Egyptian writer Nawal el-Saadawi during an interview with Reuters in Cairo, May 23, 2001. (Reuters)
Nawal Saadawi, a renowned Arab feminist from Egypt, a psychiatrist and novelist, whose writings triggered anger among Islamic clerics, leading to her imprisonment by President Sadat, died of age-related health problems in Cairo on Sunday. She was 89.
With her passing, an era of women's rights warriors in the Islamic world has come to an end. She now joins Pakistan's Asma Jahangir, whose book Children of a Lesser God also ran afoul of the ultra-conservative mindset that attempts to dominate and define the Muslim woman in not just the Islamic world, but in the West as well.
Here in the West, a guilt-ridden liberal elite defines a Muslim woman as one who wraps herself in the prescribed uniform of the Muslim Brotherhood and its South Asian offshoot, the Jamaat-e-Islami.
As a psychiatrist, Saadawi first got into the limelight with her 1972 book Women and Sex, where she dealt with the taboo topic of women's sexuality. This led to her dismissal as Egypt's director of public health. She also lost her positions as the chief editor of the medical journal, Health, and as the assistant general secretary of the Egyptian Medical Association.
An era of women's rights warriors in the Islamic world has come to an end.
While feminists in Canada and the U.S. have made the hijab a symbol of feminism, Dr. Saadawi saw it as a charade. In a 2004 interview with Women's eNews she was blunt in her rejection of the Western feminists' orientalist fascination of a Muslim woman in a head covering.
She said: "This is a political movement using the head of women for political reasons. The veil is a political symbol and has nothing to do with Islam. There is not a single verse in the Qur'an explicitly mandating it. ... Many people are aware of that, but the educational system puts a veil on the mind. The veiling of the mind is more serious. Our slogan at the Arab Women's Solidarity Association is Unveil the Mind."
Muslim women will no longer have Nawal Sadaawi to speak out for them.
Today, as Muslim women suffer patriarchy in their homes and community, risking the ever-present slur of being of "loose character" if they dare to reject the hijab and burka or arranged marriage to much older men, their suffering is compounded by the threats of "honour killing" by brothers and fathers for refusing to marry according to the dictates of these cowardly men – they now won't have Nawal Sadaawi to speak out for them.
In September 2020 she wrote in the Egyptian daily Al-Masri Al-Yawm against Egypt's patriarchal society that she said turns a blind eye to, and even encourages, the murder of women for "violating the family honor." Saadawi recounted the story of a 14-year-old girl who was married against her will to a man 40 years her senior and was murdered by her family after she tried to escape the marriage.
Never shy of espousing her bold views, in July 2008 during a BBC interview, Saadawi described Al-Azhar University as a "dangerous reactionary force" that was preventing the 'renewal of religious discourse' in Islam.
She said that all religions are in need of renewal because they are "incompatible with modern times" and that "no text in the Quran, in the New Testament, or in the Torah can remain unchanged."
Dr. El Saadawi said that "if you look at the Quran today, you will see that many verses have been annulled because they run counter to the public interest," citing the Quranic verses dealing with slavery as an example.
Last month Indian muslim Wasim Rizvi espoused similar views only to have a bounty placed on his head. His last known whereabouts are unknown.
Perhaps Saadawi overstepped the bounds of Islamic discourse, but she is no more with us and some may believe she is thrown in the pits of hell as an apostate, but one would have to die to join her for further discourse.
If there is a God, I believe he will be chatting with her about the courage he bestowed on her and I expect her to say: "Release my women from the clutches of the men you created, O Allah."
Tarek Fatah is a Robert J. and Abby B. Levine Fellow at the Middle East Forum, a founder of the Muslim Canadian Congress, and a columnist at the Toronto Sun.