Nawal El Saadawi

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Many people think that female circumcision only started with the advent of Islam. … Mohammad the Prophet tried to oppose this custom since he considered it harmful to the sexual health of the woman.

Nawal El Saadawi (Arabic: نوال السعداوى) (born October 27, 1931 – March 21, 2021) is an Egyptian feminist writer, activist and physician, and an advocate of equal rights for women.


  • Many people think that female circumcision only started with the advent of Islam. But as a matter of fact it is well known and widespread in some areas of the world before the Islamic era, including the Arabian peninsula. Mohammad the Prophet tried to oppose this custom since he considered it harmful to the sexual health of the woman.
    • The Hidden Face of Eve (1980)
  • I’m surrounded by young people, day and night. Thousands of them. The government is afraid of the young, and they won’t touch me because they know I have the power of the young people behind me.
  • This is everyone’s struggle—whether against men in the family, or against capitalism. It’s power. I don’t think that people in power can be convinced by words or articles. They will never give it up by choice. Even a husband in the house, no—power has to be taken with power…
  • Nobody can help anybody. Nobody can help us in Egypt—we did our revolution alone, we liberated ourselves alone. I don’t believe in charity or “helping.” I believe in the equal exchange of ideas, and networking.
  • “Life is very hard. The only people who really live are those who are harder than life itself.”[1]
  • “All the men I did get to know, every single man of them, has filled me with but one desire: to lift my hand and bring it smashing down on his face.”[2]

Interview (2004)

  • The veil is a political symbol and has nothing to do with Islam...They are using women as a political tool in a political game. Many people are aware of that, but the educational system puts a veil on the mind. The veiling of the mind is more serious. Our slogan at the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association is "Unveil the Mind."
  • Feminism to me is to fight against patriarchy and class and to fight against male domination and class domination. We don’t separate between class oppression and patriarchal oppression. Many so-called feminists don’t. We can’t be liberated under American occupation, for example.
  • These days, there is also a phenomenon I call "false awareness." Many women who call themselves feminists today wear makeup, high heels, tight jeans and they still wear the hijab. It is very contradictory. They are victims of both religious fundamentalism and American consumerism. They have no political awareness. They are unaware of the connection between the liberation of women on the one hand and of the economy and country on the other. Many consider only patriarchy as their enemy and ignore corporate capitalism.
  • Sadat put me in prison along with some other men. Under Mubarak, I’ve been "gray-listed." Although there is no official order banning me, I can’t appear in the national media–it’s an unwritten rule. There is no chance for people like me to be heard by the people.
  • Progressive groups should unite. We are divided and scattered. There must be efforts for unity. Women and men fighting against the IMF (International Monetary Fund) and the World Bank should fight together. Local and global resistance should not be separated. We must give a lot of attention to organization and unveiling of the mind. The new superpower of the people should be organized.
  • A progressive Muslim is a Muslim who respects all religions. He doesn’t politicize his God. God is not a book. God is justice and freedom and love and honesty. That is what my father taught me–to be honest.

Interview in The Guardian (2009)

  • You ask me if I regret anything I've written. No, I regret none of my 47 books. If I started my life again I would write the same books. They are all very relevant even today: the issues of gender, class, colonialism (although of course that was British and is now American), female genital mutilation, male genital mutilation, capitalism, sexual rape and economic rape. My books have always taken on taboos – political, economic, sexual, religious taboos – but my most radical was my last play: God Resigns at the Summit Meeting. It will never be put on in a theatre, and of course it is totally banned in for my actions, I don't regret any of them either. What I did I had to do, whether it was running in the presidential election against [President] Mubarak [in 2005], divorcing two husbands, or challenging the system. What I regret was that I was not too radical. I compromised to live; my name was on death lists. You have to be a bit – but not too – diplomatic in order to survive in life. Nobody can tolerate the truth. The truth is very savage.
  • I describe myself as like a horse jumping obstacles, obstacle after obstacle. I am a winning horse. I insist on it; winning brings me energy. I lose sometimes, of course, like when I went to prison, but you need a dose of pain, challenges to develop your power and energy.
  • I get great pleasure from creativity and writing, especially novels. It gives me a lot of energy, and for me it is more pleasurable than sex or food or anything. And I am a happy person because of this pleasure.
  • Hope, too, is power.
  • The solution can only come from us, from the people who were beaten by the system. But we were beaten because we were not organised, not powerful. All of the demonstrations, against the Iraq war, at Davos, against the Israeli attack on Gaza: why didn't we win? I have to answer that it is because young people are not organised; they don't represent a political power.
  • Veiling and nakedness, they are two faces of the same kind. To see a woman naked, that does not mean she is liberated. It means the woman is just a body, not a mind. Traditional education, even postmodern education, veils the mind; the media veils the mind.
  • My dream is a world without religion, with real morality and one standard for men and women, poor and rich. A world with no war, with equality and justice between genders and classes, real freedom and democracy. That would be to finish with patriarchy and capitalism and class, to have a really human society, to unveil the mind.

