Nawal El Saadawi: I am against the system, not a man hater
As we make our way through her hotel lobby to head towards the sunshine and Hyde Park, three men stop Nawal El Saadawi and speak to her in Arabic.
Although I don’t understand the words, I see the respect in their expressions and hear it in their voices, watching their smiles grow and turn to laughter as El Saadawi, obviously delighted, talks and finally takes out a pen and paper to write down names and contact details.
“They were from Saudi Arabia, and they said they liked my work,” says El Saadawi as we finally make our way to the exit.
“People say I’m a man hater, which is what they say about anyone who supports women’s rights, but I don’t hate men and, you see, there are lots of men who agree with me.”
Presented with the Woman of the Year Outstanding Achievement Award today (see WVoN story) El Saadawi is just 10 days from her 80th birthday.
But her age didn’t prevent her camping out in Cairo’s Tahrir Square during the protests that took place in her native Egypt before President Hosni Mubarak was finally toppled in February this year.
Now, as well as continuing with her writing, and setting up a prize recognising young people who are committed to changing the world, she is also spearheading a re-formed Egyptian Women’s Union and the Arab Women Union, both of which have attracted a number of men as members.
“It’s not only women, it’s men and women together,” says El Saadawi. “I do not divide people biologically: Margaret Thatcher was a woman. The Union is 50 per cent men who are with us and believe that women’s rights are human rights.”
She dismisses as “ignorant” the “privileged, middle class women” who have insisted that women’s rights are not central to the revolution.
“That’s very dangerous,” she says. “They do not feel the oppression that is happening to women. How can we have a revolution without women? How can we have democracy without women? Or a constitution without women?”
A doctor and psychologist, El Saadawi has received recognition for her writing and campaigning against the practice of female genital mutilation.
But it is only one tenet of patriarchy that she has fought against in a career that has seen her publish more than 40 books.
“Female circumcision is part of patriarchy, and so is the veil,” says El Saadawi, who also links veiling and nakedness and pornography under capitalism.
“They are two sides of the same coin. Women under capitalism are treated as sex objects.”
El Saadawi’s work has won her international acclaim, but it clearly has not made her popular with the authorities in her native Egypt.
She was dismissed from the Ministry of Health in 1972 after writing her book ‘Women and Sex’, and later imprisoned by Anwar Sadat’s regime for alleged “crimes against the state.
She has been forced into exile in the United States numerous times and in 2001 the religious authorities attempted to force her to divorce Sherif Hetata, her husband of 37 years, because of her criticism of some Islamic practices.
“I am against the system,” she says.
Nawal El Saadawi will be speaking at London’s Frontline Club on Friday, October 21, from 7pm. Click here for more details.