“I feel I am born again,” Dr. Nawal El Sadaawi told an American reporter, who bumped in to her in Tahrir Square. The 80-year old woman along with thousands of other peaceful demonstrators, was planning to spend the night in the square. Like everything else she has done, this was a brave and bold decision. Mubarak’s monsters, the secret police, were then roaming the streets with nail-studded boards, hunting photographers, journalists, and human rights activists, and beating anyone who tried to make it into the Square.
Dr. Sadaawi, a fierce feminist, novelist, medical doctor, psychiatrist, has faced down imprisonment, death threats, attempts to strip her of her nationality, and the persecution of her family, all in the name of liberty for all human beings. For nearly half a century she has campaigned against female genital circumcision– genital circumcision (a bloody practice in which a girl’s clitoris and inner labia are sliced off with a knife, often without painkillers). Because she spoke out against this barbaric practice, and published a non-fiction book, Women and Sex, in 1972, that mentioned it, the Egyptian Ministry of Health fired her from her position as Director of Public Health. The government charged her with crimes against the state and jailed her for three months in 1981. Death threats in 1993 forced her to flee her country. She returned to Cairo in 2009. Since then, officials frightened by her thoughts on religion have attempted, unsuccessfully, to strip her of her nationality and forcibly to dissolve her marriage.
She has long advocated the separation of church and state, arguing that religious beliefs oppress women and impede democracy. She founded the Global Solidarity for Secular Society out of her conviction, which I share, that religion should be separate from all public education and laws. In an interview with The Guardian, she explained,
I am very critical of all religions…We, as women, are oppressed by all these religions.…
There is a backlash against feminism all over the world today because of the revival of religions…We have had a global and religious fundamentalist movement.
And what does feminism mean for her?
For me feminism includes everything…It is social justice, political justice, sexual justice . . . It is the link between medicine, literature, politics, economics, psychology and history. Feminism is all that. You cannot understand the oppression of women without this.
One of the most remarkable things about the phenomenon taking place in Egypt right now–and across the Arab world–is that the movement has no clear leaders. What drives it is not a set of rules, or laws, or religious commands, but rather a something much deeper and more humane than this, something deeply human, the longing to be free, to be able to live peaceably with one another, to embrace, to love, to work, to eat, to walk, to be alive in the world without dictators, or oppressive rules that crush the spirit, without barbarism. The people, men, women, old, young, have come together to celebrate the beauty of their connection to one another as Egyptians, yes, but also as human beings, each one of whom has an inherent right to dignity, to liberty, and to think for one’s self.
When asked, in 2009, why she continued to write and speak out so controversially, in spite of the persecution and the violence that has been her reward, Dr. Saadawi said,
I cannot stop. There is no way back.
The people of Egypt are calling for their freedom. There is no way back. The will die for their liberty. How can we not support them?