Owei Lakemfa

March 26, 2021

El Saadawi: Truth in a world that lies


By Owei Lakemfa

SOME conscious, radical and conscientious women in Nigeria, and males who believe in the equality of all humans, met in 1982 on how to emancipate women. Thus was born, the Women In Nigeria, WIN, movement which was to play decisive roles in campaigning for the human rights of all, especially women.

Some of us who joined WIN were influenced by the writings and activism of an unstoppable Egyptian psychiatrist and writer, Nawal El Sadaaawi, who in September 1981 was detained by the Sadat dictatorship. She was to joke that she believed President Anwar Sadat when he said  there is democracy in Egypt and a multi-party system under which government could be constructively criticised; she did so and landed in jail.

A few weeks into her detention, Sadat was assassinated on October 6, 1981, and the following month, she was set free, and like a bird, flew freely not just in Egypt, but Africa and beyond. The detention drew world attention to her and her works. She said of her imprisonment: “Danger has been a part of my life ever since I picked up a pen and wrote. Nothing is more perilous than truth in a world that lies.”

She was to write over 50 books, including plays, fiction and nonfiction, mostly on the themes of women repression and oppression, and what she considered as the opportunistic manipulation of religion to oppress women and the masses and perpetrate poverty and injustice. Her detention  story which she partially wrote in prison using stubby black eyebrow pencil and small roll of old and tattered toilet paper, was titled Memoirs from the Women’s Prison.

El-Sadaawi took it upon herself to bust many myths and attack cultural, social and religious practices that are harmful to women and their emancipation. Her fighting spirit had been fired by the assertion of her grandmother that “a boy is worth 15 girls at least… Girls are blight”.

El Sadaawi’s 1972 book Women and Sex was considered offensive by the state which sacked her from the Health Ministry. Her truth was too biting to be acceptable. The  hypocritical society could not be at ease with a woman who, for example, postulates that: “Prostitution means sexual intercourse between a man and a woman aimed at satisfying the man’s sexual and the woman’s economic needs. It is obvious that sexual needs, even in a male dominated system, are not as urgent and important as economic needs which, if not satisfied, lead to disease and death. Yet society considers the woman’s economic need as less vital than the man’s sexual one.”

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In 1975, she wrote perhaps her best known book, Woman at Point Zero, a nonfiction novel based on the life of a woman on death row at the Qanatir Prison, Cairo.

Following Islamist threats to her life, she fled Egypt for the United States in 1988. Eight years later, she returned, and when mass protests broke out in 2011 against the Hosni Mubarak government, she was at the Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the mass uprising. She said of that uprising: “I’ve participated in many demonstrations since I was a child. When I was at medical college, I was fighting King Farouk, then British colonisation, against Nasser, against Sadat who pushed me into prison, Mubarak who pushed me into exile. I never stopped.” She said women lost out of the Egyptian Revolution despite their massive participation and many of them being killed, because: “We have the Salafists, Muslim Brothers, religious groups.”

She argued that revolutionary action is inevitable against oppressive leaders because the people in power can never be convinced by words or articles and will never give up power by choice. To her, what makes revolutionary thought unique is “its clarity and dignity, and its clear grasp of freedom and justice: simple, clear words that are understood without the need for any help from elite writers or thinkers.”

El Sadaawi argued that religion will forever be misused and that the increasing power of religious groups, is proportional to the increasing oppression of women across all religions. In her analysis, after a period of about two thousand years the greatest crime became “to worship a god other than the God of Moses, whereas injustice became a minor sin. I began to ask myself how this change had come about. Was it linked to a new order in which the female goddesses had been replaced by one male god?”

For her, the best society is a secular one; therefore, religion should be denied an official seat. Based on this, she argued that: “Education should be totally secular. I am not telling people not to believe in God, but it should be a personal matter which should be done at home.” She said home is where a woman should be  appreciated, safe and protected, creative, and where she is loved not where she feels imprisoned.

The  universal teacher taught  that the woman should be viewed and view herself as a human being, not an object  which was why she was  against makeup and high heels and all that is  inherited in the name of beauty. She complained: “Whenever I go to New York or any European country, they say: ‘Nawal, why don’t you get a facelift?’ I tell them, ‘I am proud of my wrinkles. Every wrinkle on my face tells the story of my life. Why should I hide my age?”

She rejected  the Western notion of democracy because: “Democracy is not just freedom to criticise the government or head of state, or to hold parliamentary elections. True democracy obtains only when the people – women, men, young people, children – have the ability to change the system of industrial capitalism that has oppressed them since the earliest days of slavery: a system based on class division, patriarchy, and military might, a hierarchical system that subjugates people merely because they are born poor, or female, or dark-skinned.”

Age did not mellow her. She said: “I am becoming more radical with age. I have noticed that writers, when they are old, become milder. But for me it is the opposite. Age makes me more angry.”

She lived to write because: “Memory is never complete. There are always parts of it that time has amputated. Writing is a way of retrieving them, of bringing the missing parts back to it, of making it more holistic.”

El Sadaawi on March 21, 2021, at about 90, stopped speaking up and writing; from now on, her writings will speak for this matchless Daughter of Iris and Africa. Her ideas will continue to shake the presidential palaces and parliaments of the unjust and strengthen the resolve of the downtrodden to rise and say, no more!