Nawal El Saadawi

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Nawal El Saadawi
Nawal El Saadawi 02.JPG
Nawal El Saadawi
Native name نوال السعداوى
Born (1931-10-27) October 27, 1931 (age 84)
Kafr Tahla, Egypt
Occupation Physician, psychiatrist, author, feminist
Spouse(s) Sherif Hatata (m. 1964; div. 2010)[1]
Children 2

Nawal El Saadawi (Arabic: نوال السعداوى‎‎, born October 27, 1931) is an Egyptian feminist writer, activist, physician and psychiatrist. She has written many books on the subject of women in Islam, paying particular attention to the practice of female genital mutilation in her society. She has been described as "the Simone de Beauvoir of the Arab World".[2]

She is founder and president of the Arab Women's Solidarity Association [3] and co-founder of the Arab Association for Human Rights.[4] She has been awarded honorary degrees on three continents. In 2004, she won the North-South prize from the Council of Europe. In 2005, she won the Inana International Prize in Belgium,[5] and in 2012, the International Peace Bureau is awarded her with the 2012 Seán MacBride Peace Prize.[6]

Nawal el Saadawi has held positions of Author for the Supreme Council for Arts and Social Sciences, Cairo; Director General of the Health Education Department, Ministry of Health, Cairo, Secretary General of Medical Association, Cairo, Egypt, and Medical Doctor, University Hospital and Ministry of Health. She is the founder of Health Education Association and the Egyptian Women Writer’s Association; she was Chief Editor of Health Magazine in Cairo, Egypt and Editor of Medical Association Magazine.[7][8]

Early life[edit]

Saadawi was born in 1931 in the small village of Kafr Tahla, the second eldest of nine children.[8] Her family was at once traditional and progressive: El Saadawi was "circumcised", her clitoris cut off,[9] at the age of six, yet her father insisted that all his children be educated.[8] Her father was a government official in the Ministry of Education, who had campaigned against the rule of the British occupation of Egypt and Sudan during the Egyptian Revolution of 1919. As a result, he was exiled to a small town in the Nile Delta and the government punished him by not promoting him for 10 years. He was relatively progressive and taught her self-respect and to speak her mind. He also encouraged her to study the Arabic language. Both her parents died at a young age,[8] leaving Saadawi with the sole burden of providing for a large family.[10]


Saadawi graduated as a medical doctor in 1955 from Cairo University. That year she married Ahmed Helmi, who she met as a fellow student in medical school. The marriage ended two years later.[11][9] Through her medical practice, she observed women's physical and psychological problems and connected them with oppressive cultural practices, patriarchal oppression, class oppression and imperialist oppression.[12]

While working as a doctor in her birthplace of Kafr Tahla, she observed the hardships and inequalities faced by rural women. After attempting to protect one of her patients from domestic violence, Saadawi was summoned back to Cairo. She eventually became the Director of the Ministry of Public Health and met her third husband, Sherif Hatata, while sharing an office in the Ministry of Health. Hetata, also a medical doctor and writer, had been a political prisoner for 13 years. They married in 1964 and have a son and a daughter.[10] Saadawi divorced Hetata after living with him for 43 years.[13]

In 1972 she published Woman and Sex (المرأة والجنس), confronting and contextualising various aggressions perpetrated against women's bodies, including female circumcision. The book became a foundational text of second-wave feminism. As a consequence of the book and her political activities, Saadawi was dismissed from her position at the Ministry of Health.[12] Similar pressures cost her a later position as chief editor of a health journal, and as Assistant General Secretary in the Medical Association in Egypt. From 1973 to 1976 she worked on researching women and neurosis in the Ain Shams University's Faculty of Medicine. From 1979 to 1980 she was the United Nations Advisor for the Women's Programme in Africa (ECA) and Middle East (ECWA).


