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Nawal El Saadawi (b. 1931) - name also written: Nawal al-Sa'dawi


Egyptian novelist, essayist and physician, whose feminist works have widened the boundaries of the Arab novel. Nawal El Saadawi's central theme is the oppression of women and womens' desire for self-expression. She first gained fame with her nonfictional writing. Her books have been banned in Egypt and some other Arab countries.

"The novel is tormenting me. I've freed myself completely to write it, letting everything else go for its sake. It's intractable, like unattainable love. It want's me, my entire being, mind and body, and if it can't have that it will not give itself to me at all. It wants all or nothing - it's exactly like me. To the extent that I give to it, it gives to me. It wants no competition for my heart and mind - not that of a husband, nor a son or daughter, nor preoccupation with of any sort, not even on behalf of the women's cause." (from Memoirs from the Women's Prison, 1983)

Nawal El Saadawi was born in Kafr Tahla in Lower Egypt's Dealta. Her father was a civil servant at the Ministry of Education; her mother came from an upper-class family. Against the common practice, her parents sent all the nine children, not only boys, to school. Nawal El Saadawi was a good student, and in 1949 she entered the medical school. She was educated at the University of Cairo, receiving her M.D. in 1955. Later she studied at Columbia University, New York, receiving her Master of Public Health degree in 1966. Her marriage to Ahmed Helmi, a medical-student and freedom fighter, ended in divorce. Her second husband was a wealthy traditionalist, whom Nawal El Saadawi divorced when he did not accept her writing - she had started to write as a child. In 1964 Nawal El Saadawi married Sherif Hetata, a physician and novelist. He has translated into English several of Saadawi's books. Her daughter and son became also creative writers.

After graduation, she worked as a physician at the university and two years at the Rural Health Center in Tahla. From 1958 to 1972 El Saadawi was Director General of Public Health Education in the Ministry of Health. She worked as also the editor-in-chief on the Health magazine and assistant general secretary for Egypt's Medical Association. In 1972 El Saadawi was dismissed from her post in the ministry for publishing Al-mar'a wa-al-jins, which dealt with sex, religion, and the trauma of female clitoridectomy - all taboo subjects in the country. Her traditional Muslim mother had insisted on Saadawi's circumcision at age 6. Although the practice was outlawed for a time, it was legalized again in the 1990s. Health was closed down and her books were censored. "Everything in our country is in the hands of the state and under its direct or indirect control, she later wrote in Memoirs from the Women's Prison, "by laws known or concealed, by tradition or by a long-established, deeply rooted fear of the ruling authority."

For some time she published her non-fiction, such as Al mar'a wal sira' al-nafsi (1976), about woman and psychological conflict, and The Hidden Face of Eve (1977), in Lebanon (Beirut). The English translation begins with the author's memory of her clitorectomy at the age of six. Memoirs from the Women's Prison was published in London by Women's Press. After the novel The Fall of the Iman (1987), published in Cairo, she started to receive threats from fundamentalist religious groups. In Nawal Saadawi in the Dock (1993) she was tried as a heretic and condemned to death.

From 1973 to 1978 Nawal El Saadawi was a writer at the High Institute of Literature and Science. She was also a researcher at Ain Shams University's Faculty of Medicine in Cairo, and worked for the United Nations, as the director of African Training and Research Center for Women in Ethiopia (1978-80), and adviser for the United Nations Economic Commission for West Africa in Lebanon. In 1981, Saadawi criticized President Anwar Sadat's one-party rule, after which she was arrested and imprisoned for two months in Qanatir Women's Prison under Egyptian "Law for the Protection of Values from Shame." The prison was already familar to her because she had done reseach among its inmates in the 1970s. Upon President Sadat's death she was released. Before she was taken home, she met the new president, Hosni al-Mubarak. In 1982, she established the Arab Women's Solidarity Association, which was closed by the government in 1991. El Saadawi has accused Suzanne Mubarak, the president's wife, for killing the feminist movements in Egypt.

