Egyptian feminist Nawal El Saadawi died March 21 at age 89. Neither imprisonment nor job loss, nor banning her writings, not even death threats could stop her fight for the rights of Egyptian women. She exposed both the religious and sectarian foundation of patriarchy. Her courage and uncompromising defense of women and the poor inspired women worldwide.
She wrote more than 50 books. Her seminal book, The Hidden Face of Eve: Women in the Arab World, published in 1977, is a historical condemnation of patriarchal social, cultural and religious practices and beliefs that perpetuate the oppression of women in the Arab world. The book also recognizes Egyptian women’s fight against colonialism, including the woman workers and rural poor who fought the British occupation in the 1919 uprising.
Most compelling is the book’s ringing outcry against Female Genital Mutilation, the practice of cutting, or “circumcising” the clitoris of girls. The book describes the widespread health consequences of this procedure, including trauma, constant pain and death, that she saw as a village doctor.
For six decades the fight to ban FGM centered much of her work.
El Saadawi described herself as a truth teller whose primary focus was changing conditions in Egypt. She did not see the Egyptian government as the only, or even the main problem; she saw “the patriarchy, capitalism, imperialism and poverty” as the oppressors of women in Egypt and elsewhere.
Western establishment media accounts of her life tend to focus only on her domestic criticism. By taking this angle, the corporate press plays into the view propagated by imperialist government think tanks that Egyptian culture is inferior when compared to other more “enlightened” cultures, especially those in the West. Left out is the role of the Western powers in subjugating Egyptian women.
El Saadawi was a lifelong anti-imperialist, always recognizing the huge burden that colonialism and neocolonialism placed on Egyptian women. While concentrating on Egypt, she was also an internationalist, advocating for a unified worldwide struggle against all forces of reaction, and doing her best to further it.
Women and the legacy of colonialism
Born in 1931 while her country was occupied by British troops, El Saadawi’s life spanned the modern history of Egypt. She attended medical school, graduating in 1955, under Gamal Abdul Nasser, leader of the Free Officer’s Movement that kicked out the British. Nasser raised living standards and expanded opportunities for women, educating them often at state expense.
She worked for years as a village doctor, where she saw the needless suffering and death caused by the absence of a public health infrastructure and sanitation in the Egyptian countryside that was a legacy of colonialism.
She saw Nassar’s efforts to lift Egypt out of poverty abandoned when Anwar El Sadat became head of state, re-aligning Egypt from the USSR to the U.S. and Israel, opening Egypt to penetration by U.S. corporations and banks. The Sadat and succeeding regimes facilitated the steady impoverishment of an already poor Egyptian working class.
El Saadawi often said that the relationship with the U.S. impoverished Egypt and that U.S. support for Israel was terrorism.
$50 billion in weapons to suppress the people
Since 1978 the U.S. gave this string of Egyptian client rulers an astronomical $50 billion in weapons to suppress any dissent at home and in the region, and to perpetuate and even strengthen the most reactionary social, political and religious institutions and mores from previous eras to keep the population divided.
It was in this political context that El Saadawi fought for women’s rights, spoke up for Egypt’s working class and was repressed by the establishment. This aspect of her struggles is not mentioned in the Western press. El Saadawi’s advocacy was opposed by Washington and its clients; they feared that lessening the burdens on the most oppressed would cause them to rise up and overthrow the rule of the rich.
In 1972 she published Woman and Sex which confronted misogyny and focused on FGM. It was the U.S.-dominated regime of Sadat that responded by firing her from her job as Director of Public Health, and banning her writings.
In 1981 the Sadat regime arrested and imprisoned her for three months, calling her advocacy “crimes against the state.” While in prison she formed the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association, meant to unite women in the Arab world and beyond. This organization was later banned by Hosni Mubarak, perhaps the most corrupt U.S. client of them all.
Educating Western feminists
El Saadawi frequently visited New York City, my hometown, as her sister lived here. She sometimes met with small groups of women for an exchange of views, and to sound us out on themes she was currently exploring. I was at some of these meetings. I also heard her speak publicly in New York over the years.
She made it clear that she did not see restrictions placed on women in Egypt as a world exception. For example, while there is no doubt that honor killings in Egypt must be abolished, is there no femicide here? In the U.S., over half the murders of women are committed by romantic partners.
Her message to women here was that patriarchal practices and values differ in detail and degree, but they exist from Cairo to California. Above all, she sought solidarity with Egyptian and Arab women. And for good reason.
Women impoverished under the name of women’s rights
In 1991, amid a media propaganda campaign of saving the people of Kuwait from the Iraqi “tyrant” Saddam Hussein, the U.S. invaded Iraq. When the smoke cleared, 200,000 Iraqis lay dead.