Long viewed as controversial and dangerous by the Egyptian government, Saadawi helped publish a feminist magazine in 1981 called Confrontation. She was imprisoned in September by President of Egypt Anwar Sadat.[14] She was released later that year, one month after the President's assassination. Of her experience she wrote: "Danger has been a part of my life ever since I picked up a pen and wrote. Nothing is more perilous than truth in a world that lies."[15]

Saadawi was one of the women held at Qanatir Women's Prison. Her incarceration formed the basis for her memoir, Memoirs from the Women's Prison (Arabic: مذكراتفي سجن النساء ‎‎ , 1983). Her contact with a prisoner at Qanatir, nine years before she was imprisoned there, served as inspiration for an earlier work, a novel titled Woman at Point Zero (Arabic: امرأة عند نقطة الصفر‎‎, 1975).

Further persecution, teaching in the US, and on-going activism[edit]

In 1988, when her life was threatened by Islamists and political persecution, Saadawi was forced to flee Egypt. She accepted an offer to teach at Duke University's Asian and African Languages Department in North Carolina, as well as the University of Washington. She has since held positions at a number of prestigious colleges and universities including Cairo University, Harvard, Yale, Columbia, the Sorbonne, Georgetown, Florida State University, and the University of California, Berkeley. In 1996, she moved back to Egypt.[16] Nawal thus speaks fluent English in addition to her native Egyptian Arabic.

She has continued her activism and considered running in the 2005 Egyptian presidential election, before stepping out because of stringent requirements for first-time candidates.

She was awarded the 2004 North–South Prize by the Council of Europe.[17]

She was among the protesters in Tahrir Square in 2011.[18] She has called for the abolition of religious instruction in the Egyptian schools.


Saadawi began writing early in her career. Her earliest writings include a selection of short stories entitled I Learned Love (1957) and her first novel, Memoirs of a Woman Doctor (1958). She has since written numerous novels and short stories and a personal memoir, Memoir from the Women's Prison (1986). Saadawi has been published in a number of anthologies, and her work has been translated into more than 20 languages.

In 1972, she published her first work of non-fiction, Women and Sex, which evoked the antagonism of highly placed political and theological authorities. It also led to her dismissal at the Ministry of Health. Other works include The Hidden Face of Eve, God Dies by the Nile, The Circling Song, Searching, The Fall of the Imam[19] and Woman at Point Zero.

She contributed the piece "When a woman rebels" to the 1984 anthology Sisterhood Is Global, edited by Robin Morgan.[20]

Saadawi's novel Zeina was published in Lebanon in 2009. The French translation was published under the pseudonym Nawal Zeinab el Sayed, using her mother's maiden name.[21]

She sees the question of translation into English or French as "a big problem" linked to the fact that "the colonial capitalist powers are mainly English- or French-speaking.... I am still ignored by big literary powers in the world, because I write in Arabic, and also because I am critical of the colonial, capitalist, racist, patriarchal mind set of the super-powers."[22]


Advocacy against genital mutilation[edit]

At a young age, Saadawi underwent the process of female genital mutilation.[23] As an adult she has written about and criticized this practice. She responded to the death of a 12-year-old girl, Bedour Shaker, during a genital circumcision operation in 2007 by writing: "Bedour, did you have to die for some light to shine in the dark minds? Did you have to pay with your dear life a price ... for doctors and clerics to learn that the right religion doesn't cut children's organs."[24] As a doctor and human rights activist, Saadawi is also opposed to male circumcision. She believes that both male and female children deserve protection from genital mutilation.[25]


Saadawi was a devout Muslim and she has expressed the view that women are oppressed by the large patriarchal religions.[26] In a 2014 interview Saadawi said that "the root of the oppression of women lies in the global post-modern capitalist system, which is supported by religious fundamentalism".[27]

When hundreds of people were killed in what has been called a "stampede" during the 2015 pilgrimage (Hajj) of Muslims to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, she said: "They talk about changing the way [the hajj] is administered, about making people travel in smaller groups. What they don’t say is that the crush happened because these people were fighting to stone the devil. Why do they need to stone the devil? Why do they need to kiss that black stone? But no one will say this. The media will not print it. What is it about, this reluctance to criticise religion? ... This refusal to criticise religion ... is not liberalism. This is censorship."[13]

