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Taking a pen as her sword and challenging the patriarchy: Nawal El Saadawi's phenomenal legacy Open in fullscreen

Natali Dare

Taking a pen as her sword and challenging the patriarchy: Nawal El Saadawi's phenomenal legacy

Dr Nawal visits the Occupy London camp at St Paul's on her 80th birthday [Getty]

Date of publication: 6 April, 2021

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Physician, psychiatrist and a prolific novelist, Dr Nawal El Saadawi was an influential voice in the fight for women's rights.
In her 89 years, Dr Nawal El Saadawi was relentless in her fight against the persecution of women. She passed away on March 21, but her legacy as an advocate and writer lives on.

Her multifaceted approach to feminism, pulling from her experience as a writer, physician and psychiatrist ensured her advocacy reverberated transnationally, overwhelming a global audience and stirring a Revolution in us all. 

Born in Kafr Tahla, a village outside Cairo, El Saadawi battled the feeling of inferiority imposed on her from a young age. Notions including "a boy is worth fifteen girls at least", as said by her grandmother, or almost being coerced into marriage at 11, were among many that fed into her rage.

Taking the pen as her sword, one by one, she challenged narratives that relegated women to the periphery. At thirteen, she wrote her first novel, Diary of a Child Called Souad, her first written resistance. In her lifetime she would complete over 55 books. 

After graduating with a degree in Medicine from Cairo University in 1955, she worked as a doctor for two years, witnessing the crossover between women and girls' medical cases and the institutions condoning violence against their bodies. 

Nawal El Saadawi receives the Doctor Honoris
Causa decoration from the French-speaking
and Flemish Brussels Free University on
28 November 2007 in Brussels [Getty]

Switching between scalpel and pen, Memoirs of a Doctor was born in 1958, offering critical glimpses into the plight of a woman in a male-dominated field, under constant surveillance by "hundreds of [male] eyes".

She treated gender performativity with discernment and nuance: "I wept over my femininity even before I knew what it was."

Like the protagonist, El Saadawi observed that medicine could not be the antidote for a more insidious sickness, one where "the whole of society had participated in the act" of misogyny.

Irrespective of her instrument, a commitment to the truth and justice drove El Saadawi's protestation against a world that equates womanhood with inferiority. 

In 1972, she penned Women and Sex, openly criticising female genital mutilation (FGM), which she was victim to at the early age of six.

El Saadawi's blatant condemnation of the cruel practice in both her books and broader activism got her dismissed from positions as Assistant General Secretary in the Medical Association, and Director of Public Health at the Ministry of Health in Egypt. Powerful officials were terrified of a woman that used her voice; they saw that it shattered injustice. 

Woman at Point Zero, arguably her most famous novel and the one that catalysed my own feminist awakening, was published in 1975.

Based on a conversation with an inmate on death row in Qanatir Prison, it provides a powerful account of a woman at the mercy of patriarchal economies and institutions. Like the protagonist, Firdaus, El Saadawi saw she would not find freedom, independence and respect if she adhered to the values instilled by misogynistic societies.

Powerful officials were terrified of a woman that used her voice; they saw that it shattered injustice

El Saadawi painstakingly documents the feeling of being held captive under a cis man's gaze. Firdaus' sex work subverts this power dynamic, freeing her from the "unflinching" eyes that once interrogated her every move. Firdaus' account destigmatises sex work, relishing the freedom it brings in the face of personal and institutional perpetrators. By reclaiming her power and sexuality, she can clock in and out of her role as a female spectacle.  

Rashmi Varma, Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literary Studies at the University of Warwick, whose research focuses on feminism in a global context, discusses the far-reaching impact of El Saadawi's feminist narrative.

It was immense because El Saadawi insisted that "feminist consciousness came out of women's experience of oppression everywhere in the world and was not something that emerged in the West. This went against a key orthodoxy within mainstream Western feminism," she explains. 

Feminist discussions of oppression always operated on a stratified basis. Inequalities experienced by the characters in her books and by El Saadawi herself, were intersectional. They fell on a spectrum, drawing from a tapestry of cultural, historical, and social layers. 

El Saadawi exposed misogyny against a broader backdrop of oppression. "She made crucial links between capitalism and patriarchy and saw the two systems as working together to oppress women. She always saw herself as a socialist feminist, working to end both capitalism and patriarchy," Varma adds. 

She made crucial links between capitalism and patriarchy and saw the two systems as working together to oppress women. She always saw herself as a socialist feminist, working to end both capitalism and patriarchy

In The Hidden Face of Eve, 1977, El Saadawi's narrative reads with zeal and urgency. It provides a haunting account of the experience of FGM and denounces interpretations of religion by officials as a way to justify the subjugation of women. 

Varma continues, El Saadawi "spoke out unequivocally against religious fundamentalism, and saw it as a pernicious ideology opposed to women's liberation."

Across her activism, El Saadawi equally criticised the politicisation of Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism alongside Islam, emphasising that women's oppression was not specific to Egypt. 

In 1979 El Saadawi excelled in her role as adviser of the UN programme for women in Africa and the Economic Commission for West Africa.

This alongside her medical and literary advocacy unfortunately cost her freedom. Suffering a fate similar to Firdaus, she was imprisoned at Qanatir Prison for her explicit criticism of FGM and Anward Sadat's regime.

Nawal receives her Doctor Honoris Causa from the National Autonomus University of Mexico (UNAM in Spanish), Jose Narro (L), at the Palacio de Mineria, in Mexico City, on September 24, 2010 [Getty]
El Saadawi's life and literature is a triumph of woman's emancipation and testament to the power of rage and female resilience

Lacking a pen and paper would not deter her. Even in prison, she had to write; it was a compulsion. She improvised by smuggling eyebrow liner and toilet paper, continuing to wage a war against patriarchal violence. The result was Memoirs from the Women's Prison, 1983. 

El Saadawi's life and literature is a triumph of woman's emancipation and testament to the power of rage and female resilience.

She encourages us to vocalise our suffering and acknowledge the indivisibility of freedom. Her defiant contribution to women's liberation was fundamental to building the intersectional infrastructure of feminist discourses we see today. May she rest in power.

Natali Dare is a Colombian-British multi-media journalist, writer and documentary filmmaker committed to exploring the power of narrative and how stories hold influence over our lives. She grew up in Hong Kong and the Philippines and is currently in London finishing a masters in International Journalism.

Follow her on Twitter: @natalidare

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