Persecuted, imprisoned, mutilated, and silenced, Nawal El Saadawi could have lived it all in almost nine decades of her life.
The pioneering Egyptian feminist, writer, and psychiatrist passed away last Sunday at the age of 89, leaving an immense legacy for her fight against oppression and misogyny in the Middle East and the rest of the world.
In fact, if today the world is aware of practices such as female mutilation, it was precisely because of the courage of Nawal El Saadawi, who recounted her own experience when she saw the floor of her home bathroom filled with her own blood when she was six years.
Born in a town outside Cairo in the 1930s, El Saadawi was the second child of nine, the daughter of a public servant and a wealthy mother.
From an early age, El Saadawi opposed patriarchy when she refused to marry at age 10. She studied medicine at the University of Cairo and specialized in psychiatry.
But it was her literary work that would transform her into an international icon and public enemy of the Egyptian regime for much of the 20th century.
In 1972, her book “Woman and Sex” confronted and contextualized the attacks perpetrated against women’s bodies, including mutilation. The book would become a foundational text for the second wave of feminism.
The success of “Women and Sex” would cost her position in the Ministry of Health, her health magazine, and the deputy general secretary in the Egyptian Medical Association.
Between 1973 and 1976, Saadawi worked as a researcher on women’s issues and neurosis at the Ain Shams University School of Medicine. In the late 1970s, she would work as an advisor to the United Nations for the Program for Women in Africa (ECA) and the Middle East (ECWA).
But it would be the magazine Confrontation that would lead her to consolidate herself as a radical feminist against the aggressive Arab system. She was labeled a “dangerous woman” by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and imprisoned in September 1981.
However, the prison would not detain Nawal El Saadawi. While she was detained, she formed the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association, the first legal and independent feminist group in Egypt. During her time in jail, she also wrote her memoirs on toilet paper with an eyebrow pencil.
“Danger has been a part of my life ever since I picked up a pen and wrote,” she reflected on her memories. “Nothing is more perilous than truth in a world that lies.”
El Saadawi was released after the assassination of President Sadat, but her work was censored, and her books were banned, the BBC explained.
“Memories from the Women’s Prison” and “Woman at Point Zero” would be two of her works inspired by her time in jail.
Once the threats to her life from Islamist fundamentalists were too much, El Saadawi fled to the United States, where she taught at Duke University in North Carolina, as well as the University of Washington.
Her career as an academic took her to major institutions such as Harvard, Yale, Columbia, the Sorbonne, Georgetown, and the University of California.
In 1996, El Saadawi returned to Egypt, continued her activism, and joined Tahrir Square’s demonstrations in 2011 that would detonate the so-called Arab Spring.
When BBC presenter Zeinab Badawi suggested during an interview in 2018 that she tone down her criticism, El Saadawi replied: “No. I should be more outspoken; I should be more aggressive because the world is becoming more aggressive, and we need people to speak loudly against injustices.”
“I speak loudly because I am angry.”
Her work has been translated into more than 40 languages, and there is not a woman of color whose life has not been impacted, in one way or another, by El Saadawi’s struggle.
In 2020, TIME magazine included her on its list of 100 women of the year, dedicating a cover to her.
However, her only dream was to be recognized by her own country, where she was always considered an agent provocateur.
El Saadawi died in a hospital in Cairo at the age of 89, but her work will live forever.