She has said that elements of the Hajj, such as kissing the Black Stone, had pre-Islamic pagan roots.[28]


Saadawi describes the Islamic veil as "a tool of oppression of women".[29][9][30] She is equally critical about the objectification of women and female bodies without male bodies in patriarchal social structures.[31]

United States[edit]

In a 2002 lecture at the University of California, Saadawi described the US-led war on Afghanistan as "a war to exploit the oil in the region", and US foreign policy and its support of Israel as "real terrorism".[32] Saadawi has opined that Egyptians are forced into poverty by US aid.[33]

Awards and honors[edit]


Saadawi has written prolifically, placing some of her works online.[36] Her books include:

  • Memoirs of a Woman Doctor (1960, 1980; translated by Catherine Cobham, 1989)
  • Searching (1968; translated by Shirley Eber, 1991)
  • The Death of the Only Man in the World (1974; translated by Sherif Hetata, 1985) Published in English under the title God Dies by the Nile
  • Woman at Point Zero (1975; translated by Sherif Hetata, 1983)
  • The Hidden Face of Eve: Women in the Arab World (1977; transl. by Sherif Hetata, 1980)
  • The Circling Song (1978; transl. by Marilyn Booth, 1989)
  • Death of an Ex-Minister (1980; transl. by Shirley Eber, 1987)
  • She Has No Place in Paradise (1979; transl. by Shirley Eber)
  • Two Women in One (1983; transl. by Osman Nusairi and Jana Gough, 1985)
  • The Fall of the Imam (1987; transl. by Sherif Hetata, 1988)
  • Memoirs from the Women's Prison (1984; transl. by Marilyn Booth, 1994)
  • The Innocence of the Devil (1994; transl. by Sherif Hetata, 1994)
  • North/South: The Nawal El Saadawi Reader (1997)
  • Love in the Kingdom of Oil, translated by Basil Hatim and Malcolm Williams (Saqi Books, 2000)
  • The Novel (2004; transl. by Omnia Amin and Rick London, 2009)
  • A Daughter of Isis
  • Dissidenza e scrittura (2008)
  • L'amore ai tempi del petrolio, translated by Marika Macco, introduction by Luisa Morgantini, Editrice il Sirente, Fagnano Alto, 2009. ISBN 978-88-87847-16-1

Publication history[edit]

The following is a complete list of her books.[37] All originals in Arabic. Many have been translated into English, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Italian, Dutch, Finnish, Indonesian, Japanese, Persian, Turkish, Urdu, and other 30 languages.

Novels (in Arabic)[edit]

  • Memoirs of a Woman Doctor (Cairo, 1958)
  • The Absent One (Cairo, 1969)
  • Two Women in One (Cairo, 1971)
  • Woman at Point Zero (Beirut, 1973)
  • The Death of the Only Man on Earth (Beirut, 1975)
  • The Children’s Circling Song (Beirut, 1976)
  • The Fall of the Imam (Cairo, 1987)
  • Ganat and the Devil (Beirut, 1991)
  • Love in the Kingdom of Oil (Cairo, 1993)
  • The Novel (Dar El Hilal Publishers Cairo 2004)
  • Zeina, Novel (Dar Al Saqi Beirut, 2009)

Short story collections (in Arabic)[edit]

  • I Learnt Love (Cairo, 1957)
  • A Moment of Truth (Cairo, 1959)
  • Little Tenderness (Cairo, 1960)
  • The Thread and the Wall (Cairo, 1972)
  • Ain El Hayat (Beirut, 1976)
  • She was the Weaker (Beirut, 1977)
  • Death of an Ex-minister (Beirut, 1978)
  • Adab Am Kellet Abad (Cairo, 2000)

Plays (in Arabic)[edit]

