological and political authorities and pressured the Ministry of Health to dismiss her:
The main reason why I was fired from the Ministry of Health was that I was trying with some young doctors, at the time, to connect health with politics; to connect sexual oppression with political and economic oppression, fighting against male/female circumcision.
Saadawi also lost her post as Chief Editor of a health journal and her position of Assistant General Secretary in Egypt’s Medical Association:
I was fighting against the very limited conception of virginity; at that time in upper Egypt, when a girl was supposed to marry not virgin, her parents could kill her.; the father killed the daughter because on the wedding night there is no blood of virginity. Almost 30% of women were born with no ‘hyman’ they were non-virgins. And some of them were killed while they were innocent. I was obliged as a physician to write about sexual problems, illegal abortion; some village women died because they tried to abort themselves in very bad conditions.
Despite initial setbacks, Saadawi continued to fight for the political and intellectual freedom of women. From 1973 to 1976, she researched women and neurosis in the Ain Shams University’s Faculty of Medicine; and from 1979 to 1980, she was the United Nations advisor for the Women’s Programme in Africa and Middle East. For over 30 years, Saadawi has fought the system that supported the social practice of colonial ideas. Practices like female genital mutilation, which she experienced as a child growing up. Her conviction of labelling female genital ‘circumcision’ as part of the punishment of being born a woman, has prevented her from practising as a doctor, banned much of her writing in Egypt, sent her to prison under the Sadat regime, and even drove her into exile for 5 years.Still Nawal is convinced that legislation is not enough to tackle the gender inequality in Africa. When she wrote her book, 90% of girls in Egypt were cut. But the government made the practice illegal in 2008. Is that number now beginning to fall?
No, it has stayed the same. You can’t change such a deep-rooted habit by passing a law. You need education. The law was passed to satisfy the west. They wanted to cover that disgrace, not to eradicate the practice itself.
The Egyptian’s dissenting voice did not prevail from within. Rather her voice was rejected by the professionals. Dissidence, it seems cannot rely upon the establishment to advocate its causes for justice and gender equality. Rather Saadawi’s writing has heavily leaned towards the power of individual creativity and a strong belief in self-governance as a weapon to fight against exploitative ideas on the submissive role of women in society.
By Kelechi Iwumene
Nawal El Saadawi headlines Africa Writes, The UK’s biggest annual African literature festival taking place this summer at The British Library, 1-3 July 2016. Don’t miss out.
Nawal El Saadawi: a creative and dissident life, Infed, March 2000.
Upon Reflection: Walking Through Fire, UWTV, 1994.