EGYPT: El Saadawi 'The veil is a political symbol'
Ahmed Nassef, Cairo
In an interview with Women's E-News, prominent feminist and human rights activist Nawal El Saadawi discusses the current crisis of Egyptian feminism and the role of progressive activists living under repressive Arab regimes.
Dr Nawal El Saadawi, one of the most well-known feminists and political dissidents in the Arab world, was born in 1931 in Kafr Tahla, a small village north of Cairo.
A psychiatrist by training, she first rose to international prominence with her 1972 book Women and Sex which led to her dismissal as Egypt's director of public health. She also lost her positions as the chief editor of the medical journal Health and as the assistant general-secretary of the Egyptian Medical Association.
Since then, her many books and novels, most focusing on issues of Arab and Muslim women and sexuality within the context of repressive religious authority and tradition, have made her the target of both Egypt's secular regimes and the Muslim religious establishment.
In 1981, El Saadawi was imprisoned by then-president Anwar Sadat after her outspoken criticism of his unilateral peace deal with Israel, and his domestic economic policies. Upon her release in 1982, she founded the Arab Women's Solidarity Association, Egypt's first legal, independent feminist organisation. But soon after the group opposed the first Gulf War in 1991, it was banned by Egyptian authorities.
In 2001, religious conservatives took El Saadawi to court to annul her marriage with novelist Sherif Hetata on the grounds that her public statements and writings placed her outside the bounds of Islam. The case was eventually dismissed after an international outcry by human rights organisations.
El Saadawi continues to live with her husband in the working-class neighbourhood of Shubra northwest of Cairo.
Recently, the Egyptian media has been in an uproar over the proposed French law banning hijab, or head covering, in public schools, but little is ever mentioned regarding human rights and civil rights violations here in Egypt. Do you think the general public is aware of this contradiction?
I think ordinary people see those contradictions very well. This is a political movement using the head of women for political reasons. The veil is a political symbol and has nothing to do with Islam. There is not a single verse in the Qur'an explicitly mandating it. ... The veiling of the mind is more serious. Our slogan at the Arab Women's Solidarity Association is "Unveil the Mind".
How are today's feminists different from your generation of feminists?
We don't have feminists any more. Feminism to me is to fight against patriarchy and class and to fight against male domination and class domination. We don't separate between class oppression and patriarchal oppression. We can't be liberated under US occupation, for example. The new women are not aware of that.
These days, there is also a phenomenon I call "false awareness". Many women who call themselves feminists today wear makeup, high heels, tight jeans and they still wear the hijab. It is very contradictory. They are victims of both religious fundamentalism and US consumerism. They have no political awareness. They are unaware of the connection between the liberation of women on the one hand and of the economy and country on the other. Many consider only patriarchy as their enemy and ignore corporate capitalism.
Why have Egyptian feminists and liberal intellectuals failed in capturing the imagination of grassroots Egyptian society? Why aren't we seeing an active independent grassroots movement today?
The elite secular Marxist and socialist groups were always separated from the peasants and poor people. They were busy looking up to the rulers and gave their backs to the people. They were speaking all the time on behalf of the masses only to achieve political aims.
Sadat put me in prison along with some other men. Under Mubarak, I've been "gray-listed". Although there is no official order banning me, I can't appear in the national media — it's an unwritten rule. There is no chance for people like me to be heard by the people.
Even the non-government organisations are controlled by the government. When I was at Mumbai recently at the World Social Forum, they were calling them "Go-En-Ghee-Ohs," or government NGOs. Most of the NGOs in Egypt are co-opted by the government. There is no real opposition party that represents the people's interests either. Even the Tagammu', the so-called leftist political party, was created by Sadat along with all the other official parties. All the party leaders cooperate with the government.
What are the greatest challenges faced today by progressives?
Progressive groups should unite. We are divided and scattered. There must be efforts for unity. Women and men fighting against the IMF [International Monetary Fund] and the World Bank should fight together. Local and global resistance should not be separated. We must give a lot of attention to organisation and unveiling of the mind. The new superpower of the people should be organised.
I am always optimistic. When you are active, you are in action, and you win sometimes. I have lost my job; they tried to divorce me; kill me; they put me in prison, but I am still winning. I still have a voice. And I still write.
Are there ways of engagement between progressive Muslim forces and progressive secular movements?
All progressive forces have a common ground. Religion is a personal matter. A progressive Muslim is a Muslim who respects all religions. He doesn't politicise his god. God is not a book. God is justice and freedom and love and honesty. That is what my father taught me — to be honest.
[Ahmed Nassef is editor-in-chief of Muslim WakeUp!, a progressive Muslim online magazine. Abridged from Women's E-News. For more Women's E-News, visit From Green Left Weekly, March 10, 2004.
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From Green Left Weekly, March 10, 2004.