When El Saadawi's name appeared on a fundamentalist death list, she fled with her husband to the United States, where she taught at Duke University and Washington State University in Seattle. "The threat of death seemed to give my life a new importance," she wrote in Walking Through Fire (2002), "made it worth writing about. . . . Nothing can defeat death like writing." In 1996 she returned to Egypt, settling in Cairo. After President Obama's speech in Cairo in June 2009, she wrote: "They applauded strongly when he said that Muslim women should wear the veil if they choose to wear it. As if veiling (or nakedness) is something to be chosen! As lf oppression is something to be chosen by the oppressed." At the age of 79, she joined the Tahrir Square protesters calling for Mubarak's resignation. She said in an interview that Mubarak should be put on trial "for the robbery, for making Egypt a poor country". (Democracy Now!, February 10, 2011)

Nawal El Saadawi has received several awards, including High Council of Literature Award (1974), Literary Franco-Arab Friendship award (1982), Literary Award of Gubran (1988), and First Degree Decoration of the Republic of Libya (1989). In 2010 she received the doctorate honorary degree from Mexico University. Nawal El Saadawi's early stories were published in newspapers and magazines. Her first books appeared in the 1950s. In 1958 she made her debut as a novelist with Memoirs of a Woman Doctor, a partly autobiographical work. It is considered the pioneering work in modern feminist fiction in Arabic, although at the end the rebellious protagonist accepts her lot. In the 1970s she began criticize openly the patriarchal system and touch taboo problems, female circumcision, abortion, sexuality, child abuse, women's oppression in different forms. However, Western feminist readers have criticized her fiction as as repetitious in theme and programmatic.

While in Addis Abeba she wrote the short story 'The Veil' (1978), in which the protagonist reveals her thoughts to the reader, but not to her lover. "A woman's repulsion is the other face of the male deity," she thinks, looking at the body of her lover, seeing "the strength and youtfulness and cleanliness and good eating." But when her lover becomes the object of her gaze, their roles are reversed, and he hides his body. Evetually she pics up her veil and replaces it once again on her face. Sexual and social oppression is associated with religious doctrines in the short story 'She Has No Place in Paradise' (1972). The nameless protagonist is a woman, who has never taken the black shawl off her head, and her robe had been long and thick. She has been obedient to her husband her whole life, and never stolen or lied. She wakes up in Paradise, sees her husband in bed with two women. "Her husband's face was not turned towards her, so he did not see her. Her hand was still on the door. She pulled it behind her and closed. She returned to the earth, saying to herself: There is no place in paradise for a black woman."

Woman at Point Zero (1975) was partly based on material on women's mental health Nawal El Saadawi collected at Ain Shams University. In Qanatir Women's Prison she met the title character, Firdaws, whose abuse from her childhood and search for freedom eventually ends in a revenge and the murder of her pimp. A psychiatrist interviews her on the eve of her execution. Death becomes for her a victory: "I want nothing. I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. Therefore I am free. For during our life it is our wants, our hopes, our fears, that enslave us." The book was translated into French (Ferdaous, une voix d'enfer) by Assia Djebar and Assia Trabelsi. Typical for Saadawi's stories are the mixing fiction with nonfictional elements, her own knowledge of medical sciences, autobiographical details, and depiction of social ills. Saadawi has denounced the patriarchacy of all three great Near Easter reliogions, and argued for the theory that the ancient Egypt was originally matriarchal.

For further reading: Woman Against Her Sex: A Critique of Nawal al Saadawi, with a Reply by Nawal al Saadawi by Georges Tarabishi (1988); World Authors 1980-1985, ed. by Vineta Colby (1991); Nawal Saadawi in the Dock (1993); Opening the Gates: A Century of Arab Feminist Writing, ed. Margot Badran and Miriam Cooke (1994); 'Mon expérience de création' by Nawal al-Sa'dawi, in Quantara: Cultures en Mouvement 10 (1994); Woman's Body, Woman's Word by F. Malti-Douglas (1991); 'Sa'dawi, Nawal al-' by Sabry Hafez, in Contemporary World Writers, ed. Tracy Chevalier (1993); Gender Writing/Writing Gender by Nadje Sadig Al-Ali (1994); Men, Women, and God(s): Nawal al-Sadawi and Arab Feminist Poetics by Fewda Malti-Douglas (1995); Nawal al-Sa'dawi' by Thérèse Michel-Mansour, in Encyclopedia of The Novel, ed. Paul Schellinger (1998); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, vol. 4, ed. Steven R. Serafin (1999) - For further information: Nawal Saadawi by Jennifer McBride - Nawal El Saadawi & Sherif Hetata

