Nawal El Saadawi: Religion, Feminism and Egyptian Politics

October 27, 2015

By Ayman Al-Juzi

On Monday 26 October, renowned Egyptian writer, feminist and activist Nawal El Saadawi joined journalist Wendell Steavenson and a packed audience at the Frontline Club for a discussion that spanned the topics of linguistic philosophy, feminism and globalisation – all of which were explored in the context of El Saadawi‘s own life experiences and recent developments in Egyptian politics.

The discussion began with a focus on the United States’ continued military aid to Egypt. This was something El Saadawi felt passionately against, not just in Egypt’s case but on a global level. “Fair trade, not aid,” she said.

“The 2011 revolution was hijacked by the United States working with Egyptian politicians. Hilary Clinton came to Tahrir Square as soon as the revolution began. Why?”

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The conversation then moved onto the subject of globalisation, and how colonising powers have always played the game of “divide and rule.”

El Saadawi expanded: “When Sadat and Reagan came, they brought the Muslim Brothers. Why? They wanted to fragment the country by religion. They wanted to fragment the country by class. They wanted to fragment the army. What is the difference between Syria and Egypt now? Syria is completely fragmented, because the army is fragmented. And this is why we are unified in comparison. This is why the Americans are against Sisi.”

When Steavenson questioned her about the way the Egyptian government has been punishing members of the Muslim Brotherhood with imprisonment and death sentencing, El Saadawi said: “I am against the death penalty. I am against putting anybody in prison. I am against all that. But I am also against a religious state. Whether Islamic, Jewish, or Christian. We cannot have true equality in any religious state, because all religions oppress women.”

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She continued by explaining the extent to which gender inequality has been rooted in religion: “In the three major monotheistic religions, Adam was set free as an innocent, while Eve was a sinner because she ate from the tree of knowledge. Women are not expected to be equal. Why do you think I’ve had three husbands? Because they hated my intelligence. They wanted a stupid woman.”

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Even though El Saadawi‘s main work and research focus revolves around injustice, she revealed her enduring optimism in the face of adversity. “I am always optimistic. I learned very much about this in the experience of prison. The women I was with were very pessimistic, because Sadat told us he will kill us. So every day they woke up crying, and I started dancing. I told them we will live and be free; just to have that idea gave me hope. When you have hope, you inspire people with hope, and hope is power. In the worst situations, I am hopeful.”

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Steavenson asked about the moment when her sense of justice came into being, and why she initially became motivated to challenge injustice.

El Saadawi explained that when she was 7 and 8 years old, she felt something was not right in the way that she was treated in comparison with her brother. Her older brother was lazy and spoilt, whereas she was hardworking and neglected.

“During Eid, I received half the money that my brother received in gifts. I asked my parents why. They said because God said so. They thought they would shut me up by saying ‘God’. So my first letter ever when I was 8 years old was to God, but I still haven’t got an answer!”