Nawal El Saadawi

February 3, 1995

Six leading writers will speak on the subject of the Dissident Word in the fourth series of Amnesty Lectures which starts next week at the Sheldonian Theatre at Oxford. Nawal El Saadawi, one of the leading campaigners for women's rights in the Arab world, has travelled a long way in her 62 years.

She is today based at Duke University in North Carolina, teaching in the department of African and Asian languages. But she was born in the tiny village of Kafr Tahla, 60 miles north of Cairo, the granddaughter of a peasant woman who "would tighten the belt around my belly to hold back the hunger pangs".

It was (and still is) an illiberal patriarchal society where a married woman could hold a passport only with the permission of her husband. One of Saadawi's earliest formative experiences was being brutally circumcised at the age of six. She started to write at university, and she has become especially famous for her novels. Yet it was a work of non-fiction which brought her notoriety in her own country and considerable notice abroad.

After graduating in psychiatry at Cairo in 1955, she quickly climbed the ladder of preferment, becoming Egypt's director general of health education. In 1970, she published Women and Sex, a study of Arab women's problems and their struggle for liberation that earned the wrath of the government. She was sacked from her job.

But there were greater troubles ahead. In 1981, Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian president lauded by the West, put Saadawi on his blacklist and flung her into prison. She stayed there for three months, sharing a cell with 11 other women and sleeping on the hard bare floor. Only Sadat's assassination at the hands of the Muslim extremists saved her.

If she was free beyond the prison walls, she was still facing danger. After the writer Farag Fouda was killed for campaigning for the separation of religion and state, Saadawi was given bodyguards to protect her from Islamic fundamentalists carrying out death threats. To escape this torment, she fled first to Seattle, where she was offered a visiting professorship at Washington University, and then to Durham in North Carolina.

Her stay in the United States is likely to be short. "It's temporary, just temporary," she says. She hopes to be back in Egypt next year. But she will not stop writing. As she puts it: "From the start, writing was like breathing. It was life itself." As ever, her subject will be the liberation of women, but not exclusively. She demonstrated in her The Hidden Face of Eve that she is also concerned about the liberation of all peoples from the oppression of local and international patriarchal class systems.

In her Amnesty Lecture, "Dissidence and Creativity", she will confront this broader issue, warning that "it is important for us to identify the new victims and new victimisers in the neo-colonial era". This is because, in her view, "we do not live in a post-colonial era as the post-modernists try to say to us".

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