issue 236 - October 1992
Patriarchs and petroculture
The Gulf War increased the pressure on Arab women to stay at home
or hide behind the veil. Nawal El Saadawi tells her own story.
As an Arab woman born at the start of the 1930s I have lived through a series of wars and crises. My poor rural family in the village by the Nile has lost many young men, from the war of 1948 via the 'Suez' crisis of 1956 to the wars of 1967, 1973 and 1991. Doubtless we will lose more in years to come.
Each time I travel to my village, Kufr Tahla, and meet Na'ima, the daughter of my aunt Fatima, she asks me: 'Is there any news about my son?' He has been missing since the war of 1967. He has become just a number among the dead. But every night she dreams that he is alive, a prisoner in some Israeli prison, and that one day he will come back.
Another aunt lost her son in Iraq. A relative of mine, Rasmiya, lost three sons in the Gulf War. One was killed in Baghdad when a thousand bombs fell in an air raid. The second was buried alive with conscripts in Kuwait. The third was in an underground trench in Saudi Arabia with soldiers who were killed by a rocket. Each time she meets me she cries and says: 'It's madness for brother to be killing brother.'
Rasmiya envies my aunt because the body of her son who died in Iraq came back in a coffin and was buried in the village cemetery beside his grandparents. But Rasmiya has not seen the body of any of her three sons.
The sons of kings and presidents and ministers and the ruling classes seldom go to war. The defence of the homeland is the exclusive responsibility of the poor. How do they profit from it?
Na'ima is a poor rural woman who cannot read or write. She has heard that some compensation is being paid for those missing in the War. She wants me to help her since I live in Cairo and am a doctor. But I cannot. I too am at my wits' end.
I was a member of an international women's delegation which visited Iraq during the first week of January 1991, before the War started. Motivated by the dream that women could prevent the War, we were active for many months.
But the decision to go to war had already been taken years earlier - an imperialist plan aimed at capturing the sources of oil and other natural riches. The world is ruled by the war weapons industry and by a patriarchal class system that's as old as slavery. This Western industrial-military force sees the Arab region as little more than an oil reserve or gas station from which it can take what it wants, when it wants and at a price it decides.
It is no secret either that the majority of Arab governments are despotic regimes which oppress anyone who merely expresses a different opinion - as they did during the Gulf War.
When we started the Arab Women's Solidarity Association in 1982 our aim was to rally Arab women behind the slogans 'Consciousness and Knowledge' and 'Unveiling the Mind'.
Arab women's power is almost absent and their opinions are not taken into account in any of the most important issues facing their countries, including decisions about war. In Iraq women have reached a relatively high level of education and paid work, but still remain marginal - although after years of war they are now in the majority, forcing a change to family law which now permits polygamy.
In Kuwait, the right to vote is granted only to men above the age of 21 who are able to read and write - just four per cent of the total population. Nevertheless, women in Kuwait are better off than women in Saudi Arabia who don't even have the right to drive, let alone vote.
Women in Egypt have difficulties too. In September 1990 we held a seminar on women's publishing in Cairo. The men and women participants issued a statement demanding the withdrawal of all foreign troops from the Gulf, of Iraqi troops from Kuwait and of Israeli troops from the occupied Arab territories - as well as the use of oil revenues for the benefit of the majority of the common Arab people.
On 5 November the Director General at the Egyptian Ministry of Social Affairs wrote a secret report demanding the closure of the Egyptian Association for Arab Women's Solidarity, its magazine Nuun and its newsletters. It had, he reported, taken a position at variance with that of the Egyptian Government, opposed important Saudi religious personalities and published ideas against Islamic law. The report also recommended that I, as head of the Association, should be investigated for setting up an illegal organization.
On 22 November an official memorandum was issued by the Egyptian Ministry for Social Affairs forbidding us, under Clause 3 of the Law of Associations, from involving ourselves in religious or political affairs. On 15 June 1991 the Association was dissolved. We are still appealing against the decision. Lawyers expect that it will take two or three years before a verdict is issued.
The Gulf War has resulted in severe hardships throughout the Arab world. There is fragmentation among Arabs and Arab unity is dissolving. Poorer Arab countries like Sudan and Egypt face an economic crisis fuelled by foreign debt.
Even the oil-rich countries like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are paying the US for the costs of destruction and reconstruction, and for the US armed forces which have remained in the Gulf on a semi-permanent basis. The Arab people are paying the price of their own occupation by others, the price of their own slavery.
There is also an increase in reactionary political trends in the form of 'fundamentalist' movements with religious slogans. Originally these flourished in the embrace of rulers who wanted to strike at 'leftist' or even liberal political trends, but they have expanded to the point where they present a threat to the very rulers who first encouraged them.
Islamic, Christian, Jewish or whatever they may be, they adopt the most backward ideas towards women, forcing them back inside the four domestic walls or to hide behind the hijab (veil). In my country, women are being offered as sacrificial lambs to protect the ruling authorities.
Since the Gulf War, Saudi domination of the Arab region has grown, spreading 'petroculture' which regards women as a blemish that must be completely covered, whose place is at home - a place which can only be escaped in illness or death - and who can hold no independent opinion of their own. Anyone who believes that religion belongs to God and the nation to all is an infidel deserving punishment, dismissal from work, expulsion from country, imprisonment or, sometimes, threats of death. From Saudi Arabia has emerged a blacklist of over 50 names of leading intellectuals, writers and poets in the Arab world - including mine.
In such a climate, women's liberation has retreated into the background; the gap between rich and poor, men and women, has widened. The patriarchal class system has become more vicious and tyrannical.
In our Arab world we must expose despotic local regimes which co-operate with imperialism and submit to this 'New World Order'. Otherwise Arab people will not have a better future and Arab women will not regain their usurped rights.
What increases my optimism most is that growing numbers of men and women around the world have become more conscious of these facts and understand better the importance of solidarity to create a genuinely New World Order in the next century.
Nawal El Saadawi's writings include Woman at Point Zero and The Hidden Face of Eve: Women in the Arab World. This article was translated from the Arabic by Shirley Eber.