Hua Wang

Talking Leadership with Nawal El Saadawi

Nawal El Saadawi is a novelist,  psychiatrist and writer.  As a result of her literary and scientific writings she has had to face numerous difficulties and even dangers in her life.  In 1972, she lost her job in the Egyptian Ministry of Health because of her book “Women and Sex.” The book was banned by the political and religious authorities because she wrote against Female Genital Mutilation and linked sexual problems to political and economic oppression. 

In September 1981 President Sadat put her in prison.  She was released at the end of November 1981, two months after his assassination.  She wrote her book “Memoirs” from the Women’s Prison on a roll of toilette paper and an eyebrow pencil smuggled to her cell by an imprisoned young woman in the prostitutes ward.  From 1988 to 1993 her name appeared on death lists issued by fanatical religious and political organizations. 

Nawal El Saadawi had been awarded several national and international literary prizes, lectured in many universities, and participated in many international and national conferences.  Her works have been translated into more than thirty languages all over the world.

What are the connections between academics and activism?  I don’t separate between thinking and acting or between theory and action.  To me, everything is interrelated.  Even in a subject such as biology, there are holistic ways of promoting body, mind, and spirit that make a political statement.

How do you promote activism in the academic realm?  I taught a class called “Creativity and Dissidence,” and it focused on using fiction to document political struggles. After 9/11, I encouraged the development of the Student-Faculty Against War coalition.  It is important to build a coalition to further a cause.  When you are an individual, you are weak.  When you are an organization, you can reach millions.  I encourage my students to work together to fight against America’s war on terrorism and to help Afghanistan women to organize.   

What are your views on globalization?  In Egypt, we are forced to drink 7-Up and Coca-Cola instead of our orange juice.  I wish that America will stop injecting money into the Third World and realize that the best solution is to leave us alone and let us cultivate our own resources.

How did you begin teaching in the U.S.?  In 1992, one of Miriam Cooke’s [Professor at Duke University] students came to visit me in my home in Cairo.  At that time, security guards surrounded my home and I knew I had to leave Egypt because my life was in danger.  The student told me about how Miriam uses my books in her courses and urged me to call Miriam and see if something can be worked out.  I called Miriam, and in three days, she had raised $50,000 for my professorship.

How did you feel when the government surrounded your house with guards?  The government hates me.  I felt as if I was a sandwich between Islamic fundamentalism and the government.  When you are living in danger, you don’t really feel it (just as you don’t feel the pressure of air on your shoulders).    

What was your experience in prison?  I recommend everyone to go to prison.  It is not isolation but a rich experience.

What are your views on religion?  My views have been interpreted as blasphemous—I was put on the death penalty list and I have been in prison.  Muhammad was not a Muslim until his revelation. God was not a God until we created him.  Islamic fundamentalists told me that an atheist woman is not allowed to marry a Muslim man. Since I am not a Muslim and my husband is a Muslim, I had to fight in court for five months for our marriage to be valid.  For me, Hadiga was the one who made Muhammad a prophet and who invented Muslim.  After all, Hadiga was literate while Muhammad was illiterate.  Religion is logic.  If God does not convince you, then don’t believe in him.  Blind faith kills those who don’t believe in the same God.    

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