In 1936, Nawal El Saadawi is a five year old little girl, staying with her peasant grandmother in a small village in the Nile Delta. Nawal watches as her grandmother confronts the local leader, standing up to the mayor despite being "only a woman" - it is a sight and a lesson she will never forget.
Only 10, Nawal challenges authority herself - deliberately spilling a tray of hot tea on a 32-year-old man her father had arranged for her to marry. Needless to say, the marriage did not go through.
Nawal writes her first story at 13, an autobiography entitled "Memoirs of a Child", turned in as a school assignment. Her teacher, representing the values of traditional Egyptian society, gives her a zero for the project, saying that it is not the work of a good, obedient little girl. But her mother tells her she has talent, and encourages her to continue expressing herself.
This is exactly what Nawal did. Despite the obstacles of gender discrimination, Nawal persevered through university, eventually becoming a doctor, a director, an editor, a writer, a professor, a journalist, a speaker, and an activist.
"[Send her] to the university? To a place where she will be side by side with men? A respected Sheikh and man of religion like myself sending his niece off to mix in the company of men?"
She has become one of the leading feminists in the world; censored, threatened, ostracized, and even imprisoned for her opinions and her words.
"I knew that women did not become heads of state, but I felt that I was not like other women, nor like the other girls around me who kept talking about love, or about men. For these were subjects I never mentioned. Somehow I was not interested in things that occupied their minds, and what seemed of importance to them struck me as trivial."
Her written accomplishments include nine novels, three plays, five memoirs and eight nonfiction books. She also married three times -- all men of her choice. Her husband of 35 years, Sharif Hetata, is no stranger to hardship and censorship, having been imprisoned for 13 years for his leftist political views.
With the support of her family, Nawal's outspoken and independent nature has taught her to think for herself. Her interpretation of religion - that God is Justice - has motivated her behavior. But it is her experiences as a rural doctor, working in poor villages around Egypt that propelled her into the political arena. In these villages, so similar to her grandmother's, Nawal witnessed firsthand how poverty led to disease - also how the rural poor were being exploited by the rich upper class. Once she made the connection between health, economics and politics, there was no turning back.
Nawal eventually became Director of Egypt's Public Health Education, editing a magazine called Health and focusing on preventative medicine. But her writings on women's issues, her fearlessness in confronting cultural taboos, led to her being fired from her position in 1972, and the subsequent shutdown of her magazine. In 1981, Nawal was put in jail for 3 months - because of her opinions and her writings. "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger" says Nawal of her experience in prison. After surviving imprisonment, Nawal explains, she now has one less thing to be afraid of. A description of her prison experience can be found in her book - Memoirs of the Women's Prison. In 1991 the government dissolved the Arab Women's Solidarity Association, a non-profit organization Nawal had founded. In 1992, after her name appeared on a death list issued by a fundamentalist group, Nawal left Egypt. She taught at Duke University from 1992 through 1996 until the threats subsided, then returned to her homeland.
Since then, she has devoted her time to writing novels and essays on women, culture, politics, creativity and contemporary thought and to her activities as a visiting scholar and international speaker on women's issues. Today, 69-year-old El Saadawi is a visiting professor at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.
For Nawal, writing and action are inseparable. Her existence has been motivated by a constant battle for justice - a struggle against all forms of oppression - whether it is sexual, religious, racial, economic or political. In her life and in her writings, this struggle has been an indiscriminate crusade for human rights. "I am dreaming of a just society," El Saadawi says.
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