Selected works:

  • Ta'lamt al-hub, 1958
  • Mozakkerat tabiba, 1958 - Memoirs of a Woman Doctor (tr. Catherine Cobham, 1988)
  • Hanan qalil, 1959
  • Lahdhat sidq, 1962
  • Al ghayib, 1965 - Searching (trans. Shirley Eber, 1991)
  • Imra'atan fi imra'ah, 1968 (Al-bahitha 'an al-hub) - Two Women in One (tr. Osman Nusairi and Jana Gough, 1986)
  • Al-mar'a wa-al-jins, 1971
  • Al-khait wa'ayn al-hayat, 1972 - The Well Of Life and The Thread: Two Short Novels (tr. Sherif Hetata, 1993)
  • Kanat hiya al-ad'af, 1972 - She Has No Place in Paradise (tr. Shirley Eber, 1989)
  • Al-khait wa-al jidar, 1972
  • Al-rajul wa-al-jins, 1973
  • Al-mar'a hiy al-asl, 1975
  • Emra'a 'inda nuqtat al-sifr, 1975 - Woman at Point Zero (tr. Sherif Hetata, 1983) - Nainen nollapisteessä (suom. Kaija Anttonen, 1988)
  • Al mar'a wal sira' al-nafsi, 1976
  • Mawt al-rajul al-wahid 'ala al-ard, 1976 - God Dies by the Nile (tr. Sherif Hetata, 1985)
  • Ughniyat al-atfal al da iriyah, 1977 - The Circling Song (tr. Marilyn Booth, 1989)
  • Al-wajh al-'ari lil-mar'ah al-'Arabiyyah, 1977 - The Hidden Face of Eve: Women in the Arab World (translated and edited by Sherif Hetata, 1980) - Eevan kätketyt kasvot (suom. Anniina Palomurto, 1992)
  • Mawt ma'ali al wazir sabiqan, 1979 - Death of an Ex-Minister (tr. Shirley Eber, 1987) - Herra ex-ministerin kuolema ja muita novelleja (suom. Pirkko Talvio-Jaatinen, 1990)
  • Ferdaous: une voix en enfer, 1982
  • Al-insan, 1983 (Ethna ashra Imra' a fi zinzanah)
  • Muzakkirati fi sijn al-nisa', 1983 - Memoirs from the Women's Prison (tr. Marilyn Booth, 1986)
  • Izis, 1986
  • Rihlati hawla al-'alam, 1986 - My Travels Around the World
  • Dirasat 'an al-mar'ah wa-al-rajul fi al-mujtama' al-'Arabi, 1986
  • Suqut al-Imam, 1987 - The Fall of the Imam (tr. Sherif Hetata, 2002) - Imaamin tuho (suom. Leena Tamminen, 1989)
  • Jannatah wa-Iblis, 1992 - The Innocence of the Devil (tr. Sherif Hetata, 1994)
  • Ma 'raka jahida da fi qadiyat al-mar'a, 1992
  • Hubb fi zaman al-naft, 1993 - Love in the Kingdom of Oil, (translated from the Arabic by Basil Hatim & Malcolm Williams, 2001)
  • The Nawal al-Sadawi Reader: Selected Essays 1970-1996, 1997
  • Al-Mar'ah wa-al-ghurbah, 1997
  • Taw'am al-sultah wa-al-jins, 1999
  • Daughter of Isis: The Autobiography of Nawal El Saadawi, 1999 (tr. Sherif Hetata)
  • Qadaya al-mar'ah wa-al-fikr wa-al-siyasah, 2001
  • Walking Through Fire: A Life of Nawal El Saadawi, 2002 (tr. Sherif Hetata)
  • Al-Riwayah, 2004 - The Novel (translated by Omnia Amin & Rick London, 2009)
  • Kasr al-hudud, 2004
  • translator (with Kenneth Rosen): Musafirah ila al-muhal = Traveling into the Impossible by Mona Helmy, 2009
  • Zaynah: riwayah, 2009

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