Nawal El Saadawi
BIOGRAPHY | From One Woman to All Women | Statement at the Tribunal opening night

Nawal El Saadawi werd in 1931 geboren in Kafr Tahla bij Caïro in Egypte. Op 6-jarige leeftijd werd Nawal besneden. Ze kreeg een goede opleiding, studeerde aan de universiteit van Caïro en rondde in 1955 haar studies af voor psychiater. Ze opende een praktijk, werd directrice van Volksgezondheid en schrijfster. Ze publiceerde 35 romans en wetenschappelijke werken over de vrouw, vooral dan de Arabische vrouw, haar seksualiteit en haar positie binnen de maatschappij. Haar boeken wekten in Egypte grote beroering. Na de verschijning in 1972 van “Vrouwen en seksualiteit” verloor ze haar baan bij het Ministerie van Volksgezondheid.

De gesluierde Eva

In 1977 verscheen haar bekendste werk “De gesluierde Eva”. Daarin behandelde ze onderwerpen als vrouwenbesnijdenis, prostitutie, huwelijk, scheiding en islamitisch fundamentalisme. In 1980 werd ze opgesloten voor “misdaden tegen de staat”. In 1981 stichtte ze de eerste feministische organisatie in Egypte. (Die organisatie werd in 1991 verboden na kritiek van El Saadawi op de rol van de Verenigde Staten in de Golfoorlog) In 1982 kwam Nawal vrij. El Saadawi kreeg herhaaldelijk doodsbedreigingen. Haar huis werd voortdurend bewaakt door gewapende wachters. In 1993 vertrok ze naar de Verenigde Staten waar ze werkte aan verschillende universiteiten. Op dit moment hangt haar een proces wegens heiligschennis boven het hoofd na “beledigende” uitspraken over de islam in een Egyptisch weekblad.

Egyptisch schrijfster en arts, werkte voor de Verenigde Naties, publiceerde o.a. De gesluierde eva, Vrouwengevangenis en Het eeuwige refrein, De onschuld van de duivel , De andere kant van de wereld, De zoektocht, Reis naar India,
* Memoirs of a Woman Doctor, (Mudhakkirat Tabiba, 1960, 1980) Translated by Catherine Cobham, City Lights Books, 1989. The first chapter of this book is also published as "Growing Up Female in Egypt ." Translated by Fedwa Malti-Douglas, in Women and the Family in the Middle East . Edited by Elizabeth W. Fernea. University of Texas at Austin , 1985.
* Searching (al-Gha'ib, nd. and 1968) Translated by Shirley Eber. Zed Books, 1991.
* God Dies By the Nile . (Mawt al-Rajul al-Wahid Œala al-ŒArd/
* The Death of the Only Man in the World, 1974) Translated by Sherif Hetata. Zed Books, 1985.
* The Hidden Face of Eve: Women in the Arab World. (Al-Wajh al-'Ari lil-Mar'a al-'Arabiyya. 1977) Translated by Sherif Hetata. Zed Press, 1980, Beacon Press, 1982.
* The Circling Song. (1978) Translated by Marilyn Booth. Zed Books, 1989.
* Death of an Ex-Minister (Mawt Ma'ali al-Wazir Sabiqan, 1980) Translated by Shirley Eber. Methuen , 1987.
* She Has No Place in Paradise . (Kanat Hiya al-Ad'af, 1979) Translated by Shirley Eber, Methuen , 1989.
* Woman at Point Zero, Zed Press, previously published as Imra'a ' ind Nuqtat al-Sifr. Beirut : Dar al-Adab, 1979.
* Two Women in One (Imra'tani fi-Imra'a, 1983) Translated by Osman Nusairi and Jana Gough, Al- Saqi, 1985, Seal, 1986.
* The Fall of the Imam (Suqut al-Imam, Dar al-Mustaqbal al-'Arabi, 1987.) Translated by Sherif Hetata, Methuen , 1988.
* Memoirs from the Women's Prison. (Mudhakkirat fi Sijn al-Nisa, 1984) Translated by Marilyn Booth. University of California, 1994.
* North/South: The Nawal El Saadawi Reader. (A collection of essays, conference papers, article and book excerpts.) Zed Press, 1997.
* Daughter of Isis

