I see one of my favorite rabble-rousers is at it again; today Al Jazeera reports that Egyptian authorities stopped Dr. Saadawi, who wants to challenge President Hosni Mubarak in upcoming elections, from holding a free speech forum in her native village. "What threat could be posed if I hold a meeting with my fellow villagers?" she said to Aljazeera.net. "Free elections cannot be held without freedom of speech and an effective mechanism to arrange meetings and forums."
Dr. Saadawi has been making trouble for a long time, according to a biographer.
[She] was born in 1931 in Kafr Tahla, a small village outside of Cairo. El Saadawi was raised in a large household with eight brothers and sisters. . . . [Her] father insisted that all of his children be educated. El Saadawi describes her mother as "a potential revolutionary whose ambition was buried in her marriage." Her mother died when she was 25, and her father shortly thereafter, both unable to witness the incredible accomplishments their daughter went on to make.
…Saadawi attended the University of Cairo and graduated in 1955 with a degree in psychiatry. After completing her education, El Saadawi practiced psychiatry and eventually rose to become Egypt's Director of Public Health. El Saadawi met her husband, Sherif Hetata, also a doctor, while working in the Ministry of Health, where the two shared an office together. …
During the 1970s, Dr. Saadawi began writing on women's rights and sexuality and rapidly found herself viewed as an enemy of the Egyptian state and therefore unemployed. Her books from this period, all originally published in Arabic, include Women and Sex, The Hidden Face of Eve, and a novel sympathetically depicting the rage of an oppressed peasant murderer, Woman at Point Zero. The murderer in the novel refuses clemency from authorities she indicts for making her life impossible, announcing "I prefer to die for a crime I have committed rather than to die for one of the crimes you have committed."
In 1981, Anwar Sadat (one of those "moderate" dictators the US props up in Middle Eastern countries) rounded up and imprisoned a mixed lot of 1500 of his opponents, including Saadawi. Her account of this jailing, Memoirs from the Women's Prison is a classic work of prison resistance literature, beginning with the terrifying knock at the door and the uncertainty of not knowing what would be done to her, continuing with the arbitrary brutality of being locked up, turning then to the unexpected sisterhood that developed between Islamist, Communist and modernist women all jailed together, and finally release after Sadat's assassination by members of the Muslim Brotherhood. After her release she started the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association "to rally Arab women behind the slogans 'Consciousness and Knowledge' and 'Unveiling the Mind.'"
In 1984, along with my partner and co-editor, I had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Saadawi for a US feminist publication. We thought we were hip, sophisticated US lesbians; Saadawi bowled us over with her audacity: "what's this about lesbians criticizing bi-sexuals?" was her first question to us. Then she went on to describe her experience of clitoridectomy at age six -- to describe the horror of hearing her own mother's voice among the shadowy robed figures who were mutilating her.
Saadawi was always a woman without an easy place in Egyptian society. Her village origins gave her a realistic perspective on a peasantry that urban Egyptian leftists too often romanticized. They would assert that since peasant women didn't wear veils, they must be liberated. Nonsense, said Saadawi, they are unveiled so they can work in the fields twelve hours a day. "The peasant woman is the slave of the slave." At the same time that she opposed Islamic fundamentalists as enemies of genuine liberation; she insisted that Israel and the US encouraged fundamentalism because nationalist democracy would overthrow their dominance of the region. We now have lots more evidence for this than we had then.
In the years since 1984, Saadawi has periodically received death threats from Islamists in Egypt, has taught at many universities around the world, and continued to speak for liberation of Arab women and Middle Eastern societies. She took part in a women's peace delegation to Iraq just before the first Gulf War and, as president of the Arab Women's International Solidarity Association, denounced the US's current invasion and occupation. The women thought there was a lot of blame to go around:
Arab governments are the metal shield that has permitted George Bush to dominate our region, to use military bases in the war, to hold back the men and women whose struggle can contribute to defeating the policies of the war mongering few.
In 2001, an Islamist lawyer brought a court case against her, claiming that she had transgressed against Islamic law, and so should be declared divorced from her husband, Sherif Hetata, who is an approving partner in her work for Arab women. International support helped convince the Egyptian government to throw out the case and the pair has since worked for abolition of the law of hisba, religious law governing domestic relations.
Though I doubt the Egyptian state will let her run, Dr. Saadawi would certainly make a ground breaking President. Actually, she'd make an equally groundbreaking President here. Maybe we should think about recruiting her if Arnold Schwarzenegger's fans succeed in removing the Constitutional requirement that US Presidents be born in the USA.