Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Nawaal El Saadawi

Women's Herstories: 
Nawal El Saadawi

Nawal El Saadawi is an Egyptian author, activist, and speaker. She is a professor and medical doctor. She is often in some trouble with religious and secular authorities. I admire her tremendously.  You can find an excellent and brief biography of her life at her website, and you can also follow along the news of her court trials.

Her own memoirs are beautifully written. Her life has been complex and full of adventure and sorrow, and she shares deeply of what it has been like to live on this earth so far. At the top of her website are these words: "To the women and men who choose to pay the price and be free rather than continue to pay the price of slavery."

I first read one of Nawal El Saadawi's novels in seminary: The Fall of the Imam. The novel fascinated me with its flowing time and deliberately complex characters. It is the story of a girl named Bint Allah (the Daughter of God), and it is the story of the weaving together of silences and solidarity, resistance, death, and the life to be found in refusing to accept meaninglessness. It is a puzzling novel, and at times the women's characters flow into each other without border. It is a sad novel to read, but having known violence from men, this novel speaks to my heart. There are places where I simply nod, "yes, I have known that."

I read her memoirs next: A Daughter of Isis and Walking Through Fire. These led me to two of her books which have influenced me in different ways.

In 1980, El Saadawi published The Hidden Face of Eve: Women in the Arab World.  I think this is a must-read for anyone hoping to understand women across national and ethnic boundaries.  In particular, in the preface to the English edition, El Saadawi notes the way in which western interests have used western feminists to control and weaken revolutionary movements in the Third World (and perhaps how western feminists have colluded with those colonial interests in a power sharing arrangement). Specifically, these words awoke in me the understanding that there are women all over the world moving for their own liberation, and that my own framework is not normative:
It is necessary at all times to see the close links between women's struggles for emancipation and the battles for national and social liberation waged by people in all parts of the "Third World" against foreign domination and the exploitation exercised by international capitalism over human and natural resources. If this link is forgotten, feminist movements in the West may be used not to further the cause of women's liberation but instead to participate in holding back the forces of freedom and progress in the countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America. (1)
This book is about women and sex and religion and politics. It is about the way women's sexuality in one particular part of the world has been shaped and repressed, and the ways women have found to circumvent that oppression. It is about the work that still needs to be done. It is a fierce book, an indictment against those who would cause harm to women (even other women). These words give me strength in times when I feel shamed for my outspoken ways or when I fear for my career, family, and livelihood for speaking up about gender, sexuality and race:
[The] innate resilience and strength of the woman bred fear in the heart of primitive man. And it was this fear, or even terror, that led him to oppress and subjugate her with all means at his disposal, be they economic, social, legal or moral.  All these means had to be mobilized and synchronized to place at his disposal an overbearing and formidable armoury, used exclusively to conquer the indomitable vitality and strength that lay within women, ready to burst out at any moment. The building up of this armoury was a logical consequence of a specific situation. For the potential force that lies within a being itself decides the counter-force required to hold him or her down and to supprss their capacity for resistance. (2)
The second work is a novel called Woman at Point Zero.  It is the story of Firdaus, a prostitute, who was awaiting execution for murdering her pimp.  The novel was written in 1973, and begins with a woman researcher interviewing Firdaus in the prison. The novel flashes back then to Firdaus early life and details how she got to be in prison for murder. It is a beautifully told story that on the one hand highlights women's agency in the midst of oppression, and on the other expresses clearly how those with power erode and destroy a woman's options until freedom comes at the price of death.

While working with a more experienced prostitute Firdaus received this advice:
Neither Bayoumi, nor any of his cronies realized your worth, because you failed to value yourself highly enough.  A man does not know a woman’s value, Firdaus.  She is the one who determines her value.  The higher you price yourself, the more he will realize what you are really worth. (3)
Ultimately, Firdaus chose to die rather than allow another human to determine her price, her worth. As I read through Nawal El Saadawi's words again today, I wonder what the cost for my own freedom is, and whether I will have the courage to pay it.

(1) Nawal El Saadawi, The Hidden Face of Eve: Women in the Arab World (NY: Zed Books, 1980), viii.

(2) ibid., 100.

(3) Nawal El Saadawi, Woman at Point Zero (London: Zed Books, 1983), 54-55.


  1. CSN&Y
    "Find the cost of freedom, buried in the ground. Mother Earth will swallow us, lay your body down..."

  2. @Alissia I love that song!! Youtube link for the rest of you