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An Egyptian Feminist

Summary of Nawal El Saadawi Autobiographies

Nawal El Saadawi was born in village near Cairo in 1931 when the British ruled Egypt. She later joined other girls in her high school to break down the metal door to their boarding school to join a protest march against the British. Big landowners owned most of the agricultural land, not the peasants who took their young girls out of school to help work around the house. Although her relatives were disappointed about the birth of a girl, her parents were loving and supportive of her and her education, as her father was an educator and she was a bright student. At the same time her parents bowed to family pressure from her aunts and uncles and grandmother to search for a husband for her, starting when she was only 10. She found ways to scare off the suitors, like blackening her teeth and smiling to show them off to one unappealing man whose coffee she spilled in his lap while tripping on new high heels. This tactic earned her a “sound trashing” but kept her single. She later picked her own husbands, three of them over time, with two divorces. Starting at age 11, she was no longer allowed to go out of the house to play with other children in the fields, kept inside to safely do domestic tasks. Her parents did allow her to go to live with her aunt to go to school in Cairo. Despite struggling to find funds to send five sisters and three brothers to private schools (the government schools were crowded and the teachers not well educated), because her mother insisted, Nawal continuing going to school rather than marrying. She went to medical school where boys and girls were not supposed to have friendships—even conversations, and sex or circumcisions practices weren’t mentioned in class. Students memorized information, but didn’t practice doing surgeries. She went on to become one of the few women doctors, receiving her degree in 1955, and then to be director of public health education for the government. While working as a rural doctor, she saw the hardships women suffered from male relatives, like the girl married off at age nine to a man 50 years older. He literally drove her crazy by having painful anal intercourse while she was bent over in prayer. She thought Allah was hurting her. Dr. El Saadawi knew girls who burned themselves or drowned themselves in the Nile to escape this kind of cruelty, as did the girl mentioned previously. Her feminist writings led to her dismissal as director, and later to jail and exile where she taught university students and wrote autobiographies and novels. Her name was on a fundamentalist death list, so it wasn’t safe to stay in Egypt, and she left in 1993. One threatening letter to her said, You are a heretic, an enemy of Islam, an instrument of the Devil. You are the woman who caused Adam to be chased out of Paradise, and brought death and destruction with her.. . . The slogan of your immoral association, “unveiling of the mind,” is heresy. [She founded the Arab women’s Solidarity Association and it’s magazine Noon.] Do you not know that Allah commends all Muslim women to wear the veil? The veil is sacred and you are inciting women to disobey Allah. Women like you deserve only death. After the Youth Revolution of 2011, she founded the Egyptian Union for Women in March. A staff members, Sally Ali El-haak, age 18, emailed: I knew Nawal from her writings, my parents are totally against her and that caused many problems in home! They were against me because I’m so rebel and upset from this sick society! I met Nawal for the 1st time on October 2010, we were some youth gathering at her place to discus political issues and secularism and her books. It’s a monthly forum she tried to fund it 20 years ago and after the rev, Moubarak and his regime won’t obstacle her again. So, Me, Omar Ahmed, and Dina Amiri are her assistants in the EUW. The most striking theme of Dr. El Saadawi’s autobiographies is the cruelty with which girls and women are treated, by both sexes. The custom in her village was that a bridegroom should beat his bride with a stick before she ate any of his food to make the point he ruled over her on earth, just as Allah rules from Heaven. The Korean teaches “to the male a share equal to two females,” so her grandmother gave the boys twice as much as the girls. Love was also haram, sinful, forbidden, despite all the love songs on the radio (which didn’t mention marriage). But boys had a saying, “Nothing shames a man but his pocket,” since not having money is the only thing to cause shame. She writes about her aunt and others like her, “It was the cruelty that had grown in them through suppression, the steam held back under pressure until their bodies were filled with it to bursting point.” She is critical of Islam, as when she points out men are promised 72 perpetual virgins for eternity. Reading the sayings of the Prophet, she was surprised to learn that sexual pleasure was confined to men whose virgins would say to him, “In Paradise, there is nothing better than you, nothing that I like more than being with you.” She explained, “Everything in a woman’s life was seen as shameful, even her face.” Women are the daughters of Eve, responsible for sin, impure during menstruation when they’re not to be touched and not to mention Allah’s name in prayer. When she was six, without warning, a midwife grabbed her and cut off her impure clitoris with a razor, saying it was God’s will. This ownership of women’s bodies continued in the 2011 revolution when around 18 young women protestors were tested for their virginity, supposedly to find out if they were prostitutes. No women were on recent committees to shape policy and the constitution. Will Dr. El Saadawi’s the Egyptian Union for Women make a dent in feminist reform?

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