Author spotlight: Nawal El Saadawi
Siobhan Bahl discusses Nawal El Saadawi’s life and writing, and why her work remains relevant today.
Nawal El Saadawi was an Egyptian feminist writer who dedicated her life to promoting gender equality and fighting for the protection and freedom of Arabic women. During her lifetime she experienced imprisonment, job loss, censorship, death threats, and forced exile out of Egypt. In many ways, her life was as epic and radical as her novels.
Before passing away in March 2021, Saadawi endeavoured to expose the connection between religion, politics and sexual exploitation within Islamic nations. When writing about FGM, she depicted a heart-wrenchingly personal portrayal of her experience of female circumcision. In this work called The Hidden Face of Eve, Saadawi defiantly broke taboos by describing her circumcision at the age of six, all carried out with the looming figure of her mother sadistically laughing and smiling at her writhing on the bathroom floor.
In many ways, her life was as epic and radical as her novels
It was work like this, drawing on her intimate experience of being a woman in an Arabic world fixated on female virginity, that led her name to be included on the ‘death-list’. She wrote what she wanted, when she wanted, and with no fear of who was in charge or who she was criticising. Hosni Mubarak and his government took action, and her name was soon being echoed out of the minarets of Cairo, crying in the call to prayer to ‘kill Nawal El Saadawi’ in the name of Islam and Egypt.
I recognise that reading about FGM, violence towards women, and the violation of women’s rights isn’t exactly the literary world we all wish to jump into after a long day. It isn’t something you just consume as idly as a cup of coffee and a biscuit. But Saadawi’s work should be on everybody’s reading list, men and women alike. Her work allows people to understand her mind, see through her eyes, and intimately feel her burgeoning call to defend Arabic women.
Let’s dip into one of her most recent novel, such as Zeina, written in 2011. This novel flows with beautiful prose between reality and dreams, past and present, journeying between mothers and daughters. She peers into the minds of women in Egyptian society, crafting a flowing narrative that loops like a never-ending piece of knotted string. The story is about a separated mother and child, with hopes and ambitions overshadowed by militant religion. The mother, who had Zeina (the novel’s heroine) in prison abandons the child to the streets. Although she remarries, she writes a novel in secret about the child and her father, a political activist who died in prison. This novel gets stolen: her story, her life snatched away from her. In a patriarchal world, no one’s story is their own. No matter how intimate, nothing can remain private.
She peers into the minds of women in Egyptian society, crafting a flowing narrative that loops like a never-ending piece of knotted string
Despite the web created by the mother and daughter’s intertwining tales, Saadawi consistently repeats the tropes of genitalia, rape and castration fantasies. It’s a poignant reminder of how these women’s minds, stories and bodies are consistently taken; it haunts the novel and allows the reader to feel the madness that such pervasive insecurity induces.
Set in the backdrop of a revolution reminiscent of the Arab Spring, Saadawi’s Zeina offers a window into a world that we must all recognise exists. Is it an easy read? No. It is challenging both in its non-linear, oneiric quality, and its content. But that is the point of Saadawi: to challenge in the name of change.