Egypt: Who is Nawal El Saadawi?

Writers, politicians, and feminists united to pay tribute to pioneering Egyptian activist Nawal El Saadawi following her death, aged 89. They vowed that her work would live on through the generations whom she inspired in the Middle East and beyond.

Nawal El Saadawi was an Egyptian feminist, writer, activist, physician and psychiatrist. She wrote many books on the subject women in Islam, paying particular attention to the practice of female genital mutilation in society- practice she suffered as a child.

She was the founder and president of the Arab Women Solidarity Association and co-founder of the Arab Association for Human Rights. Likewise, she was the founder of the Health Education Association and the Egyptian Women Writers’ Association; she was Chief Editor of Health Magazine in Cairo, and Editor of Medical Association Magazine

El Saadawi wrote her first novel at the age of 13. Her family tried to make her marry at the age of 10, but when she resisted her mother stood by her. Saadawi graduated with a degree in 1955 and worked as a doctor eventually specializing in psychology. She went on to become director of public health for the Egyptian government, but was dismissed in 1972 after publishing her non-fiction book, Women and Sex, which railed against FGM and the sexual oppression of women.

The magazine Health, which had she founded a few years earlier, was closed down in 1973. Still, she continued to speak out and write. In 1975, she published Woman at Point Zero, a novel based on a real life account of a woman on death row she had met followed by the Hidden Face of Eve, published in 1977, in which she documented her experiences as a village doctor witnessing sexual abuse, “honour killings” and prostitution. It caused outrage, with critics accusing her of reinforcing stereotypes of Arab women.

Then, in September 1981, El Saadawi was arrested as part of a round-up of dissidents under President Anwar Sadat and held in prison for three months but after President Sadat was assassinated, El Saadawi was released, though her work was censored and her books banned.

As well as sparking outrage, El Saadawi gained much international recognition, with her books translated into more than 40 languages. In 2004, she won the North-South Prize from the Council of Europe while in 2005, she won the Inana International Prize in Belgium, and in 2012, the International Peace Bureau awarded her the 2012 Sean McBride Peace Prize.

In 2020,Time Magazine named her one of its 100 women of the year, dedicating a front cover to her.

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