Nawal Saadawi and her battle for the written word

Saadawi during her recent talk at the Beirut International Book Fair.

BEIRUT: Throughout her long career, Egyptian writer and thinker Nawal Saadawi has been a tireless advocate of such essential causes as liberty and women’s rights. At the age of 82 she’s still battling the world’s injustices through her passion for excellence in writing.“There are moments of doubt and fatigue and loneliness of course but they quickly fade and I return to my fun and hopeful and active nature,” Saadawi told The Daily Star during a recent visit to Beirut.

“Writing is the love of my life. It makes me oblivious to everything else. And loneliness is a grace for the artist ... Doubt also leads to questions and ultimately to more creativity.”

A feminist writer and activist, physician and psychiatrist who practiced medicine for some time, Saadawi has written many books on the subject of women in Islam, paying particular attention to her society’s practice of female genital mutilation, which she herself underwent at an early age.

“I married three times,” Saadawi told the audience attending her recent talk at the Beirut International Exhibition and Leisure center, “and I divorced three times. And if could turn back time, I would not marry or have children at all.”

Motherhood, she said, is a trap that society uses to ensnare women and limit them to one particular identity, to which they have to sacrifice all their time.

For Saadawi the problem is not in motherhood itself, of course, but the patriarchal system in which it has been subsumed.

Contrary to the depictions of some, she explained to The Daily Star, nature is not itself against women, or against men. Rather “the political systems in power turn women against themselves.”

She argues that the status of women has deteriorated with social changes witnessed throughout the course of history.

“Children used to be attributed to their mothers,” she said.

“But with the emergence of the patriarchal system, the rights of the mother have been wasted and children have come to be considered the property of the father. Carrying their mothers’ name is now a shame.”

Saadawi retains hope that women will achieve the freedom to which they aspire. Such liberty, she believes, will only be achieved by women themselves.

“Hope is power and women will emancipate themselves through creative work and hope,” she said. “A woman is one who liberates herself via constant awareness and continuous organization.

“Success, in my opinion, is to move from failure to failure,” she continued. “Failure is positive and necessary for success. Victory and defeat are two sides of the same coin, or relative issues that vary, depending on your philosophy of life.”

Saadawi also seems to retain a positive outlook on recent changes in the Arab world.

“Yes ... there is a decline in the course of the revolutions in our country,” she acknowledged, “especially when it comes to the rights of women and the poor, but such decline is temporary and the revolutions will regain their strength.”

Saadawi’s struggle has not been easy, as she has been subject to attacks by Islamists and even some critics in officialdom.

“The price you pay for creative writing is costly,” she said.

“I paid it all: prison, exile, dismissal from work, defamation, having my name placed on death lists, having Hisbah [control of observance of Islamic principles] lawsuits leveled against me, being forced to divorce my husband, having my Egyptian nationality withdrawn, being accused of blasphemy.”

Her family members, especially her two children, have also faced persecution by society.

“But she has a strong determination,” Saadawi said of her daughter, writer and poet Maha Helmi, “and she continues to challenge [society] through her writing.”

She acknowledges that her rebellious lifestyle has had an impact upon her children. “I feel momentary guilt when I think of the sacrifices my family made because of my rebellion and revolution,” she says simply, “but such moments quickly fade when I see the creative production of my son and daughter.”

She is frustrated that the false consciousness of manhood leads women to be attracted to “virile” men and, with them, abusive relations. All this, she thinks, needs to change.

Speaking for herself, Saadawi said that knowledge of the world – mingled with self-knowledge – has made writing a healing journey for her. “Creative writing is the best cure for physical and psychological illnesses, including masochism,” she said. “I’m also immune to mental illness by awareness of course.”

Saadawi does not dismiss the power of love, but only under the right circumstances.

“Love is an upstanding humanitarian relationship if it is real,” she said, “but most love relationships are utilitarian because of the prevailing political and family systems, based on pragmatism and double standards.”

Saadawi has become an inspiration for many of the region’s women writers. It is a mark of her pioneering role in the field that the writer does not herself seem to have found role models among her predecessors.

“I do not believe in idols,” she said. “The only idol I have is maintain my writing and creativity.”





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