The Most Dangerous Women in the World: Nawal El Saadawi

Teresa Wiltz
Photograph: Illustration: Sean McCabe

Her Truth & Its Consequences

She’s been at it for more than 50 years, agitating and raging against the machine from a very young age. “I was born female and poor,” says El Saadawi, 78. “My brother had more rights than I just because he was a boy. In school, I was at the top of the class. But because I was poor, the teachers gave higher grades to the rich girls in the class, whose families were powerful.” This injustice, combined with her fearlessness, created a drive inside her that has never died. “The girls of my generation were silent,” she says. “They had the same feeling of oppression that I did, but they were afraid to talk. I wasn’t. I had the courage to speak up. My mother and my grandmother were very strong personalities. My genes were very selective and very rebellious.”

El Saadawi earned her medical degree from Cairo University in 1955 and she eventually became Egypt’s director of health education—but was fired for campaigning against FGM. (She herself was forcibly circumcised as a child and says one of her greatest disappointments is that as a result she hasn’t been able to enjoy a healthy sex life.) In 1981 she went to prison for speaking out against President Anwar Sadat. She feared retaliation but persevered: El Saadawi wrote her book Memoirs from the Women’s Prison on a roll of toilet paper while in captivity, using a contraband eyebrow pencil smuggled to her by a woman in the prostitutes’ ward. “Some people are broken in prison,” she says. “I came out more strong.”

Over the years, she’s been harassed with a number of lawsuits charging her with various forms of disloyalty to Islam. In 2001, a fundamentalist lawyer went so far as to say that her 37-year marriage should be annulled because she questioned the practice of giving men twice the inheritance of women. (A judge dismissed the case.) She’s lived in exile off and on for the past 15 years, moving to the U.S. and teaching at Duke University and Spelman College.

Five of her 45 works in Arabic have been banned, and her name appears on fundamentalist death lists. “I’ve paid a very high price for my rebellion,” she says. But she returned home last year “to write and to fight.”


Her Dangerous Thoughts

“Young people are fed up with fundamentalism. I am organizing young men and women to separate religion from state. The government is very, very alert to any group that can really mobilize people. But Egypt is my country. That is why I am fighting here.”


Click here to meet another of the Most Dangerous Women in the World: Veronica Cruz Sanchez

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