Nawal el-Saadawi remains one of the most famous Arab feminists. By the same token, many consider her one of the most radical and uncompromising activists. Her radicalism spans a wide range of issues, including women’s sexuality, the circumcisions of young girls, and, perhaps most irritating to Arab governments, her insistence on the interconnectedness of sexuality and politics, a perspective which leads her to conclude that they need not be separated.
In an interview with Al Hayat newspaper, conducted by Fatina al-Dajani, Saadawi seems to have maintained the same commitment and enthusiasm that characterized her earlier years. I found these qualities readily apparent when I met Saadawi and listened to her lectures in the mid-1980s, during my graduate studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.
In the Al Hayat interview, Saadawi says she takes issue with those describing her as radical, if the term refers to the esoteric character of her views, which critics describe as lacking appeal for significant segments of Arabs. She shares several anecdotes with the reporter, including how, in the beginning, some parents believed her books to be extremist and radical, only to later discover them to be of a practical nature. This fact then prompted them to purchase more of the books during visits to Beirut.
Saadawi remains as confident as ever in the resourcefulness of the Arab people and the ability of large numbers of their scientists and writers to bridge the scientific and cultural gap between the Arab world on the one hand, and Israel and the West on the other.
However, the state of Arab intellectuals does not comfort her. She tells Dajani that, whether they sold out or joined of their own free will, a majority of these intellectuals work for the state. Saadawi describes them as “intellectuals of the state, poets of the state, writers of the state, etc…” She feels equally distressed about the intellectuals who chose to live in exile rather than work for authoritarian regimes.
“There are those intellectuals who chose exile and isolated themselves completely from the Arab world and began writing works that were theoretical and detached from reality.” In Saadawi’s opinion, neither the intellectuals of the state, nor the revolutionary intellectuals who live in exile, can write on issues deemed practical. Instead, their isolation from the Arab world renders them unable to offer new ideas.
“Intellectuals who are currently in New York and Paris, and write in the Western media, have become experts in specific subjects, selling their expertise as a commodity.” Saadawi “strongly criticize[s]” these intellectuals, who, spared lives of poverty, describe the Arabs as “primitive” and “underdeveloped.” As for those who have “sold themselves to governments,” she states,“they are dangerous,” given the contradictions between Arab governments and their peoples.
Saadawi prefers those intellectuals who live and suffer in the Arab world, making sacrifices, committing to bring changes, and working to establish links between their ideas and the facts on the ground. She finds that they make more sense, but characterizes them as “a small minority.”
When asked about Al Tatbi (normalization of relations with Israel at the, social, cultural, economic levels), Saadawi says, “I am against it, although some of my books have been translated into Hebrew, due to contracts with publishers of course. But when I was invited to Israel, I refused. Of course Israel exists and we will not throw her into the ocean. I am not against having cultural, artistic and economic relations with Israel, but only on the condition that the Palestinian people will have an independent state and rights. I am not against peace, but against surrender.” Because Saadawi does not consider the Palestinian National Authority to be the “state of Palestine,” she also insists that this belief precludes going “to Palestine, even if I am invited by Arafat.”
Dajani asks whether feminist writings reflect political and cultural reality, and whether such writings have achieved recognition in Arab cultural circles, Saadawi replies that not all writings can be dismissed as unimportant, though many can. At the same time, important and essential writings exist, notwithstanding imperialism and the attempts by Arab governments “to separate women’s issues from politics” by encouraging the formation of pseudo-governmental organizations which exclusively deal with women’s issues.
As for feminist writings, Saadawi states, “the issue of woman is of great interest to me.” She adds that the subject interests her even though she has experienced no oppression personally. Issues such as circumcisions (she states that she was circumcised as a child), the rapes of maids, illegal abortions, virginity, flawed honor, double morality, male boasting about sexual conquests, girls raped by family members, and the killing of women, all have proven central to her writings. She has written several books concerning her belief that the female body constitutes the tragedy of a woman’s life, including “Woman and Sex, Man and Sex, the Female is the Origin and Woman and Psychological Struggle.” These writings and activities resulted in her persecution, job loss and imprisonment.
Dajani also poses an additional question, playing devil’s advocate by presenting official Egyptian propaganda that accuses Saadawi of painting a “false image” of Egypt in the West by generalizing “individual cases.” Saadawi responds, “That is not true. I write in Arabic and my books are distributed among Arabs, and then get translated after many years. I wrote from the 1950s to the 1980s before my works were translated into any language. I do not write in English, and I do not write for the West.” Saadawi then refuted the Egyptian government’s claims that a discussion of circumcisions refers to individual cases, stating, “99.5 of women in Egypt used to be circumcised.”
While summing up her experience in dealing with women, she says, “Consider the man who came from the countryside to see me in Cairo. He kissed my hand and thanked me for saving the life of his daughter. The father and his wife were about to kill their daughter since her wedding night did not produce virginity blood. The daughter cried and asked her father to read “Woman and Sex,”especially the section on virginity.” She shared with him an important medical finding that “30 percent of women are born without a hymen.” This, the thankful father told Saadawi, saved the life of his daughter.
This appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 2, No. 9. (July 1996)
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