Paying the price
of freedom

Katrina Payne speaks with Nawal El Saadawi; Egyptian feminist, doctor, writer and fierce advocate of the rights of women.

'I am in danger. I feel the danger all the time, but it has become part of me. I no longer feel it. It is like sitting in a train; after a while you no longer feel the movement; you become part of it.'

Nawal el saadawi's determination to chart her own course ­ whether as a doctor, political theorist, activist or internationally acclaimed author ­ started early. As a ten-year-old living in rural Egypt she committed her first rebellion. She refused to get married. 'This was the first challenge and when I succeeded it gave me a lot of strength.'

This strength and her refusal to accept the limitations imposed by class, colonialism, patriarchy and religion led her to qualify as a doctor and then to become Director of Public Health.

She then realized, as she says in her latest book, that 'writing was a stronger weapon than medicine in the fight against poverty and ignorance'. So she wrote. And wrote. Poems, short stories, novels, plays. 'I used to write about love,' she says. 'Then I discovered the relation between love and politics. Between poverty and politics. Between sex and politics. I realized that the political regime imposed the will of men upon women and imposed poverty and slavery upon the poor and destitute.' Specifically, she started writing and speaking about the links between women's oppression and the liberation of her country.

For this she lost her job ­ and several subsequent ones ­ and was imprisoned. Her books were confiscated and her work censored.

She has called this, 'Paying the price of freedom'. As women are likely to be exploited anyway, she points out optimistically: 'It is better to pay and be free than to pay and be oppressed.' But the price has been high; going on to include a five-year period of exile and being put on a 'death list'.

So where has she found the strength to carry on? 'Aaah.' Her eyes sparkle. 'It's a decision, unconscious from childhood.' She makes this sound the most natural statement in the world. Her inspiration came through the female side of her family, from her mother and grandmother. She calls it 'absorbing their ambitions', which were cut short by lack of schooling and poverty. She also inherited her father's opposition to colonialism. In addition, 'being a female, I felt the discrimination between me and my brother'. Her course was set.

Nawal became a passionate advocate for women's rights. She believes that women are oppressed all over the world. 'Women are the first target because we are politically weak and because our status in religions is inferior.'

She is full of hope for the future. ' I think in the next millennium women will gain a lot. The women's movement is starting to mature all over the world. How can you say "post-feminism"? It's ridiculous!' And she dismisses the idea with a wave of her hand and a shake of her thick white wavy hair.

Nawal is clear where she stands on women. She is also clear about the human-rights movement. In the Arab world, she says in her book, this burgeoned in the 1980s, though restricted by government intervention and control. This still means that in her part of the world human-rights organizations 'concentrate their activities mainly on matters concerning political arrests, treatment in prison, legal rights of political prisoners, torture and so on. In recent years the movement in Egypt has also taken up the issue of violence, whether by terrorists or on the part of government, which is a new and important dimension of work.'

Nawal's view of the world is inclusive. In the same way that when you talk to her one idea leads seamlessly on to another, one form of tyranny­ the abuse of human rights, the oppression of women, the injustice of poverty ­ cannot be separated from another: 'How far ' she writes, 'can we talk about human rights without raising a new conception which extends them to the economic, social, cultural, racial and religious fields as well as to women and youth? How far can the present limited approach go? Does it not need to expand, to interest much wider sections of the population in action for human rights?'

She clearly believes strongly that it does. In her book she has a section called 'How to empower the resistance'. Here she argues that to resist global injustice there has to be action at all levels, from local to international. 'We need a movement that is progressive, not backward, which seeks unity in diversity by breaking down barriers built on discrimination (by gender, class, race, religion) and by discovering what we have in common as human beings.'

The high price she has paid for speaking out has not dampened her enthusiasm or her energy. She seems able to live constantly on the edge. She smiles her acknowledgement of this: 'I am in danger. I feel the danger all the time, but it has become part of me. I no longer feel it. It is like sitting in a train; after a while you no longer feel the movement; you become part of it.'

Katrina Payne is a freelance journalist specializing in gender issues.

The Nawal El Saadawi Reader is published by Zed Books (1997).



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New Internationalist issue 298 magazine cover This article is from the January 1998 issue of New Internationalist.
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