Updated: March 24, 2021 8:53:43 am
Three decades ago, I came across God Dies by the Nile, a novel by Nawal El Saadawi, the Egyptian public intellectual who passed away on Sunday aged 89. It described an intensely patriarchal society where women were treated as pawns in a religious game. As a powerful feminist writer, she stood apart from the many voices that spoke against patriarchy in Egypt.
As a writer and medical practitioner, El Saadawi lived many lives in Egypt. Her time in exile was no different. Her training as a medical doctor was held against her since the orthodoxy was suspicious of women who aspired for a public profile. At Dar El Shefa and Al Zahara hospitals, she primarily treated women whose physical problems had been doubled by mental complications. Her patients spoke of her as “doctor of advice”. Many of her works reveal a deep analysis of women’s issues connected to a series of internal disturbances. Some were, as she said in an interview, deeply related to topographies that make women surrender to the diktats of the state and religion.
The publication of Women and Sex in 1969, a powerful testimony of the voiceless women in Egypt, made El Saadawi a suspect in the eyes of the authorities. The phenomenal impact of the book shook the religious orthodoxy. Her involvement in the publication of the feminist magazine Confrontation further accentuated their ire against her. She was arrested by the Anwar Sadat government in 1981 and lodged in Qanatir Women’s prison. Her much acclaimed novel, Women at Point Zero, is also a document of the lives of several women prisoners.
During her exile in the US, El Saadawi spoke about the West’s lack of interest in analysing Islamic fundamentalism. Some of her colleagues in the University of Washington questioned her notion of oppression. El Saadawi, on the other hand, drew the picture of a deep well of “unknowing”, where they live by imbibing only the textual knowledge of women’s liberation gained from the West.
El Saadawi believed that one became a feminist by learning from lived experience, not from books. She held that western notions of feminism had little space in Egypt and in other Islamist states. Her tireless campaign against female genital mutilation, which she argued was a tool to oppress women, led to a ban on the practice in Egypt.
Prison was another gateway for El Saadawi. The Arab Women’s Solidarity Association was formed in prison. Soon, Egypt witnessed the rise of another powerful voice, sociologist and activist Saba Mahmood, whose Piety movement reshaped the Egyptian society much before the uprising in 2011. When the uprising on Tahrir Square began, El Saadawi mobilised people on the streets. A number of university students and activists gathered to hear her. Many of them carried her controversial book, The Fall of the Imam. In her speeches she drew attention to the inhuman female genital mutilation, raised concerns about contested and dehumanised spaces produced by the Western capitalism. Her critique was aimed at a number of educational institutions in the West, which she felt, manufactured a certain set of rules and principles that chained women. She criticised the US attack on Afghanistan. She also refused to universalise resistance movements and wanted the particular to be more visible. She valued the confessions of women — the pressure placed on the religious institution/state by women’s visionary experience, she believed, devalues patriarchal authority.
El Saadawi’s was a fearless mind ranged against all authoritative tendencies in the world. In her, we see the combination of a Julia Kristeva and a Germaine Greer. Like Kristeva, El Saadawi gave importance to the utterances that somehow escaped the norm, rather than the big voices. Like Greer, she was deeply involved in the study of uneven discourses of identity. For her, feminism was never a Western construct. It was in practice ever since humans started interacting on this planet. The challenges she posed to the world were not Egypt centred. One need not look for eyewitnesses for truth, but the act of confession in any form, would make the world understand. As a novelist, she did not mythify the beauty of the land and passions. As a social thinker, she did not ape her predecessors or the West. And as an activist, she always lived in the present, where she encountered at times the cruelty of loneliness and a visceral participation in the public.
This column first appeared in the print edition on March 24, 2021 under the title ‘Fearless in Egypt’. The writer is associate professor in English at Deshbandhu College, Delhi University
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