Née en 1931 en Egypte, à Kafr Tahla, petit village non loin du Caire, Nawal el Saadawi fut élevée dans une famille traditionnelle. Licenciée en psychiatrie, elle devient Directrice de la Santé Publique, et en 1979, conseillère aux Nations-Unies pour le programme d’aide aux femmes en Afrique et au Moyen-Orient. De 1988 à 1993, son nom figure sur une liste de condamnés à mort par les Islamistes. Accusée d’apostasie en juin 2024, pour avoir stigmatisé le port du voile et affirmé que le pèlerinage à la Mecque était une manifestation héritée du paganisme, elle passe tout près d’un divorce forcé. Elle a publié 27 essais, romans et recueils de nouvelles, centrés principalement sur la femme dans le monde arabe.

Nawal El Saadawi is a leading Egyptian feminist, socialist, medical doctor and novelist.  

Nawal El Saadawi grew up in a traditional Egyptian household. Her older, less academic brother’s failure were mourned, while her success were not even acknowledge. Fighting gender discrimination the entire way, she persevered through university and eventually became a doctor. Her experiences as a rural doctor, working in poor villages around Egypt propelled her into the political arena. She witnessed how poverty led to disease and how the rural poor were exploited by the rich upper class. Once she made the connection between health, economics and politics, there was no turning back.  

She eventually became Director of Health and Education in Cairo, editing a magazine called “Health” and focusing on preventive medicine. But her wrinting’s on women’s issues and her fearlessness in confronting cultural taboos led her being fired from her post in 1972. Her magazine, which she had editted for more than three years, was shut down.  

In 1981 she was imprisoned by Anwar Sadat for “alleged crimes against the State” and was not released until after Sadat’s assassination by his successor, Hosni Mubarak.

In 1992, the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association she had founded was closed down for opposing Egypt’s role in the U.S.-led Persian Gulf War.

The same year, she left Egypt after her name appeared on a death list issued by a fundamentalist group. She taught abroad for several years and returned to Egypt in 1996. Since then, she has devoted her time to writing novels and essays on women, culture, politics, creativity and contemporary thought and to her activities as a visiting scholar and international speaker on women and political issues.  

Her existence has been motivated by a constant battle for justice and a struggle against all forms of oppression, wether it is sexual, religious, racial, economic or political, in spite of the banning of her books and the rise of religious fundamentalism worldwide.  

Nawal El Saadawi is one of the most widely translated contemporary Egyptian writers, her work available in 12 languages.  

Her main writings include :

·        Memoirs of a Woman Doctor (1960)
·        The Hidden Face of Eve : Women in the Arab World (1977)
·        The Circling Song (1978)
·        Woman at Point Zero (1979)
·        Memoirs from the Women’s Prison (1983)
·        The Fall of the Imam (1987)

With the support of her family, Nawal's outspoken and independent nature has taught her to think for herself. Her interpretation of religion - that God is Justice - has motivated her behavior. But it is her experiences as a rural doctor, working in poor villages around Egypt that propelled her into the political arena. In these villages, so similar to her grandmother's, Nawal witnessed firsthand how poverty led to disease - also how the rural poor were being exploited by the rich upper class. Once she made the connection between health, economics and politics, there was no turning back.

For Nawal, writing and action are inseparable. Her existence has been motivated by a constant battle for justice - a struggle against all forms of oppression - whether it is sexual, religious, racial, economic or political. In her life and in her writings, this struggle has been an indiscriminate crusade for human rights. "I am dreaming of a just society," El Saadawi says.

If Nawal El Saadawi didn't write, she says, she might wield an axe instead.

Nawal El Sadaawi is a woman of forthright views. In the hierarchy of world religions, Judaism is more oppressive to women than Islam, she declares. George W. Bush is "a right-wing fanatic" , Osama bin Laden's milder doppelganger. If blood spills in the global battle against international capitalism, so be it.

