On January 25, Egyptians will take to the streets for the one-year anniversary of their country’s revolution. Among them will be Nawal Saadawi, who has spent over 50 years fighting for women’s rights in both Egypt and the rest of the region.
Saadawi was imprisoned under slain President Anwar Sadat and was forced to spend time in exile during the rule of ousted President Hosni Mubarak. But today, at age 80, the psychiatrist, feminist and writer of over 25 books still has it. NOW Lebanon caught up with Saadawi in Cairo to talk about her country’s current situation and the challenges Egyptian women in particular face.
A year after the revolution, how do you feel about the situation in Egypt? How will the Muslim Brotherhood’s gains in recent elections impact Egyptian women?
Nawal Saadawi: Everything depends on the power of women themselves, because we were able to get rid of Mubarak, by the power of the revolution, which included women. So now we are establishing, or re-establishing, an Egyptian Women’s Union to unify the women’s movement, because [former first lady] Suzanne Mubarak, [former President Anwar] Sadat, and the Mubarak regime fragmented the women’s movement to weaken it. This is why they banned and censored all my work. The so-called first lady, Suzanne, wanted to be the leader of the Egyptian women’s movement, like all the queens or wives of presidents in the rest of the Arab countries. They want to become the leaders of the feminist movements, and this is why they exile the work of prominent thinkers like me.
Can you comment on the role of the Muslim Sisters, the women’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood?
Saadawi: They are brainwashed. There is a play on their fears, and this fear kills creativity and rebellion. I have written several articles about it. One of them is included in [a recent] edition of Masry al Youm.
So what is a good strategy to empower women?
Saadawi: We are trying to undo what Suzanne Mubarak did—this fragmentation of the women’s movement.
Women’s fragmentation is the primary problem. The regime fragments women by creating thousands of NGOs funded by the government or by foreign money, either right or left wing. And when you are very independent, nobody funds you, so women are weak because of their fragmentation. You know, the “divide and rule” [concept.]
Then of course, [there is the problem] of the education system [being] against women, and the veiling of women by Islamic groups, the oppression of the regime, all that.
We as women can win if we unite. I believe power is related to unity.
How do you compare the situation of women in Egypt to women in the rest of the region?
Saadawi: Women in Egypt were avant-garde in the Arab world, but now because of the bad regimes of Sadat and Mubarak, and the domination of the US, the domination of Saudi Arabia—which is the US—they use religion to divide and rule. Today, Tunisian women are more advanced than Egyptian women. It is a tragedy. But I think we will be ok when we are united.
What type of grassroots efforts will help overcome the fragmentation of women?
Saadawi: It will come with unity and education. Women should be educated and not dominated by religious people. Women are veiled, they are obedient to the religious groups, they are brainwashed by the Mubarak regime. So if we have a union, and if we succeed, then things will change and will be alright. The most important factor is unity, and through this unity we can move onto education, empowering women economically, culturally and [so forth.]
Some argue that women have become the victims of the revolution. Do you agree?
Saadawi: I cannot say that women are the victims of the revolution. No, I think women gained from the revolution; women are now recognized, because they were killed, they paid with their blood, their eyes… Women are now prominent, we are now hearing about women, [such as the one] who won the case against the military regarding the virginity tests. This is a victory. I have been writing for more than half a century against the concept that honor is one’s virginity, so my books paved the way for this victory because women are no more deceived by the so-called virginity, and many people are now beginning to not link honor to virginity.
So the issue of linking virginity to a woman’s honor remains a core problem in the fight for women’s rights in the Arab world?
Saadawi: Yes. Women are killed if they do not bleed on their wedding night, and as a doctor, I have been fighting against it for more than 50 years. This women’s case against the army is a big leap forward. Women are not victims, and this past election was rigged. We are winning, and we will win more.
This article has been condensed and edited for length