  • Twelve Women in a Cell (Cairo, 1984)
  • Isis (Cairo, 1985)
  • God Resigns in the Summit Meeting (1996), published by Madbouli, and other four plays included in her Collected Works (45 books in Arabic) published by Madbouli in Cairo 2007

Memoirs (in Arabic)[edit]

  • Memoirs in a Women’s Prison (Cairo, 1983)
  • My Travels Around the World (Cairo, 1986)
  • Memoirs of a Child Called Soad (Cairo, 1990)
  • My Life, Part I, Autobiography (Cairo, 1996)
  • My Life, Part II, Autobiography (Cairo, 1998)
  • My Life, Part III, (Cairo, 2001)

Non-fiction (in Arabic)[edit]

  • Women and Sex (Cairo, 1969)
  • Woman is the Origin (Cairo, 1971)
  • Men and Sex (Cairo, 1973)
  • The Naked Face of Arab Women (Cairo, 1974)
  • Women and Neurosis (Cairo, 1975)
  • On Women (Cairo, 1986)
  • A New Battle in Arab Women Liberation (Cairo, 1992)
  • Collection of Essays (Cairo, 1998)
  • Collection of Essays (Cairo, 2001)
  • Breaking Down Barriers (Cairo, 2004)

Books translated into English[edit]

