Nawal El Saadawi was a fiery feminist who dared to write in a risky manner


According to Egyptian media accounts, Nawal El Saadawi, who died at 89, wrote that;

“I am speaking the truth. And the truth is savage and dangerous.”

After a statement was directed to her;

“They said, ‘You are a savage and dangerous woman.”

In her novels, essays, autobiographies, and eagerly attended talks, the pioneering Egyptian doctor, feminist, and writer spent decades sharing her own story and views.

Her unflinching candor and unwavering commitment to improving women’s political and sexual rights inspired generations.

She was, however, subjected to outrage, death threats, and imprisonment for daring to speak dangerously.

“She was born with a fighting spirit,” Omnia Amin, her friend, and the translator, said in 2020.

“People like her are rare.”

El Saadawi, the second of nine children born in a village outside Cairo in 1931, wrote her first novel when she was 13 years old. Her father was a government official with limited resources, whereas her mother came from a wealthy family.

Her family tried to force her to marry when she was ten years old, but her mother stood by her when she refused.

El Saadawi’s parents encouraged her education, but she realized that daughters were less valued than sons at a young age. She would later describe how she stomped her foot in rage when her grandmother told her, “a boy is worth at least 15 girls… Girls are a blight.”

“She saw something wrong and spoke up,” Dr. Amin says.

“Nawal is unable to turn around.”

Nawal El Saadawi was subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM), one of the childhood experiences he documented with unsettling clarity.

She described the agonizing procedure on the bathroom floor in her book, The Hidden Face of Eve, while her mother stood nearby.

Throughout her life, she campaigned against FGM, claiming that it was a tool used to oppress women. Although FGM was outlawed in Egypt in 2008, El Saadawi condemned its continued practice.

El Saadawi graduated from Cairo University with a degree in medicine in 1955 and worked as a doctor, eventually specializing in psychiatry.

She went on to become the Egyptian government’s director of public health but was fired in 1972 after publishing her non-fiction book, Women and Sex, in which she railed against FGM and sexual oppression of women.


Health, a magazine she founded a few years before, was closed down in 1973.

She continued to speak out and write despite this. A Woman at Point Zero, a novel based on a woman’s real-life account on death row she met, was published in 1975.

The Hidden Face of Eve, published in 1977, detailed her experiences as a village doctor witnessing sexual abuse, “honor killings,” and prostitution. It sparked outrage, with critics accusing her of perpetuating stereotypes about Arab women.

Then, in September 1981, El Saadawi was arrested as part of President Anwar Sadat’s round-up of dissidents and imprisoned for three months. There, she scribbled her memoirs on toilet paper with an eyebrow pencil smuggled to her by a sex worker in prison.

“She did things that most people wouldn’t dare to do, but it was normal for her,” Dr. Amin says.

“She wasn’t thinking about breaking the rules or regulations; she was thinking about telling the truth.”

El Saadawi was released after President Sadat was assassinated. Her work, however, was censored, and her books were banned.

In the years that followed, she received death threats from religious fundamentalists, was prosecuted, and eventually fled to the United States.

There, she continued to criticize religion, colonialism, and Western hypocrisy. She slammed the Muslim veil, as well as make-up and revealing clothing, upsetting even fellow feminists.

When asked in 2018 if she would tone down her criticism, El Saadawi responded, “No. “I speak loudly because I am angry,” I should be more outspoken and aggressive because the world is becoming more aggressive, and we need people to speak out against injustices.

El Saadawi’s books have been translated into more than 40 languages, and she has sparked outrage around the world.

“I know people don’t always agree with her politics, but what inspires me most is her writing, what she has accomplished, and what that can do for women,” says British author and publisher Kadija Sesay, who represented her in London.

“Her work will have an impact on you, especially if you are an African woman or a woman of color.”

She was bestowed with numerous honorary degrees from universities all over the world. Time magazine named her one of the 100 Women of the Year in 2020 and dedicated a front cover to her.

One thing, however, would remain out of reach.

“Her only dream or hope was to be recognized by Egypt,” Dr. Amin says.

“She claimed to have received honors all over the world, but none from her own country.”

Nawal El Saadawi returned to Egypt in 1996 and caused quite a stir.

She ran for president in 2004 and was present in Cairo’s Tahrir Square during the 2011 uprising against President Hosni Mubarak.

She spent the last few years of her life in Cairo, close to her son and daughter. As Egyptian newspapers reported her death, the message “Nawal Al-Saadawi…….. goodbye” appeared on her Facebook page.

“She’s been through a lot,” Dr. Amin said.

“She has had an impact on generations.”

“The young try to find role models. She takes a step forward.”

Kadija Sesay remembers the author for her willingness to listen to other women’s stories and speak with them about their difficult experiences.

“I don’t know many people who are that giving, especially when they are that well-known,” she says.

“But she didn’t want to be anyone’s hero; she’d tell them, ‘Be your own hero.”



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