Nawal El Saadawi, Doctor and Warrior Who Devoted Her Life to Ending FGM and MGM, Passed Away at Age 89

"Male circumcision is a problem too. I am against that as well, as a doctor." -Nawal El Saadawi
"Male circumcision is a problem too. I am against that as well, as a doctor." -Nawal El Saadawi 

Nawal El Saadawi, who has been a lifetime warrior to end FGM, passed away today at age 89. Eleven years ago she specifically addressed the topic of ending MGM as well in an interview (below), and repeatedly through her life's work, she expressed that she wholeheartedly believed that the genital cutting of all children was equally as horrific, dangerous, and in need of being stopped. Nawal was a champion for the genital autonomy and protection of all babies and children, regardless of sex or age. 

Related Reading:  

The CUT (FGM Brief Documentary)

FGM Bill of the United States

Homologous Organs: The Clitoris and the Penis

Intact: Healthy, Happy, Whole community learning group

Peaceful Parenting Community

Nawal was a champion for the genital autonomy and protection of all babies and children, regardless of sex or age.

News Excerpts

Egypt’s trailblazing writer Nawal El Saadawi died on Sunday at the age of 89, after a lifetime spent fighting for women’s rights and equality. The feminist author of more than 55 books first spotlighted the issue of female genital mutilation (FGM) with The Hidden Face of Eve in 1980. 

A trained doctor, El Saadawi also campaigned against women wearing the veil, polygamy and inequality in Islamic inheritance rights between men and women. She died in a Cairo hospital after a long battle against illness. 

Born in October 1931 in a village in the Nile delta, north of Cairo, El Saadawi studied medicine at Cairo University and New York’s Columbia University. The novelist, who wrote regularly for Egyptian newspapers, also worked as a psychiatrist and university lecturer. One of the leading feminists of her generation, El Saadawi’s 1972 book Women and Sex unleashed a backlash of criticism and condemnation from Egypt’s political and religious establishment, resulting in the activist losing her job at the health ministry. 

She was jailed for two months in 1981 by the late president Anwar Sadat during a wide political crackdown in which several intellectuals were detained. While imprisoned, El Saadawi wrote about her experience in Memoirs from the Women’s Prison, writing on a roll of toilet paper using an eyebrow pencil smuggled in by a fellow prisoner. The writer became a target of Islamist militants, with her name on death lists that included Egyptian Nobel literature laureate Naguib Mahfouz, who in 1994 was stabbed in an attempt on his life. “This refusal to criticise religion … This is not liberalism. This is censorship,” she said. 

Speaking to the Guardian in 2009, she said: “I regret none of my 47 books. If I started my life again I would write the same books. They are all very relevant even today: the issues of gender, class, colonialism (although of course that was British and is now American), female genital mutilation, male genital mutilation, capitalism, sexual rape and economic rape.” 

After undergoing female genital mutilation at the age of six, and seeing the damage it could do during her work as a village doctor, she campaigned against the practice. “Since I was a child that deep wound left in my body has never healed,” she wrote in an autobiography. 

El Saadawi also established and led the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association, as well as co-founding the Arab Association for Human Rights. El Saadawi moved to North Carolina’s Duke University in 1993 due to death threats. After returning to Egypt, she ran for president in 2005 but abandoned her campaign after accusing security forces of not allowing her to hold rallies. In 2007, she was condemned by Egypt’s highest Sunni Muslim authority, Al-Azhar, for her play God Resigns at the Summit Meeting – in which God is questioned by Jewish, Muslim and Christian prophets and finally quits. Her views resulted in her facing several legal challenges, including allegations of apostasy from Islamists. 

Despite challenges from authorities, the writer said in 2010 that she was motivated to keep going by the daily letters she received from people who say their lives have been changed by her writing. “A young man came to me in Cairo with his new bride. He said, I want to introduce my wife to you and thank you. Your books have made me a better man. Because of them I wanted to marry not a slave, but a free woman.” 

In 2005, El Saadawi was awarded the Inana International Prize in Belgium, a year after she received the North-South prize from the Council of Europe. In 2020, Time Magazine named her on their 100 Women of the Year list. Egypt’s culture minister, Inas Abdel-Dayem, mourned El Saadawi’s passing, saying her writings had given rise to a great intellectual movement. 

