Less than a minute in, Nawal El Saadawi, the ideological godmother of Muslim feminists, flouts author interview protocol rather fabulously, by pretending she’s not really doing one. I’m at a sunny breakfast table in Edinburgh on the last day of her UK book tour, to discuss the republication of her seminal 1970s books, but the 76-year-old Egyptian psychiatrist and 2005 presidential candidate is, apparently, slightly baffled by the reissues.
“It was a surprise. Zed (Books) were not paying attention to my books. They are not really interested in novels or feminism so we had many quarrels over the years,” the white-haired iconoclast cheerfully informs me. “Then suddenly they were publishing these three books again and I was astonished. Why they are interested now? Apparently they are relevant again. They are!” The high priestess of first-wave feminism shrugs, pulling off a combination of aloof disinterest and effective book-plugging with panache.
Saadawi wrote these revolutionary, shocking books on the brutal sexual subjugation of Arab women when in her forties, after working as a doctor in rural Egypt. The series includes her best-known novel Woman at Point Zero (1973) about a prostitute who is sentenced to death for killing her rapist, and The Hidden Face of Eve (1977), which opens on the unblinking description of the clitorodectomy Saadawi underwent aged 6.
The books crackle with righteous fury, depicting a world in which little girls are routinely sexually abused by sex-starved male relatives and mutilated by their mothers in the name of Allah. Breaking these taboos in the 1970s made her the internationally recognised authority on the status of women in the Arab world and ‘introduced the word feminist into Egyptian culture’. But how do her ideas stand up in a world where ‘throwing off the veil’ has become as anachronistic as ‘burning your bra’?
A new generation outspoken critics of women’s status in Muslim societies have emerged, young challengers for the crown. What does Saadawi make of the notoriously right-leaning, controversial, Dutch-Somalian, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who campaigns against FGM and cites Saadawi as an influence? She winces at the mention of her name.
It’s become fashionable to talk about female circumcision but divorced from broader politics. I look at you as a whole. If you support the war in Iraq but you’re fighting female circumcision am I supposed to say ‘Oh she’s a hero, she’s a feminist’? But you’re supporting the war in Iraq and standing next to Condoleeza Rice! I have to understand your ideology and vision to see if you’re really true or if you’re just playing the game.
What about solidarity with another woman who has been threatened by Muslim extremists for her defence of womens’ rights? “No, it would be ridiculous to make an alliance with her on that basis,” she explains and gives me a pitying look for asking such an obtuse question. She ends the discussion firmly saying we shouldn’t give the already over-exposed Hirsi Ali any more attention.
She prefers the French feminist and psychiatrist Julia Kristeva as an ideological ally and agrees with her that the hijab has no place in schools and that public space should be secular. “When I was a child there weren’t any veiled students around. Of course, we didn’t have Sadat who encouraged the Muslim Brotherhood, but we had other oppressions and I don’t prefer the past,” she says emphatically. “My daughter is happier and has more freedom than me. There is progress and backlash, progress and backlash.”
Later, Hirsi Ali’s name crops up again when we discuss Saadawi’s critics and I glimpse her infamous temper. Saadawi lets rip, “This type of woman, like the Dutch woman, Ayaan, their work is weak and they want to be stars. I’m a hard-working woman; I work and I write and I deserve respect — these sensationalist women cannot work hard.” She does have over forty books as evidence. The day we met she had a tennis injury sustained during her daily 6am exercise regime.
Saadawi is on the road again, partly because the Egyptian government is threatening to revoke her citizenship. She left Cairo earlier this year in ‘irritation’ after being interrogated by police in January along with her daughter, a seditious columnist. She’s writing and teaching at Spellman Women’s College in Atlanta (“I am a little devilish you know. I teach creativity and dissidence,” she bantered with the audience at her London reading).
Being an enemy of the state is a point of pride and has been all her life; she spent a month in prison in 1981 for criticizing the one-party rule of President Sadat and her husband, a political dissident, did 15 years. In 1988 she made it onto a Muslim extremist death list and moved to the United States for 8 years. A comical legal case was brought against her in 2001 by religious conservatives, who invoked an obscure law against apostates marrying Muslims, and attempted to forcibly divorce her from her husband. The bitchy joke in Cairo was that her mild-mannered husband was behind the plot.
But many feel Saadawi no longer deserves to be called the ‘leading spokeswoman on the status of women in the Arab world’? “Absolutely not,” says Ahdaf Soueif, the Egyptian novelist and cultural commentator.
Nor has she been for the last twenty years. I know women who say she opened their eyes to feminism as we might say about the early iconic feminist writers in any language. But after she was imprisoned along with about 1000 other people, her western career began and from then on her discourse was tailored to the West and she lost touch with her Arab audience.
Soueif echoes a younger generation of Middle-Eastern and Arab women who are proud of their modernity and resent the prominence given to Saadawi’s writing in the West. Manal Lotfi, an Egyptian journalist working in London explains, “She’s brave — charismatic but also aggressive. In such a conservative society she stands up and takes attacks and criticism from many factions. But she doesn’t represent or understand ordinary women, most of whom are religious. There are more Egyptian women in higher education than men now.”
At times, she does seem uncomfortably out of step with Muslim women. In reply to a question about the adoption of the hijab by many young Muslims in the West, she answered unequivocally: “Women who wear the veil and say they choose to do so are either lying or ignorant.” I wondered what the two young Muslim women in the audience wearing hijab thought of her answer. But at other times her writing seems uncannily prescient — she wrote in The Hidden Face of Eve over thirty years ago of an “incomplete or biased understanding of Islam and of the role it has played in social change.”
This is in keeping with her analysis of the ‘Qatib girl’ case. A rape victim in Saudi Arabia was sentenced to 200 lashes because she admitted that when she was attacked she was sitting in a car with a man, to whom she wasn’t related — a crime under Sharia law. The story was widely reported in the western press and the Saudi King has subsequently pardoned the woman under international pressure. “Of course I’m very much against punishment for an honour crime,” Saadawi told me a few weeks later on the phone, “but this issue is very political because Islam is the enemy of the West and supposedly the only religion which kills women. I disagree with this — killing and violation of women is to be found in Israel and by the US government too for instance. But why didn’t Clinton take up the killing of Iraqi people and speak up against the American military machine? Why didn’t he make a big row in the media about that?”
This case is horrible but there is also a lot of violation of human rights in Saudi of people who are fighting against the exploitation of Saudi oil, which is for the kingdom and for the US rather than for the Saudi people. Only the sexual problems are exposed. But the husband of this woman is great — he supported her and took the criminals to trial — we should also be focusing on this positive progressive man.