In response an International Commission of Inquiry to Investigate U.S. War Crimes Against Iraq was organized by this reporter and many others. El Saadawi was a convener of the Egyptian Commission of Inquiry, and a key speaker at the New York City Commission hearings May 11, 1991.
“This was a colonial war waged by the richer countries,” she said. “The war was not waged to create a new world order but to preserve the old colonial order. We women are made poorer by the war. This is the feminization of poverty … under the name of development, democracy, human rights and women’s rights.
“…So this is how we live, and we expect to have more and more problems. But our hope is that with each crisis, something happens that will bring the poor and the women out.”
What followed was the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, a second war against Iraq and the destruction of Libya as a country. But El Saadawi’s hope was realized in 2011, when a crisis brought the poor and the women out.
When the poor and the women came out
The crisis was caused by the Mubarak government which sold off Egypt’s private sector and gave the wealth to cronies. The government stole the pensions of 7 million retirees.
Domestic production was cut back and Egyptians were expected to buy expensive imports, which flooded the markets. Government price subsidies were lifted on bread, the staple of the working class, and many went hungry.
Egypt had had enough. From all walks of life they poured into Cairo’s giant traffic circle at Tahrir Square demanding the downfall of the Mubarak regime. A siege by the military and attacks by police and government-armed thugs could not intimidate the crowd. The numbers in the Square only grew, sometimes reaching the millions, until Mubarak was forced to resign. This 18-day outpouring, which Egyptians called the January 25 Revolution, resonated around the world.
The U.S. corporate media tried to cover it as mainly a student revolt. But this is not what Egyptians said. This reporter was in Cairo shortly after Mubarak was ousted, interviewing student and women participants, labor organizers, socialists, shopkeepers on the Square, people who brought food to the encampment, people on the street, and others.
To a person, they said that the strength and staying power of the protests lay in the participation of the workers. Cairo’s toilers did not come out right away, but when they came out, they came out in force, and provided a backbone of strength. Participants expressed a profound gratitude to these workers.
Breaking tradition’s chains at Tahrir Square
And what of the women?
Childcare was non-existent. Only 25% of women worked outside the home. Some 42% couldn’t read or write, and there was usually a great deal of sexual harassment of women alone in the streets of Cairo. All this might well mitigate against women going out during the 18 days of struggle in Tahrir Square. But women did not stay home.
At the height, about a quarter of the million Egyptians who came to Tahrir Square daily were women. There were all kinds of women there, young, old and middle aged, from the heavily veiled to young women in jeans smoking cigarettes. They came and they stayed.
They chanted, fought the police with rocks, faced snipers and tear gas alongside their brothers, joined in the many political discussions, acted as curriers, secured the exits during the police attacks on the Jan.18 day of rage, and tended the wounded. They slept on the streets alongside the men, securing the Square, and turned on its head the concept of traditional female behavior. In short, they broke tradition’s chains. They made Egypt’s movement their own.
Mona Seif, age 26, and a member of the April 6 movement, said “I have never felt as at peace and as safe as I did during those days in Tahrir…It felt like it has become a different society—there was one Egypt inside Tahrir and another Egypt outside.”
‘These millions speak for me and I for them’
Though 80 years old, El Saadawi could not stay away. She was seen at the encampment day after day, demonstrating with the workers and women she had so long advocated for and who were now speaking out in their own voice. An ecstatic El Saadawi told one TV crew that she felt “born again” being in the Square. “These millions speak for me and I speak for them.” Regarding the women, she said “Some of them are veiled, some with the niqab [full body and face veil-J.C.]. They came out! Some of them never leave the house and they came out!”
Like Seif, she also saw a new society in the square. She said later, “When we were living in Tahrir Square we were millions, and women and men and children were on defense day and night so in fact all the differences between Egyptians evaporated because of the revolution. Christians and Muslims were together, men and women were together. There was equality between all. The revolution washed away all the discriminations foisted on us by the regime—by the patriarchal, capitalist, racist military regime.”
The authentic culture of Egypt
At the liberated space of Tahrir Square the authentic culture of Egypt unfolded–a culture formed by its workers and its women, a culture of equality, dignity, respect and pride. People in the Square looked around at what they had created and said to each other, “Raise your head, you are Egyptian!”
What became of this liberated space? This was a spontaneous revolution. It had no seasoned and centralized leadership. “”Colonial, capitalist, imperialist, racist” global powers, led by the United States, collaborated with the Egyptian government to end the 2011 Egyptian revolution, said El Saadawi later.
While the crowds are gone from the Square and repression again the order of the day, the January 25 Revolution lives on in people’s hearts and minds because it showed what is possible when the crushing weights of class, imperialist and patriarchal oppression are lifted. And it shows what will come in the future. Nawal El Saadawi always knew that this was the future. That’s why she spent her life fighting for it.