On 21 March, Egypt, the Arab world, Africa — the entire colonised and oppressed world — in fact, lost one of the great beacons of progressive thinking, critical speech, and unabashedly revolutionary writing. Dr Nawal El Saadawi, an Egyptian woman, writer, psychiatrist, feminist, radical socialist and — her preferred adjective, “dissident” — had succumbed to a lengthy illness at age 89.
El Saadawi had been out of the public eye for some time, owing to her deteriorating health, but even in her last interview at the beginning of 2020, looking frail and sickly, she held her head high — her signature white hair wild as ever — and for one last time in public, roared the cries for freedom, democracy, secularism and justice.
Swathed in a soft blue shirt, and with just a tinge of rose lipstick, the then 88-year-old continued to personify the ideals for which she had spent her entire life fighting, notwithstanding the brutal harassment, detainment, exile and death threats that she continuously faced. And she had many opponents: the Egyptian state, the Islamists, Western conservatives, patriarchal men and women, religious and political zealots of all kinds.
With the tenacity only a dissident can display, she lived with all her might, as a force for progressive change, until her death.
It is never easy saying goodbye to a loved one, and, like me, I am certain that all Egyptians with a love for justice and free thought, and, indeed, all people who gained so much from El Saadawi’s writings, lectures and interviews, now breathe heavily in loss.
Even to many who never met her in person, El Saadawi was a revered mentor, an engaged teacher and a beloved intimate, who advised and counselled on matters of the mind and heart; on personal questions of the human condition; on the turbulence of soul-searching in a despondent world.
As a first-year law student, I recall a Friday-afternoon lecture in the heat of the early summer, to which I was barely paying attention, instead internalising the words El Saadawi had delivered in a lecture to the Council of Europe, which I had stumbled upon on YouTube the night before.
In the lecture, she professed her beliefs that justice is unattainable without the equal distribution of resources, and the dedication to entrenching basic rights of dignity and of education among all peoples. She never refrained from emphasising how, as much as the world is segregated by material realities, it is integrated in matters of injustice.
El Saadawi claimed boldly that no democracy exists in the world, for, in her opinion, democracy cannot exist in a capitalist, sexist, patriarchal, religious system and society. For her, only the alleviation of poverty, of sexism and of injustice of all kinds could slowly lead to an ongoing revolution that would ultimately result in true liberation.
She called herself an “historical, socialist feminist” because she was guided by the traditions of historical movements against oppression. She was inspired by radical socialism and the belief in material equality and justice among peoples, and, perhaps most notably, was a vehement opponent of patriarchy and sexism.
El Saadawi disdained identity politics, calling Hillary Clinton and Margaret Thatcher “patriarchal women”, and explained how female genital mutilation, and other violent sexist expressions were often perpetuated by the internalised patriarchy of women, and not necessarily always by men.
She equally disdained religious fanatics of all persuasions, calling out the Christian evangelists in the US for their perpetuation of sexism, classism and racism; and equating it to the obscurantism and zealotry growing among political Islamists and other Muslim communities. She was constantly linking issues, exposing the common cause between oppressors the world over.
A trained medical doctor, El Saadawi began linking the oppression of the poor peasants and village women to the poverty that malnourished them and the overwork and material exploitation that exhausted their bodies, as far back as the 1950s. She also made a further connection to the militarised and dictatorial state that forces impoverished people to bow their heads in hopelessness and listlessness, encouraging violence in the name of public morality.
Before most people had become acquainted with the politics of intersectionality, and while most of the world’s intellectuals fell into the binary of Cold War discourse, El Saadawi unashamedly exposed the hypocrisies of the two camps, which both fell short of their ostensible commitment to true liberation, peace and equality.
In her memoirs, A Daughter of Isis, El Saadawi writes: “I was not attracted by the medical profession. It seemed unable to do much in face of the sufferings imposed on people. I realised how sickness and poverty are linked to politics, to money and power, that medical practice was removed from our everyday life.
“Writing became a weapon with which to fight the system, which draws its authority from the autocratic power exercised by the ruler of the state, and that of the father or the husband in the family. The written word for me became an act of rebellion against injustice exercised in the name of religion, or morals, or love.”
To that first-year law student, El Saadawi was the greatest jurist on the science and politics of justice I could ever have hoped to encounter. To a young writer, she was an inspiration.
I first became acquainted with her while living in Cairo in 2017. Then only 18 years old, I was slowly and independently nourishing the radical tradition in which I had been brought up. I was prompted to read her books after a vivid, stimulating conversation with a feminist friend about how El Saadawi’s philosophies had influenced her and many other young women to remove their hijab during the 25 January 2011 revolution.
I rushed out of the café where we had been sitting, to the second-hand booksellers’ market outside the walls of the Azbakeya garden in downtown Cairo. In this integrated connection of alleyways of piles and shelves of musty books — some dating to as far back as the late 19th century — I was certain I would find some cheap copies of her works. But an old man among the booksellers of Azbakeya informed me that since the revolution, the second-hand editions of her books had almost all been sold to young people like myself, and may have better luck at the American University in Cairo (AUC) bookshop.
