Dr Nawal El Saadawi, the internationally renowned writer, medical doctor, and tireless campaigner for equality and women’s rights died on 21 March 2021 at the age of 89.
Author of 55 books, her first novel written at the age of 13, she was a recipient of numerous international awards and honorary degrees. In 2020, Time magazine included her in its 100 Women of the Year – a fine tribute to a courageous life.
Nawal El Saadawi visited Goldsmiths on three occasions.
The first time was in April 2009, at an ‘in conversation’ event with Kadija Sesay George MBE for a literary panel chaired by Dr Deirdre Osborne and organised as part of the Race in the Modern World conference co-hosted by Goldsmiths and the Stephen Lawrence Trust.
Dr Deirdre Osborne says: “The sheer range of Nawal El Saadawi’s intellectual and imaginative writing spanning drama, fiction, non-fiction, essays and memoir is her legacy, ‘in memoriam’. These works will always provide ballast for feminists fighting oppression, and pave a route to our shared futures. What a chance of a lifetime to host such a figure through Kadija’s organising and to witness the power of Nawal’s fierce wisdom. She was unbowed and indefatigable.”
This was followed in 2010 by a three-day workshop ‘Women, Creativity and Dissidence’ when, for the first time, Nawal El Saadawi facilitated discussions in her thinking on the radical possibilities for women’s creativity and dissidence, an opportunity made available through African Writers Abroad (PEN), SABLE LitMag, Mslexia magazine, and Saqi Books – with Kadija, who was to become an Honorary Fellow of Goldsmiths in 2020.
In March 2015, Nawal El Saadawi returned to Goldsmiths for an evening in the George Wood Theatre.
Women, Dissidence, Hope with Nawal El Saadawi saw the writer and women’s rights activist in conversation with Professor Heidi Safia Mirza and Dr Deirdre Osborne.
Professor Heidi Mirza says: “Nawal El Saadawi was a feminist force of nature and a fearsome warrior for women’s rights, not only in the Middle East but beyond with her project to ‘unveil’ feminism in the western world. She honed her activism as a doctor fighting against FGM in Egypt and her book Hidden Face of Eve opened my eyes to the powerful triad of religion, patriarchy and capitalism in shaping women’s oppression. I was privileged to join students and lecturers at Goldsmiths in a spirited conversation with Nawal in which she ploughed through convention and tradition and took no prisoners! She was a powerful feminist thinker who transformed many women’s lives. We were lucky to share her in her indomitable energy for a brief moment in time. I will miss her…the world will miss her.”
A treasured memory of the evening was recorded by Yusnaliza Md Yusop, a Goldsmiths student who gained her MA Gender, Media and Culture (2014-15). She recalls:
“It was just yesterday that I browsed through my diary and read about my encounter with Dr El Saadawi. Those short moments with her made me appreciate my own femininity and for that I am forever thankful to her. She surely touched many lives in good ways with her unapologetic and robust life. She will be dearly missed. Rest in power.”
Nawal El Saadawi was born into a prosperous family in the small Egyptian village of Kafr Tahla in 1931. She was subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM) at the age of six, something she would write about and fight against for the rest of her life.
At an early age she was made vividly aware that daughters were less valued than sons, when her grandmother told her: “a boy is worth 15 girls at least… Girls are a blight”. Her family tried to make her marry at the age of 10, but she resisted and her mother stood by her.
Unusually for the period, her parents encouraged her education. She graduated with a degree in medicine from Cairo University in 1955 and specialised in Psychiatry. She went on to become the Director of Public Health for the Egyptian government but was dismissed in 1972 after publishing her first non-fiction book, Women and Sex, in which she denounced FGM and the sexual oppression of women.
During her Imprisonment in 1981 following a crackdown on dissidents under President Anwar Sadat, she formed the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association. Denied pen and paper in prison, she wrote her memoirs on toilet paper using an eyebrow pencil smuggled in to her cell. She was released after President Sadat’s assassination but her work was censored and her books banned.
Forced to leave Egypt in 1993 following death threats from religious fundamentalists and further political persecution, Nawal El Saadawi fled to live in the US where she taught at prestigious colleges and universities such as Duke University.
She moved back to Egypt in 1996 and continued her secularist activism against religion, colonialism and Western hypocrisy. Among her awards and honours are the 2004 North–South Prize from the Council of Europe and Inana International Prize in Belgium in 2005.
Nawal El Saadawi held senior positions at the Supreme Council for Arts and Social Sciences, Cairo; the Ministry of Health, and the Medical Association, Cairo. She was a medical doctor at the University Hospital and Ministry of Health, and founded of the Health Education Association and the Egyptian Women Writers’ Association. She was also Chief Editor of Health Magazine in Cairo, and Editor of Medical Association Magazine.
The Guardian newspaper declared Nawal El Saadawi “the leading spokeswoman on the status of women in the Arab world” in 2011, and her books have been translated into more than 40 languages.