I Will Carry On This Fight Forever

Nawal El Saadawi: ‘I am going to carry on this fight for ever’

If the power of religious groups increases, so does the oppression of women. Women are oppressed in all religions

By Genevieve Roberts

Nawal El Saadawi was sacked as Egypt’s director of public health because of her feminist views

At the age of six, in the summer of 1937, Nawal El Saadawi was pinned down by four women in her home in Egypt. A midwife, holding a sharpened razor blade, pulled out her clitoris and cut it off. “Since I was a child that deep wound left in my body has never healed,” she wrote in her first autobiography, A Daughter of Isis.

“I lay in a pool of blood. After a few days, the bleeding stopped, and the daya [midwife] peered between my thighs and said, ‘All is well. The wound has healed, thanks be to God.’ But the pain was there, like an abscess in my flesh.”

The 80-year-old feminist activist has been shortlisted for tomorrow’s Women of the Year awards after spending the past 60 years campaigning for an end to the barbaric practice of female genital mutilation (FGM), which has been suffered by 140 million women worldwide. An estimated two million girls are at risk each year. She was able to protect her own daughter from the practice, and her fight to “create awareness and unveil the mind” has saved many others.

“I have been fighting against this since medical college, but the political system, especially under [Anwar] Sadat and [Hosni] Mubarak, encouraged religious fundamentalists,” she says. “When you have increasing power of religious groups, oppression of women increases. Women are oppressed in all religions.”

She has written 47 books tackling problems faced by women in Egypt, including Women and Sex in 1972, for which she lost her job as director of public health for the Egyptian Ministry of Health. In the early Eighties, Dr El Saadawi – whose medical training was followed by work as a psychiatrist and university lecturer – spent three months in jail for “crimes against the state”. She wrote her memoir of life in a female prison with eyeliner on toilet paper while behind bars.

She lectures on FGM and feminism, encouraging people to connect “cutting” with politics, economics, religion, class and history. She equally opposes male circumcision. “As a medical doctor, I don’t separate cutting children from a physical, social point of view – cutting a female is more dangerous. People are now very aware of the dangers. They are not aware of male genital mutilation,” she says. “It is a piece of an organ, it prevents infections.”

But she constantly struggles to get her voice heard in her home country: “I teach in universities all over the world, except Egypt.”

In 2008, the Egyptian government passed a law banning FGM, following the death of 12-year-old Badour Shaker in June 2007, during an operation. “When I heard that she died, I wrote an open letter to her parents, saying they should not be silent – they should scream so all the world would hear their voice. They should use the death to educate everybody,” Dr El Saadawi says.

She wrote: “Badour, did you have to die for some light to shine into dark minds? Did you have to pay with your dear life a price … for doctors and clerics to learn that the right religion doesn’t cut children’s organs?”

Despite the law, Dr El Saadawi believes that about 90 per cent of women are still circumcised in Egypt. “You cannot eradicate such historical, rooted habits by law only,” she says. “We need education of mothers and fathers. There is lots of misinformation that cutting children is good, but this is lies.”

The practice, started in the 2nd century BC, continues worldwide. Progress in preventing it is slow, and laws banning it often ignored. Senegal is one country where some success has been achieved: since 1997, more than 4,000 communities have given up FGM, and it could be close to eradication by 2015.

In the UK, up to 2,000 British girls undergo genital mutilation during the summer holidays each year. Many are sent abroad, often utterly unsuspectingly, to be mutilated. Others will be cut in the UK, sometimes at group “parties” where several girls will be mutilated at a time.

The Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 makes it illegal for FGM to be performed anywhere in the world on permanent UK residents of any age. It carries a sentence of 14 years’ imprisonment but, to date, there have been no prosecutions.

Naana Otoo-oyortey, executive director of the African diaspora women’s charity Forward, believes that the true number of girls at risk in the UK is much higher than official figures suggest, with communities affected including those from Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Sierra Leone and Gambia. Political commitment is needed, she says, to engage these communities.

Last week, the Home Office put in a call for funding for work to stop FGM in the UK. A total of £25,000 was allocated for community programmes. In the Netherlands, the government is spending £3m on similar projects, Ms Otoo-oyortey says. “It’s insulting. To allocate only £25,000: the Government is sending a message that this issue is not important enough.”

A Home Office spokesman said: “Our focus is on prevention, and we have recently launched an FGM fund that can be used by frontline organisations to carry out work on this abhorrent form of abuse, and raising awareness.”

Dr El Saadawi agrees that the fight against FGM must begin in the community. “Children should be taught in schools, parents should be educated,” she says. “People need to understand this is dangerous for physical and mental health.”

She has no intention of scaling down her radicalism now she is in her eighties, and was in Tahrir Square this February as Mubarak was overthrown. On Friday, she will announce an annual international prize in her name, supported with a university scholarship, to be awarded to a dissident revolutionary artist. In an impassioned statement, voiced with the militancy of someone a quarter of her age, she says: “I’m fighting against the patriarchal, military, capitalist, racist post-modern slave system. I am going to fight for this for ever.”

http://alturl.com/wuanf [Independent, UK]


  1. Sure, Nice Things definitely aren’t lenray the problem that stereotypes are. It’s just that in the criticisms of Ebert’s comment, and our discussion afterwards, I sensed a post-colonial version of (as my grandmother used to say) if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything , a view that would tend to silence discussion of real social problems in Egypt for fear that such discussion would contribute to anti-Arab bigotry in the US. Again, I think this is a US-centric perspective. And even in the US, it needs to be possible for scholars (like you and me) and intellectuals (like Ebert) to talk about such social problems because that’s part of their role as scholars and intellectuals without being slapped down for saying Not-Nice Things.Ebert’s tweet didn’t strike me as implying what you and southsouth thought it did. What I got from it is that he was just saying that there are harmful attitudes towards women in the Middle East. This is certainly true. Mentioning the Middle East in the sentence doesn’t mean that there are no harmful attitudes towards women elsewhere, any more than it would mean that if he had said in the US or in Europe . It simply acknowledges that there are relevant cultural specificities in the region, which is also true, and is important if you want to actually solve this problem. Violence against women occurs everywhere, but in different parts of the world it works in somewhat different ways, and is shaped by somewhat different beliefs and power relations. Hence Arab feminists have somewhat different priorities and strategies from American feminists.About objectivity, Bourdieu argues that you don’t simply need to acknowledge your political biases; you also need to acknowledge your social position in order to take into account the ways in which it may affect your perceptions of what you’re studying. But in order to know objectively what your social position is and what sort of effects it might have on your research, you need an objective map of social space in which you can locate yourself. This is something you can get only from a social science that has reached a relatively high degree of autonomy. So objectivity is a social process that proceeds in stages, not something that you can attempt to do on your own.

  2. What a wonderful woman!

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