Saadawi's death will be mourned across the Arab world. She stood up for women's rights from a young age and while she received global recognition, she was not fully embraced by her own country.
The extraordinary life of 89-year-old Nawal el Saadawi, one of the most outspoken feminists of the Muslim world, ended on March 21.
Saadawi was a psychiatrist and had written several books, including Women & Sex and Women at Point Zero, to raise awareness around women’s rights. She was known as “Egypt’s most radical woman”.
Saadawi’s feminism was inspired by its universal concept and she believed the movement was not a Western “invention”. She also thought that local and global problems are interrelated and inseparable with regards to the advocacy of feminism.
“Feminism is not a Western invention. Feminism is not invented by American women as many people think. No, feminism is embedded in culture and in the struggle of all women all over the world,” Saadawi said, during an interview.
As a result, she found her movement “historical”, being part of “socialist feminist” political activism. According to Saadawi, women need to be liberated “economically, socially, psychologically, physically, religiously.”
The term feminism was believed to have been coined in Europe by Charles Fourier, a utopian socialist and French philosopher. Fourier used the word "féminisme" in 1837 as a first.
“Because we studied history and we understood that the oppression of women is not specific to Egypt or Arab people. It’s everywhere in every country,” Saadawi said.
But she also distinguished her struggle from an all-out war against men. “We are not against men. We are against patriarchy, the patriarchal system. The domination of men in religion, in economy, in culture, in everything, in science,” she said.
Saadawi was married three times. She divorced her third husband, Sherif Hatata, a communist activist and author, in 2010 after 46 years of marriage. She had two children from the three unions.
Saadawi and rulers
She believed that women did not gain their rights by the gesture of any ruler, referring to various Egyptian autocrats. It's the struggle of women alone, she argued, that helped them win their rights. She founded and led the Arab Women's Solidarity Association and was also co-founder of the Arab Association for Human Rights.
“I believed women gained their rights by their own efforts. I did not believe that [Jamal Abdel] Nasser will bring liberation to us. Or [Anwar] Sadat or [Hosni] Mubarak or any other ruler,” Saadawi said, during an interview with BBC.
Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak were three former presidents of Egypt, all known for their oppressive measures and secular credentials.
In 2011, when the Arab Spring hit Egypt, among others, she was also in Tahrir Square, Cairo's biggest protest site, to demand change from Egypt’s autocratic political class.
"We cannot speak about revolution without women," she said at the time, referring to her belief that without women's participation, the Egyptian revolution would not have happened.
But she often praised Abdul Fattah al Sisi, another Egyptian ruler like Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak, who suppressed the Egyptian revolution by waging a brutal military coup in August 2013. Sisi’s coup ousted the country’s first democratically-elected President Mohammad Morsi, killing hundreds and imprisoning tens of thousands of people.
“Among the over 60,000 political prisoners, of which an estimated 170 are women dissidents, 3 of whom are condemned to execution. Among those imprisoned are lawyers, journalists, academics, and those who have done no more than post their views on social media,” said Maha Azzam, the head of Egyptian Revolutionary Council.
“They are held without any respect to due process and have suffered under inhumane conditions in prison. They are denied medication, family visits and are subject to sexual abuse,” added Azzam, a female Egyptian political activist, in a statement released to honour International Women’s Day on March 8.
A prolific writer
Saadawi has written more than 50 books, including Memoirs from the Women’s Prison, a book she wrote in prison. She wrote the original manuscript of the book with an eyebrow pencil, scribbling the passages on toilet paper, apparently smuggled into her prison cell by a prostitute. She was arrested in 1981 by the Sadat government.
After writing and publishing Women and Sex in 1972, she lost her job in the health ministry. She was the director of public health prior to publishing her book, which was banned for two decades in Egypt.
Saadawi wrote in Arabic and her books were translated into over 30 languages. But she found some of the translation processes a little problematic due to the “colonialist mindset” of the world's major publishing houses.
"The colonial capitalist powers are mainly English- or French-speaking.... I am still ignored by big literary powers in the world, because I write in Arabic, and also because I am critical of the colonial, capitalist, racist, patriarchal mindset of the super-powers,” she noted.
She won numerous awards and honorary degrees for her activism and writing.
Despite facing a prison sentence and persistent political pressure, she always expressed her strong love for her country before passing away in its capital city, Cairo.