I was very good-looking when I was younger,” says Nawal El Saadawi, pointing to a black-and-white picture of a beautiful woman on the bookshelf behind her. “This created a lot of problems for me,” she adds with a wry smile. “When you are intelligent and beautiful you face a lot of problems. If you are beautiful and stupid then it’s easy.”
In the photo El Saadawi is in her mid-twenties, fresh from graduating from Cairo Medical School in 1955. I wish I’d met you 50 years ago, I joke. “Ah yes, yes,” she says, laughing. “That would have been great!” Having faintly flirtatious banter with El Saadawi is a surreal experience for two reasons: she has been the most influential and right-on feminist thinker in the Arab world over the past half-century, and she is 80 years old.
El Saadawi is sitting in her one-bedroom apartment on the 26th floor of a tower block in Cairo, on the banks of the Nile. “Many people come here and they think my apartment is a poor relative to my name,” she says. “But you cannot be radical and have money, it’s impossible.” The interior is basic and practical, the living room doubling as an office, with walls lined with books.
On her desk is the only piece of upmarket technology she owns – a MacBook Air – as well as some papers, and a couple of African-looking sculptures, which double as some of the many awards she has won for political work and novels. Among her most recent honours is last year’s Women of the Year Outstanding Achievement Award. At the end of the living room, there is a small conservatory with a stunning view of Cairo, only partially ruined by the sandstorm that is presently sweeping over the city.
Despite her status among progressives in the Arab world, El Saadawi has little of the renown she deserves within the western discourse on the Middle East. It’s not hard to understand why. She is a Marxist as well as a feminist; her polemics against the position of women in the Middle East are couched in a wider analysis of the role that western imperialism and the class structure of Arab societies have played in entrenching women’s second-class status. She is also fiercely critical of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land, something that hasn’t endeared her to the editors of many American and British journals.
According to El Saadawi, certain other “Muslim feminist reformers” attract media attention because they provide an analysis that makes the west feel good, one that is removed from the context of support for a “capitalist patriarchal elite class” in the region, which she believes is at the root of women’s oppression. “Sometimes I’m compared to people like that, I always say please don’t,” she says, adding that the other Abrahamic religions often have worse things to say on women. “These people don’t want us to connect the oppression of women in Islam to Christianity and Judaism.”
An activist all her adult life, El Saadawi was heavily involved with the January 25 uprising in Egypt, which led to the ousting of Hosni Mubarak. It was the culmination of an existence dedicated to overthrowing totalitarianism in her homeland. But she believes the revolution is now being aborted.
“I will tell you the counter-revolutionary powers who are trying to hold back freedom,” she says. “Number one is the high military council which was appointed by Mubarak to replace him. Number two is the Mubarak men who were left in power, like Ahmed Shafik and Omar Suleiman. They were not put in prison, though they should be. Number three is the Muslim Brotherhood – they are part of the regime now. And finally the old political parties, the liberals who worked with the military in keeping the regime in power by having elections before the constitution was written.”
She continues: “We got rid of the head only, but the body of the regime is still there, militarily, economically, in the media, in education, everything.” So has she lost hope for this great uprising, then? “Oh, no, no,” she replies, with a big grin. “I am very optimistic; I never lose my hope.”
El Saadawi trained as a psychiatrist and worked as a medical doctor in her hometown of Tahla, just outside Cairo. It was seeing the mutilation of young girls, honour killings and sexual abuse that set her on a life-long mission to tear down patriarchy and the subjugation of women in the Arab world, and further afield, too.
El Saadawi blazed a trail early in the 1970s when she wrote The Hidden Face of Eve, which exposed the oppression of women in the Arab world. Much of her work was banned under the regimes of presidents Anwar Sadat and Mubarak, and she spent a spell in prison for speaking out. Later, after death threats from fundamentalist Islamists, she had to flee the country and lived in the US for a time.
In the middle of the interview, the phone rings. El Saadawi shuffles over to answer it and starts speaking angrily down the phone in Arabic. “Sorry, there’s a problem with an article I wrote, they want to take something out,” she says glancing back at me. Then the doorbell rings. “Can you get it?” she asks. At the door is her next appointment: a 29-year-old Lebanese woman, Lynn, who I find out later was sexually abused as a child in Beirut and has come to pay her respects to the author who helped her come to terms with what happened.
“Let’s drink something!” says El Saadawi, rushing off to make us all tea. “I am so happy that both of you are here together!” I soon learn that her flat is something of a hang-out for people whose lives have been transformed by her work. “I had regular meetings here with young people before and after the revolution,” she says. “Just recently we restarted the Egyptian Women’s Union, which was banned by Suzanne Mubarak. Most of them are actually young men – there are also women – who are angry with the ruling military because they have excluded women from everything.”
Lynn tells us she was introduced to El Saadawi’s work through the novel Zeina, in which a young Egyptian woman falls into psychosis after giving up her illegitimate daughter. El Saadawi leans forward, listening attentively, asking questions about the abuse, explaining that such exploitation is nothing to be embarrassed about. “Before I was embarrassed that I was circumcised; I thought it was something to be ashamed of,” she says. “Then I wrote about it and published, and I was proud, you must be proud!”
In a culture full of taboos about sex and abuse, listening to El Saadawi is refreshing. She speaks honestly about the specifics of sexual abuse, having no time for the religious guilt or feelings of shame she says patriarchy often tries to engender in the women it oppresses. She is also brutally honest about her own marriages.
“My three husbands were afraid of me. I am a very powerful woman,” she says with a chuckle. “I asked my ex-husband why he cheated once and he said, ‘I was scared of you!’” She laughs again. “My husbands needed a woman, not a writer.” She lived with her third husband, Sharif, for 43 years. “He was the best,” she says. “A very fine man, a Marxist, the father of my son. He spent 13 years in prison for his socialism. We made an agreement that we are to be true to each other, don’t lie to me, I won’t lie to you. He didn’t keep his end of the bargain.”
I realise I have been at her apartment for three hours, and she probably has work to do. “Oh yes, I need to do some writing tonight,” she replies. But as Lynn and I wait for the lift, El Saadawi pokes her head around the door. “What are you doing on Friday?” she asks. Nothing much, we say. “You must come to Tahrir Square,” she implores. “I am going down with the Women’s Union, you must interview some of them.” The lift arrives. I agree quickly, and El Saadawi smiles. “Next time we’ll meet in my real home then!”
El Saadawi’s favourite possession is a Tahrir Square sign in the style of a London street sign, which she picked up when she spoke at Occupy LSX in the UK last year. “I have this because to me it is symbol of how the revolution is global. It’s an international movement,” she says. El Saadawi was also at Occupy Wall Street in New York last year, during which time she met many people she had known when she taught in the US after having to flee Egypt. “The people were very enthusiastic,” she adds. Outside of politics, however, she says – slightly tongue-in-cheek – that her favourite thing is herself. “If you do not love yourself, well, you cannot do anything well, that’s my philosophy,” she says.