El Saadawi married three times, and is survived by a daughter and a son.

The Global Dispatches (2010 Interview):

What are you working on at the moment? 

I write an article every Tuesday for an independent daily in Cairo called Al Masry Al Youm, it is an opposition paper. I also wrote a novel while I was in Atlanta in Georgia, called “My life across the Ocean”. This is about my experiences in America and should be published in Arabic towards the end of this year. I am also starting a new novel which is working away in my brain! Last year I published a book entitled “Zeina” which is already being widely translated. 

I have heard that your grandmother had a strong influence on your life, is this true? 

It is true. My grandmother was a strong influence on my life, she was the mother of my father, a peasant woman with a strong personality. She had very strong ideas about life, religion, God and colonialism. She used to tell me that God is justice, he is not a text or a book. My grandmother was illiterate but she knew that God was justice. She took on everyone, the Mayor, King Farouk. She was a great influence on me. She had a very strong character. 

You have recently been living in the United States 

In 1993, I went to Duke University to teach. This was because my life was threatened and my house in Cairo had been surrounded by security guards. I had been put on a death list and the Muslim fundamentalists in Egypt (and elsewhere) had vowed to kill me. So I became a professor at Duke University. When I went to the South of the United States I did not realize that this was the Bible Belt, the “fundamentalist” area of America. The Southern fundamentalists are even more fanatical than the Muslim fundamentalists! They are very right wing, pro-Israel, they adore the Republicans, and they are very reactionary. They use Christianity for political ends too. I wrote the play “God resigns at the Summit Meeting” while I was teaching at Duke University in the USA. I wrote it in Arabic but nobody wanted to publish it, and then my publisher in Cairo took it because he was publishing my collected works for an international book fair so he published everything including “God Resigns” but he did not know what he was publishing because he was illiterate. My publisher burnt the manuscript because he received a visit from the police who told him to destroy it. They also threatened to destroy his publishing house if he went ahead with publication. My publisher died soon afterwards as he lost a lot of money in this affair and it destroyed him. It was very sad. 

The authorities have tried to isolate and censor you before have they not? 

Oh yes! I wrote my book “Women and Sex” in the 50s but I could not find anyone to publish the book until the 60s, but it was banned in Egypt so I had to publish it in Lebanon in 1970. As a result of publishing this book and some other articles, I lost my job at the Ministry of Health. At the time I had also set up a magazine called “Health” which I edited and the Minister of Health closed this magazine as I was dealing with issues like female circumcision, women’s problems and the issue of virginity. 

Do you see yourself as a doctor, an author, or a feminist, or all of the above? 

The unifying force in all my work is a mixture of feminism and a strong sense of social justice – a mixture of many things. I am a doctor but I do not separate medicine from politics and economics, they are all connected. I do not separate poverty from sickness, or mental illnesses from physical illnesses. Poverty, politics and neo-colonialism cannot be separated either. Patriarchal systems, multinationals and the oppression of women are all inter-connected too. I teach that they are all connected. I teach creativity and dissidence. Dissidence itself is a creative act. When a law is unjust you have to break it. For this reason I see feminism as humanism. 

Is Female Genital Mutilation still an issue in Egypt? 

It certainly is! Female genital mutilation is still a serious problem in Egypt, despite the fact that a law was passed to ban this practice, the number of circumcisions has not decreased. The rate of circumcisions amongst young girls is 97%. The government is not serious about banning this practice, nor is the media, they don’t care about the health of young women or girls. It is a corrupt government – they don’t care. They only passed the law to avoid a scandal after a film was shown of a young girl being circumcised and bleeding to death. They are not serious about it. I am still censored on Egyptian television when I speak about this issue in Egypt. Male circumcision is a problem too, I am against that as well, as a doctor. There has been no progress on this front. 

How do you explain the decline in interest in feminism worldwide? 

There are differences between feminism in Muslim countries and feminism in Western countries. Western feminists are more concerned with class, race and gender oppression but they have a different outlook for one important reason: they were never colonized. They do not link feminism to colonialism. There has been a backlash against feminism over recent years as a result of the rise of right-wing politics. There is a direct connection. The defeat of socialism is also responsible but so is the connection between right-wing groups and religious fundamentalists. 

