The citation that accompanied Time magazine’s announcement as part of Women of the Year in 1981 described one addition as a woman who had been “jailed for “crimes against the state” for her outspoken views”. That woman was Nawal El Saadawi.
It is conceivable that many women who are anointed Woman of the Year would be spoken of in the same terms as Time spoke El Saadawi. After all, so much of an impressive woman’s resumé involves going against the grain in a patriarchal setting. But in fact, not many women found themselves in circumstances comparable to El Saadawi’s.
Born in a small town outside Cairo in 1931, Saadawi, by her own accounts, said she realized at a very early age that her brothers and other males were treated preferentially and with deference than young girls and women. She was a victim of the practice she decried her whole life – female genital mutilation (FGM) – which she suffered at the age of six.
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She recalled being told by her grandmother that “a boy is worth 15 girls at least”. At this point, she began to understand that the male superiority complex was ingrained in the epistemology, politics and culture of where she hailed from. Taking on the powers that contributed to the perpetuation of female subjugation meant that El Saadawi was also essentially challenging the loudest and most authoritative voices in religion and political power.
Her views were known by those close to her but El Saadawi’s first time fouling the law was in 1972 when her book, Women and Sex, was published. It was an ambitious publication with a very liberal outlook on the sexuality of women. She also bastardized FGM in the book. Consequently, she lost her job as a public health director and had a magazine she had begun, shut down.
Her novel titled Woman at Point Zero continued in the same feminist fashion. Then came 1977’s Hidden Face of Eve which became global reference material for many at the end of the 20th century in their bid to understand the woman’s place in the Arab world. It was at this point that she earned the nickname “The Simone de Beauvoir of Egypt”.
in 1981, El Saadawi was arrested for the supposed crimes against the state. This is where she famously wrote her memoir on toilet paper with her eyebrow pencil. After she was released, El-Sadaawi, then aged 50, fled to the United States in 1993 for her life amid constant death threats and intimidation.
She returned to her homeland in the 2000s to pick up from where she left off. El Saadawi was no fan of the Muslim Brotherhood and neither was she of the authoritarian regime of Hosny Mubarak. She did not only speak for women’s rights but for economic justice as well. She was even to be found at 80 in 2011 among protesters in London who were screaming for economic justice.
El Saadawi passed away on Sunday, March 21, 2021, a few months shy of 90. Egyptian media has been reporting favorably of her time alive, with some commending her role in clarifying the vision for a less restrictive world for Egyptian and African women.