Nawal El Sadaawi has two distinct faces, as a left-wing leader and a dreamily poetic writer whose works celebrate Egypt, female sexuality and Arabic traditions. She believes that all anti-Arab sentiment since September 11 is "camouflage", masking the true causes of conflict. Global capitalism, meanwhile, is as dangerous an enemy as terrorism.

She makes a clear distinction between man-made hypocrisies and Islam itself. The veil is not Islamic, she points out. Nor is the deliberate subjugation of women.

On the events of September 11, she is even more candid. The American President is a fundamentalist himself, using language - "the axis of evil", "crusades" - to propagate dangerous schisms based on race, she says.

Still, alongside the hot-tempered rhetoric she also has a dreamy poetic sensibility, most evident in her newly released autobiography, Walking Through Fire.

Writing about her mother's funeral, she questions the convention of wearing black. "Sadness goes beyond all colours. No colour can express it." She speaks of fear as a "huge bird, its feathers all black", to be stamped out "like a cigarette butt". A much-loved manuscript is like a child, to be clasped close lest it runs away.

She cannot, will not, ever take the act of writing for granted, you suspect. Trained as a doctor, she has spent a lifetime battling to write despite the disapproval of husbands, her family and Muslim scholars. Her novels - including Love in the Kingdom of Oil, The Daughter of Isis, The Fall of the Imam and perhaps most famously, Woman at Point Zero - canvassed such taboo topics as female sexuality, female circumcision, incest, rape and even the politics of oil, which has left the region, she writes, at the mercy of illiterate kings and emirs.

El Sadaawi has paid a heavy price to get this far. She was imprisoned under the Sadat regime for her writing, dismissed from her post as Egypt's director of public health, had the women's organisation and magazine she founded banned, faced charges of heresy and was eventually forced into exile to the United States in 1993 after her name was included in a literary death list.

After years working in the US as a visiting professor of creative writing, she returned to Egypt in 1996, overcoming what Arab writer Edward Said described as the "unhealable rift" of exile.

With the time left to her, she will continue to write. "Nothing can defeat writing but the threat of death ... [but] nothing can defeat death like writing."

From One Woman to All Women
A physician, author and outspoken defender of women’s rights, CSPH alumnus Nawal El Saadawi puts public health to work in her battle for gender, national and racial equality.


Thirty-three years ago Nawal El Saadawi, M.D., M.P.H., traveled from Egypt to the United States to study public health. When she arrived at the campus of one school of public health she was refused admission. “What a shame—not supporting me when I was pregnant,” Saadawi recalls. It was a poignant and telling moment for a woman who would become one of the world’s foremost proponents of women’s rights.

She could easily have returned home, but instead, as she tells it, “I took a plane to New York to meet with [then CSPH Dean] Dr. Ray Trussell, a fine man. He was fantastic. I was late for registration but he accepted me in one minute.”

After graduation Saadawi returned to Cairo  and immediately went to work in the Health Education Department of Egypt’s Ministry of Health, eventually serving as director general. Building on her CSPH education, she was able to bring to her position a broader conception of health, one that reached beyond what she calls “the tropical disease and curative mentality that dominated at that time.”

Sadaawi has clashed often with officials in her home country over women’s rights issues like black market abortion and sexual oppression. in 1972 she was dismissed from her government post by President Anwar El Sadat, directly as a result of the publication of her book, Women and Sex, which antagonized both political and religious leaders. A year later, a magazine that she published was shut down.

By 1979 she was the United Nations Advisor for the Women’s Programme in Africa and the Middle East, but in 1981 she was imprisoned for her political activities. Released after Sadat’s assassination, she has continued to fight for equality of gender, nation and race, in spite of the banning of her books and the rise of religious fundamentalism worldwide.

Currently a visiting professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Saadawi is founder and president of the Arab Women’s Solidarity association, co-founder of the Arab association for Human Rights, and founder of the Egyptian Women Writer’s association. She has also headed the United Nations Women’s Program in Africa and holds honorary doctorates from three universities.