Interview with Progressive Magazine (2011)

  • (What role did women play in the revolution last spring?) El Saadawi: Women were everywhere in the revolution. Women participated in it, and many women were killed. Then we had the right to speak up and gain some more rights, but what happened was there was a backlash. Why? Because we have the Salafists, Muslim Brothers, religious groups.
  • Women are suffering because they are being excluded. The high military council excluded women from the committee to change the constitution. We cannot be liberated as women in a society built on class oppression or gender oppression or religious oppression...Women are half the society. You cannot have a revolution without women. You cannot have democracy without women. You cannot have equality without women. You can’t have anything without women. You cannot have dignity. The slogan of the revolution was dignity, social justice, and freedom. You cannot have dignity or social justice or freedom without women.
  • All revolutions in history have obstacles. There is not a revolution that succeeded in a few months. It takes years, even decades, to fulfill its goals. I am very hopeful because I trust the revolution and feel nobody can really conquer a nation that has decided to be united and to fight, and we decided to fight. The revolution is there, inside the Egyptians by the millions.

Interview (2014)

  • The oppression of women in Egypt cannot be traced to traditions, Islam and fundamentalism, but rather to the slavery system – a system of the patriarchal class society that is supported by the religions.
  • There are many people today who say that the Islamic religion oppresses women. I say to them: no, it's Christianity and Judaism. Islam merely adopted this practice.
  • I spent ten years comparing the Old and New Testaments with the Koran – they are very similar; the differences are minimal. So we can say that the root of the oppression of women lies in the global post-modern capitalist system, which is supported by religious fundamentalism. This is because they need a god to justify oppression, their political hypocrisy, colonialism and the killing of people. How can the invasion of Palestine or Iraq be justified?! How can it be that today, 50 per cent of Egyptian people live below the poverty line while two percent have billions of dollars? How can we justify this? You need God in order to justify it.

Quotes about El Saadawi

  • She is a reminder that feminism is indigenous to the region and not something we need to import..She inspired me to be savage and dangerous in telling the truth as her life clearly showed
  • The words of 75-year old Nawal Al-Sa'dawi, Egypt's leading feminist on Al-Arabiya TV on March 3, 2007, reflected her bitterness at how the covering of a women's head has been misrepresented as an act of piety and the most defining symbol of Islam.
    All Canadian women have at some time in their lives, chosen to wear a head cover. In blinding snow storms or in freezing rain, the covering of the head, irrespective of what religion one practices, is crucial to one's survival in a harsh winter. Halfway across the world, in the deserts of Arabia, whether one was a Muslim or a pagan, the covering of one's head and face was at times an absolute necessity, not just when facing a blistering sandstorm, but anytime one stepped out of the home in the searing sun.
    What was essentially attire necessary for a particular climate and weather, has today been turned into a symbol of defiance and at best a show of piety by Islamists and orthodox Muslims.
    There is not a single reference in the Quran that obliges Muslim women to cover their hair or their face. In fact the only verse that comes close to such a dress code is (33: 59) which asks women to "cover their bosoms".
  • The Arab Spring did a great deal for women because the person who spread the word in the first place was a woman. Women participated in it; they were fully out there in the street. Nawal El Saadawi is a founding figure of Egyptian and Middle Eastern feminism who wrote a book opposing female genital mutilation (of which she is a victim). She’s been banned. She’s been in prison. She’s now in her eighties and during the Arab Spring she was like the wise woman of Liberation Square, sitting in the middle of it as young women and young men came to her for instruction, for blessings, and so on.
    But it’s very often the case with revolutionary moments that women are present but then they’re drummed out of it afterwards.
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