  • The Hidden Face of Eve [Study] (London: Zed Books, 1980), re issued 2008
  • Woman at Point Zero [novel] (London: Zed Books, 1982), re issued 2008
  • God Dies by the Nile [novel] (London: Zed Books, 1984) reissued 2008
  • Circling Song [novel] (London: Zed Books, 1986) reissued 2008
  • The Fall of Imam [novel] (London: Methuen, 1987) Saqui Books London 2001, 2009
  • Searching [novel] (London: Zed Books, 1988) reissued 2008
  • Death of an Ex-minister [short stories] (London: Methuen, 1987)
  • She has no Place in Paradise [short stories] (London: Methuen, 1987)
  • My Travel Around the World [non-fiction] (London: Methuen, 1985)
  • Memoirs from the Women’s Prison [non-fiction] (London: Women’s Press, 1985) (also: University of California Press, USA, 1995)
  • Two Women in One [novel] (London: Al-Saqi Books, 1992)
  • Memoirs of a Women Doctor [novel] (London: Methuen, 1994) (also: City Lights, USA, 1993)
  • The Well of Life [two novels] (London: Methuen, 1994)
  • The Innocence of the Devil [novel] (London: Methuen, 1994) (also: University of California Press, 1995)
  • Nawal El Saadawi Reader [non-fiction essays] (London: Zed Books, 1997)
  • Vol 11 Nawal El Saadawi Reader (Zed Books 2009)
  • Part I A Daughter of Isis [autobiography] (London: Zed Books, 1999) reissued 2008
  • Part II Walking Through Fire [autobiography] (London: Zed Books, 2002) reissued 2008
  • Love in the Kingdom of oil [novel] (London: Alsaqui Books, 2001)
  • The Novel [novel] (Northampton, Mass: Interlink Books, 2009)
  • Zeina [novel] (London: Saqi Books, 2011)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Mahmoud El-Wardani (April 24, 2014). "El-Saadawi and Hatata: Voyage of a lifetime". Ahram Online. Retrieved 2015-11-30. 
  2. ^ "Nawal El Saadawi | Egyptian physician, psychiatrist, author and feminist". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2016-03-07. 
  3. ^ Hitchcock, Peter, Nawal el Saadawi, Sherif Hetata. “Living the Struggle.” Transition 61 (1993): 170-179.
  4. ^ Nawal El Saadawi, "Presentation by Nawal El Saadawi: President's Forum, M/MLA Annual Convention, November 4, 1999", The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association 33.3-34.1 (Autumn 2000 - Winter 2001): 34-39.
  5. ^ "PEN World Voices Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture by Nawal El Saadawi". YouTube.
  6. ^ "International Peace Bureau". Retrieved September 25, 2015. 
  7. ^ "Nawal El Saadawi". Retrieved February 12, 2014. 
  8. ^ a b c d "Nawal El Saadawi". Retrieved September 25, 2015. 
  9. ^ a b c Khaleeli, Homa. "Nawal El Saadawi: Egypt's radical feminist". The Guardian. Retrieved September 25, 2015. 
  10. ^ a b Exile and Resistance
  11. ^ Koseli, Yusuf (2013). "A PSYCHOANALYTIC APPROACH TO THE NOVEL OF NAWAL EL SAADAWI TITLED MÜZEKKİRAT TABİBE" (PDF). The Journal of International Social Research. 6 (28). Retrieved 16 November 2014. 
  12. ^ a b Feminism in a nationalist century Archived April 19, 2010, at the Wayback Machine.
  13. ^ a b Cooke, Rachel (11 October 2015). "Nawal El Saadawi: 'Do you feel you are liberated? I feel I am not'". The Observer. Retrieved 23 October 2015. 
  14. ^ Uglow, Jennifer S.; Hendry, Maggy (1999). The Northeastern Dictionary of Women's Biography. Northeastern University Press. pp. 189–190. ISBN 9781555534219. 
  15. ^ Egypt's face of courage at the Wayback Machine (archived October 30, 2004)
  16. ^ Nawal El Saadawi in conversation with Yasmin Alibhai-Brown
  17. ^ The North South Prize of the Council of Europe
  18. ^ "The Feminists in the Middle of Tahrir Square", Newsweek, March 6, 2011.
  19. ^ Philip Womack. "The Fall of the Imam by Nawal El Saadawi" (review), New Humanist, 20 August 20009.
  20. ^ "Table of Contents: Sisterhood is global :". Retrieved October 15, 2015. 
  21. ^ "Radical writer back with vengeance". The National. September 7, 2009. Retrieved November 17, 2014. 
  22. ^ Dele Meiji Fatunla, "Nawal El Saadawi: 'My identity is not fixed'", New African, 30 June 2016.
  23. ^ Nawal el-Saadawi, The Hidden Face of Eve, Part 1: The Mutilated Half.
  24. ^ Maggie Michael, "Egypt Officials Ban Female Circumcision",, June 30, 2007.
  25. ^ Allston Mitchell. "Nawal al Saadawi". The Global Dispatches. Retrieved February 12, 2014. 
  26. ^ "Interview: In conversation with … Nawal El Saadawi". Retrieved November 16, 2014. 
  27. ^ Fariborz, Arian (July 5, 2014). "They don't want any really courageous people!". - Dialogue with the Islamic World. Retrieved November 5, 2015. 
  28. ^ "No compromise", Correspondent, BBC News, October 26, 2001.
  29. ^ Bhaduri, Aditi. "Interview: Dr. Nawal El Saadawi". Retrieved 17 November 2014. 
  30. ^ Mitchell, Allston. "Nawal al Saadawi". Retrieved 16 November 2014. 
  31. ^ El Saadawi, Nawal. "The Nawal El Saadawi Reader". Retrieved 8 April 2015. 
  32. ^ Pasquini, Elaine. "El Saadawi Calls U.S. Foreign Policy "Real Terrorism"". Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. Retrieved November 17, 2014. 
  33. ^ Nielsen, Nikolaj (July 11, 2013). "Nawal El Saadawi: 'I am against stability. We need revolution'". The Chronikler. Retrieved November 19, 2014. 
  34. ^ "Motvillig El Saadawi får Dagermanpriset". SvD (in Swedish). January 9, 2012. Retrieved October 27, 2012. 
  35. ^ "Lydnad är ett dödligt gift". Kultur (in Swedish). 15 May 2012. Retrieved 27 October 2012. 
  36. ^ Works available online at Saadawi's website.
  37. ^ "Nawal El Saadawi". 30 June 2008. Retrieved 12 February 2014. 

External links[edit]