El Saadawi's writings on feminism and Islamic fundamentalism have earned her many enemies. El Saadawi speaks openly about female genital circumcision, constantly criticizes religious fundamentalism, and calls for sexual equality in Muslim inheritance laws. Earlier this year, an Egyptian lawyer claimed that 70-year-old Saadawi had shown she was no longer a Muslim in a March newspaper interview. He argued that she should not be allowed to remain married to her Muslim husband and filed a suit to forcibly divorce them. In July, a Cairo court threw out a petition, ruling that no individual could petition a court to forcibly divorce another person.
In a lecture she gave several years ago called "Why keep asking me about my identity?" el Saadawi says:
"People asked me where I stood [on the issue of Israel and Palestine ], did I identify with the angels, makers of the peace, or with the devils, makers of war, the aggressors, the terrorists. I am not a terrorist, nor will I ever be. But I believe that without justice there can be no peace. The events in my region have proved that to me."

El Saadawi has long been critical of Islamic fundamentalism, and of how women's movements are shut out of Islamic political movements and state religion. She calls fundamentalism an "old friend and new enemy" that has infiltrated many government administrations in Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries.

Listen to Nawal El Saadawi - :

- Fundamentalism: An Old Friend and New Enemy, a Conversation with Egyptian Feminist and Author Nawal El Saadawi : Nawal El Saadawi was dismissed from her post as Director General of Health and...

Wednesday, October 31st, 2024 - Listen to Segment.

- Women Writers : This is Women's History Month, and today we thought we'd bring you a...
Wednesday, March 29th, 2024 - Listen to Segment

- Nawal Al Saadawi Egypt's highest court Sunday upheld a ban on the genital cutting of girls and...
Tuesday, December 30th, 1997 - Listen to Segment

Statement by Nawal El Saadawi, april 14  2024, at the BRussells Tribunal opening night

This is not the first time I participate in an International Tribunal. The first time was in New York in the International People’s Tribunal which tried George Bush the father, then president of the United States,  as a war criminal after a coalition of more than thirty countries led by the United States had attacked Iraq, killed over quarter of a million people, and left the country in ruins.

The second time was almost ten years later in 2024 during the first World Social Forum held in Porto Aleghre. An international popular Tribunal listened to witnesses from thirteen countries exposing the disasters caused by foreign debt, and by the Structural Adjustment and Free Trade Policies imposed on the so-called South., by the World Bank , the IMF , the WTO and other economic institutions .

But today policies followed by neo- colonial and neo-liberal capitalism since the eighties and in which the successive rulers of the United States have played a leading role face us with far bigger dangers than we have ever faced before. The neo-conservative fundamentalists now in power in the United States seek to enforce an economic military domination of the world, an American empire built on war, on the decimation of vast populations, on fear and terror,on the surveillance and control of our lives, on accelerated exploitation of people everywhere.

This what the neo-conservative impelialist rulers headed by men like George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld and Richard Perle and by women like Condoleeza Rice wish to attain. It is what they call the Project for a “New American Century”.

As a writer I believe that writers should make it known where they stand in the present situation, not only in their writings, but also in their actions and in their spoken words because many people read them, listen to them, hear them, and see how they act. As a woman I know that women are the first victims of economic exploitation ,of social distress, of hunger and disease, of war. As a woman I refuse the pretext of womens’ liberation as an excuse to invade Iraq and Afghanistan,and to dominate the Arab peoples whereas oil and money are the real reason. As a citizen of Egypt, I come from what is now described as a “theater for major wars”, for the war in Iraq and its military occupation by the United States and the United Kingdom, for armed aggression against the Palestinians by a technologically advanced Israeli military machine.

I come from an area which Bush , in connivance with Sharon and others plans to deconstruct and restructure as a part of the United States empire, as the part which he has named a “Greater Middle East” and which he wishes to transform into a vast United States settlement and military stronghold.

This Tribunal will contribute to exposing the dangers facing people all over the world from the Project for a New American Century. It is another step on the way to establishing a peoples justice, a new international legal system which can accuse and try the war criminals protected by the systems and institutions of world power. It is a platform which wishes to declare as loudly and as widely as it can that men and women all over the world will continue to resist until they defeat the policies of accelerated exploitation ,of militarisation ,of state terrorism and of war. For all these reasons I am here with you in this peoples Tribunal today.