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By Rosa Salgado / Women weaving peace

Nawal El Saadawi (La Trastienda)

“Nothing can defeat death like writing…Is that why writing was forbidden to women and slaves?”

She graduated with a Doctorate in Medicine in 1954. In 1957 she was appointed Director General of Public Health, though she later was dismissed in 1972 due to the publication of her first book Women and Sex, which dealt with the humiliating manner in which women in the Arab world are treated. She has worked for the United Nations and she has received the XV International Cataluña Award in 2003 for her struggle for the liberty of women in the Arab world and for democratization and social justice in Muslim society. She was exiled to the United States in 1993, where she lectured at the Duke University in Seattle. Currently, she lives in Egypt.

We can imagine Nawal el Saadawi when she was seven years old walking along the banks of the Nile which, in her village, Kafr Tahla, is called Al-Bahr, which means “the sea”. While walking she thinks of her family: of the lives of her aunts, her cousins, her grandmother, her mother, all of whom were married when they were still just girls, and all of whom prayed to Allah to one day give birth to boys and not girls, as tradition decrees. Girls can’t change destiny. They are only good for working and they must aspire to be married without rebelling against God, accepting everything that comes from family convenience and imposing silence upon themselves in the presence of a man.

She becomes infuriated because one boy is worth the same as fifteen girls. The father is the one who names his children and when the mother dies the only thing she takes to her grave is her solitude, the same solitude in which she lived. In her imagination she cherishes the idea that marriage might not be an inevitable end in itself. Her suitors and successive possible boyfriends to whom she was introduced realized that she “ loved the touch of a pen in her hand much more than the feel of a ladle or the handle of a broom, and so one by one they disappeared like the gust of a gentle breeze at night”. Yet at the same time, she asks herself why the women in her house have been accomplices and victims of a failure to break away from a life of servitude to men. Throughout her existence, writing has been her life, has been the answer to and the search for reason, has been the true and the false and has offered a view of reality without deception. For Nawal El Saadawi, “Writing has been the antithesis of death and yet, paradoxically, the reason why in 1992 I was put on a death-list”.

There is no other imaginable way to face the silence, the marginalization and the deep wound left in the body and in the depths of humanity, the wounds left by the experience of women who are close to the family looking for the six-year-old girl, Nawal, and cutting off her clitoris with a razor blade. It’s a wound which never heals and that remains open for ever. The only thing that soothes her pain is saving other women from this appalling sacrifice. Her mother couldn’t save her from excision, but Nawal protected her daughter and many other girls by means of her denouncement of the horrible act. It is an unforgettable memory for those girls and women who have been circumcised throughout the world. However, despite the horror and the measures that have been taken against female genital mutilation, in the world today there are more than three million girls in 28 countries in Africa and in some regions of Asia who still suffer this brutal act of violence.

Nawal el Saadawi identifies herself in the land of the pharaohs but, after those majestic queens, women in Egypt don’t exist in its history because they haven’t been allowed to write it. One generation after another, the oral narration of their existence has been passed down from grandmothers to mothers, then mothers to their daughters, and so the cycle continues.

Nawal assisted the university, obtaining excellent grades but with great personal and familiar sacrifice. Her father’s income was scant and she was always in danger of facing a future working in the kitchen with her mother, but luckily, her mother was her main ally. Her mother never needed her help in the kitchen. And so Nawal was saved.

After graduating in 1954 as a doctorate in Medicine, she worked in different hospitals, she held positions of great responsibility, she became the director general of Public Health from 1958 to 1972, (from which she was dismissed for the publication of Women and Sex). But she never stopped thinking that what she most desired in this world was to change it, and that the best tool she had was her pen, and not the scalpel. Writing had been a launching platform, to avoid possible marriages, to fight against discrimination of women, to breathe amidst the suffocation of political persecution, to take comfort during exile, in the United States, and to rebuild what they had destroyed and to resist the fundamentalists who condemned her to death.

Nawal El Saadawi (AP)

Liberty and equality are the main principles which have accompanied Nawal throughout her life as a doctor and a writer. Due to her public opposition to any kind of discrimination based on class, gender, nationality, race or religious beliefs, she was condemned during Sadat’s presidency to the Women’s Prison at Al-Kanatir in 1981. “The visitors of the dawn”, those silent men, well-dressed and wearing gloves and dark glasses, who turned up just before dawn, kept watch on her for more than a year while she was a prisoner in her own house until, in 1993, she was forced to go into exile.

On the black list where she appeared together with other Egyptian intellectuals, the accusation of Nawal was always the same: “inciting women to rebel against the divine laws of Islam”, a sentence which was repeated even though there were changes in Government. These “divine laws” were an invisible enemy, but also the most dangerous and paralyzing. The Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak ordered in 1991 the closure of the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association, which had been founded by Nawal in 1982. This great woman has confronted ignorance, poverty and disease, and for these reasons she has been successively persecuted by the Egyptian governments.

The same woman who has brought to light the humiliation and violence which millions of women in Arab countries suffer, dreamt of pianos when she was a little girl. She never liked secrets or whispering, as she always found them “disgusting and suspicious”. Her books and her articles have been acts of rebellion made in a clear and strong voice against those who practice injustice in the name of morality, religion and social values.