b. 1932, Kafir Tahla, Egypt
novelist, feminist, and activist
Nawal el-Saadawi, the best-known Arab feminist, activist, and author, was born in Egypt, one of nine siblings (six sisters and three brothers) to a middle-class family. Her father was an employee of the Ministry of Education. "My daughter will never be made to stay at home," her mother, who has had a lasting influence on her children, would often remind her husband. El-Saadawi's recent autobiography A Daughter of his (1999) (Izis) (1986), translated by her husband Sherif Hetata (a medical doctor and author in his own right and major translator of most of her works), gives us new insights to the life achievement of this remarkable Arab feminist author of more than thirty avantgarde books, and mother of a budding young woman writer, Mona Hilmy, and a promising film director, Atef Hetata. (Nawal has been married three times.) So, for instance, we learn that both her mother and her father championed the cause of the education of girls, hence all her sisters received higher education. Nawal went to medical school and graduated among a small number of women in 1955. She went on to work for the Ministry of Health, from which she was subsequently dismissed because of her radical writings.
Nawal el-Saadawi certainly became politically aware at a young age through her family's involvement in politics. Her father is known to have been active in the 1919 Egyptian revolution; he was wounded in one of the demonstrations, an incident that was a source of great pride to the family. Early on, Nawal is known to have often marched in demonstrations along with her classmates, protesting the British presence in Egypt.
Dr Saadawi earned her medical degree in 1955, with honors. She started her career as a country doctor and went on to work in the Ministry of Health as director of public health. But it is her interest in writing that eventually eased her out of her civil service career. Her first work, al-Mar'a walJins (Woman and Sex) (1972) caused such a stir that most influential work, not only for Egyptians but she was fired from her job. This proved to be a throughout the Arab world. Generations of young women to this day admit that reading this work was a defining moment in their lives. The mere title of the work was then considered a radical move. In The Hidden Face of Eve (1980: London), another controversial book, Saadawi highlights the reason behind her choice: "All the established leadership in the area suffer from a pronounced allergy to the word 'sex' and any of its implications, especially if it happens to be linked to the word 'woman'" (p. 38).
Women and sexuality have become the main issues of debate that arise from her writings. She questions deep-seated customs and traditions within Arab Muslim societies such as female circumcision (FGM), and undoubtedly her medical training lends greater credibility to her stances. Herself a victim of this ancient custom, which seems to be more revered in African societies than necessarily Arab Muslim ones, Saadawi has vociferously clamored for decades against this cruel custom.
Woman at Point Zero (1983) (Imra'a 'inda nuqtat