I walked down to the AUC bookshop, near the revolutionary and historic Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo, which had been the scene of radical mass protests for the democratisation of the Egyptian state that rocked the country from 2011 until General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s acquisition of power in 2014.
It was at this site that dissidents and revolutionaries of all ages, factions, genders, sexualities and religions came together to call for the overthrow of then president Hosni Mubarak who had brutally enforced his power over the country for three decades. El Saadawi, then about 80 years old, joined the masses of people calling for the downfall of the regime, in a revolution that she professed she had been longing for her entire life.
There she became a radical motherly figure to younger revolutionaries, even camping out with them in the ad hoc tents that had been erected in the centre of the square. I pondered all this on that walk to the AUC bookstore, and felt inspired and hopeful that this exceptional woman was still being widely read by the youth.
At the bookstore I was elated to find copies of her brilliant memoirs, an edition of a collection of three of her novels, and her celebrated work of fiction, Woman at Point Zero. It is the story based on her personal experience of being the psychiatrist to a woman on death row at the infamous Qanater Women’s Prison (where she herself would later be detained), who had killed her husband when she walked in on him raping her daughter. Blunt, unnerving, truthful, vivid — I sank into the loud psychology of El Saadawi’s mind, her words suffocatingly painful and devastatingly impactful.
To summarise her illustrious life seems like a grave injustice to a woman who sacrificed so much in the pursuit of noble ideals. Because of her vast experiences, of the sadism and ferocity of zealots and fascists; of the vicissitudes of life, its deep pleasures and its wounding moments, I would rather refer the reader to El Saadawi’s own account of her life story as told in the two volumes of her memoirs, A Daughter of Isis and Walking Through Fire. Here she discusses her own experience with female genital mutilation (a practice rife in Egypt until the end of the 20th century), her first experiences of classism and, notably, witnessing her paternal peasant grandmother’s clashes with government officials. El Saadawi constantly referred to this as her first encounter with dissidence.
Opposing the late Egyptian president Anwar el-Sadat’s policies in the 1970s and early ’80s, El Saadawi and many other radicals were imprisoned for their beliefs. It is from jail that she describes secretly carrying on her writing on rolls of tissue paper, using the kohl pencil of a fellow inmate, who was imprisoned for sex work. “To them [the state], the pen was more powerful than the gun,” she repeatedly observed later.
El Saadawi was released from prison during the early years of Mubarak’s tenure. She went on to write, lecture and rebel against the conservative norms of Egyptian society, and was subsequently forced into exile by the Islamist movement, which had added her name to a list of progressives, intellectuals and leftists whom they considered deserving of death. She left for exile in the US, where she lectured at several universities, before returning to Egypt in the years leading up to the 2011 revolution.
Those years were marked by a vibrant increase in anti-government rhetoric and a substantial mobilisation of workers, students and peasants manifested in frequent strikes, sit-ins and other forms of protest action and dissent. El Saadawi again took on a leading role in organising and radicalising young minds, her home becoming a sanctuary to those critical of Mubarak’s corruption and refusal to let go of power.
During this time, affectionately recalled as “el Ayyam el ‘Ezz [the days of glory]”, El Saadawi made herself accessible to anybody interested. Hordes of young radicals congregated in her presence, begging her to quench their thirst for liberatory thought; for an incitement to critique the oppression they had known their whole lives.
Among them was a dear friend of mine, whose collection of short stories El Saadawi wrote the foreword to. I once asked him what he had made of her company. Contemplatively, he kept silent, and then responded: “What a brilliant mind, but all over the place!” Indeed, her mind was constantly ablaze, unrelentingly criticising all whom she deemed to be standing in the way of freedom and justice.
In early 2019, I was put in contact with El Saadawi through email. I sent her a letter telling her about the extraordinary effect she had had on my life and requested a meeting with her when I next I was in Cairo. To my great delight, she swiftly responded with a short message of thanks and an invitation to her home whenever I was in the city.
Unfortunately, El Saadawi’s illness prevented our meeting from ever taking place. I never had the opportunity to meet her in person and philosophise with her as I had craved. Despite this, I feel I had known her my whole life. An intimacy and familiarity existed between two comrades in arms, whose meeting on the literary plane was as real as any physical one.
Nawal El Saadawi was a force to be reckoned with, a product of a generation of Egyptian thinkers, writers and intellectuals — now nearly all deceased — inspired by the progressive tides of the 20th century. This generation firmly believed in the possibility of the betterment of their country and fought for a materialisation of that belief, not letting all trials and tribulations they faced deter them.
A penetrating love for Egypt and her people, and indeed the world, guided El Saadawi’s interaction with all whom she encountered. Her mischievous giggle and unabating smile belied some of the most brutal and turbulent years of world and Egyptian history, yet her dedication to the upliftment of humanity was constant.
In the end, no dictator, no Islamist, no sexist and no system could overcome her — she prevailed, triumphant, against all those who strived to shackle her. Progressives, admirers and students of El Saadawi will be mourning her loss for years and decades to come, but we are sated by the immense and illustrious legacy and oeuvre she has left behind for us all to learn and gain from.