Certain countries in Europe are trying to legislate against the burqa and the use of the veil in public places. How do you feel about that? 

I agree the veil should be banned. And there should be no religious separation in schools. There should be no veils and no nakedness either. The veiling and the nakedness of women are two sides of the same coin. It is the same oppression at work. When I see naked bodies of women being used for advertisements and to make profit I am horrified. They try and sell make-up to women who are poor. I disagree with this. Men are always fully clothed and go unveiled, Why?! 

There have been some recent political developments in Egypt with the extension of the state of emergency for another two years. 

This is something I am against, clearly, as I am part of the opposition. We need democracy, we do not need emergency laws – we are not living in a state of emergency. The government uses these laws to protect itself. There is a great deal of corruption in the government so they need these laws to protect themselves. These laws are dangerous and anti-democratic. 

How do the younger generation in Egypt react to your work? 

It depends on who they are. If a woman is veiled she will see me differently but I judge my popularity through my books. I sell a lot of books throughout the Middle East and the Muslim world. I have had 47 books republished and I have a lot of readers, so that is why I feel secure. The government and the fundamentalists want to isolate me and neo-colonial powers in the USA are against me, but the people who support me are the huge number of my readers throughout the world. I have been translated into 30 languages. My readers protect me!

Nawal El Saadawi believed male circumcision was equally as wrong as female circumcision, and that coming together in solidarity for the genital autonomy of ALL would benefit both women and men across the board.
Nawal El Saadawi believed male circumcision was equally as wrong as female circumcision, and that coming together in solidarity for the genital autonomy of ALL would benefit both women and men across the board.

Archived Biography of Nawal El Saadawi

Nawal El Saadawi is a world renowned writer. She is a novelist, a psychiatrist, and author of more than forty books of fiction and non fiction. Her novels and her books on the situation of women have had a deep effect on successive generations of young women and men over the last five decades. 

As a result of her literary and scientific writings she has had to face numerous difficulties and even dangers in her life. In 1972, she lost her job in the Egyptian Ministry of Health because of her book “Women and Sex” published in Arabic in Cairo (1969) and banned by the political and religious authorities, because in some chapters of the book in which she wrote against Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and linked sexual problems to political and economic oppression. The magazine Health, which she founded and had edited for more than three years, was closed down in 1973. In September 1981 President Sadat put her in prison. She was released at the end of November 1981, two months after his assassination. She wrote her book “Memoirs” from the Women’s Prison on a roll of toilet paper and an eyebrow pencil smuggled to her cell by an imprisoned young woman in the prostitutes ward. From 1988 to 1993 her name figured on death lists issued by fanatical religious political organizations. 

On 15 June, 1991, the government issued a decree which closed down the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association over which she presides and handed over its funds to the association called Women in Islam. Six months before this decree the government closed down the magazine Noon, published by the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association. She was editor-in-chief of the magazine. 

During the summer of 2001, three of her books were banned at Cairo International Book Fair. She was accused of apostasy in 2002 by a fundamentalist lawyer who raised a court case against her to be forcibly divorced from her husband, Dr. Sherif Hetata. She won the case due to Egyptian, Arab and international solidarity. On 28 January, 2007, Nawal El Saadawi and her daughter Mona Helmy, a poet and writer, were accused of apostasy and interrogated by the General Prosecutor in Cairo because of their writings to honor the name of the mother. 

They won the case in 2008. Their efforts led to a new law of the child in Egypt in 2008, giving children born outside marriage the right to carry the name of the mother. Also FGM is banned in Egypt by this law in 2008. Nawal El Saadawi was writing and fighting against FGM for more than fifty years. Her play “God Resigns At the Summit Meeting” was banned in Egypt during November 2006 and she faced a new trial in Cairo court raised against her by Al Azhar in February 2007, accusing her of apostasy and heresy because of her new play. She won the case on 13 May 2008. 

Nawal El Saadawi had been awarded several national and international literary prizes, lectured in many universities, and participated in many international and national conferences.

All babies are born perfect. Say NO to circumcision

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