#100PENMembers No.54: Nawal El Saadawi

Today we interrupt our #100PENMembers pay tribute to a very special PEN Member, Nawal El Saadawi the highly influential novelist, feminist, activist and doctor, who died this weekend.

Described by Simone de Beauvoir as ‘Egypt’s most radical woman’, El Saadawi wrote 40 books translated into many languages, which became best sellers across the world.

She founded the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association and the Arab Association for Human Rights and viewed these two struggles as mutually informing.

Born in Egypt in 1931, as a child she suffered female genital mutilation. These experiences galvanised her lifelong pursuit of equal rights for women and her campaigning against FGM. However, her parents took care to educate all of their children and she went on to study medicine at the University of Cairo. Her studies and experiences became her first book Memoirs of a Woman Doctor (1958). She went on to become the Director of the Government Health Education Department.

In 1972 she published Women and Sex, which became a foundational text of Second Wave feminism and which pointed toward an intersectional understanding of women’s oppression, one which took in gender alongside class, race and imperialist oppressions.

It also marked one of the first critiques of FGM. 

Speaking to the Guardian in 2010, she said: ‘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.’

The controversy around this highly influential text led to her dismissal from her post as Director of Health Education. She continued to publish both novels and critical work, laying out the field of postcolonial feminist theory as she went, setting her sights on the overlapping influences of capitalism, patriarchal oppression, imperialism, class struggle and racial discrimination on the lives of women in the Middle East and beyond.

El Saadawi herself, incidentally, contested the term ‘postcolonial’ arguing that ‘postcolonial is as if we are finished with the colonial. We are neo-colonial.’

In 1981 El Saadawi was arrested and imprisoned for crimes against the state, for her vocal critique of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.

During this period, she wrote Memoirs From The Women’s Prison and formed the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association. She wrote with an eyebrow pencil on toilet paper, observing that ‘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.’

In 1988 Saadawi was forced to flee Egypt after threats by Islamists for her outspoken views. She taught for several years at universities across the United States. In 1996 she moved back to Egypt. 

Her work continued to shock, leading to several unsuccessful court cases, one to forcibly dissolve her marriage on religious grounds and one to strip her of her Egyptian nationality.

She delivered PEN’s Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture in 2009. During that lecture she recounted her time in jail, remembering: ‘in prison the jailers come in every day to my cell and they inspect my cell looking for a piece of paper and a pen and the head of them used to tell me: “if I find paper and pen, in your cell it is more dangerous than if I find a gun”.’

She told the audience of rapt PEN Members with characteristic verve and humour: ‘You see how writing, how the pen is important? How powerful if it is used against injustice against hypocrisy against lies? If the pen is used with responsibility, with freedom, then we can change the world.’

Her activism continued until the end of her life, despite frequent death threats, and threats of imprisonment. She was involved in the Tahrir Square demonstrations in 2011 and went on to address conferences across the world speaking about the events of the Arab Spring and feminism.

A huge influence on feminist thought, on human rights and a tireless campaigner for PEN and other organisations, Nawal El Saadawi was a definitive voice in her lifetime and a huge loss to the international community.

#100PENMembers No. 51: Taha Hussein

The prolific writer and influential public intellectual Taha Hussein, who was nominated for the Nobel Prize for literature fourteen times, was a member of Egyptian PEN from the 1930s and 1950s. 

Hussein wrote many novels and essays, including his autobiography Al-Ayyam which was published in English in 1932 as An Egyptian Childhood and was also a distinguished academic, working as a professor of history at Cairo University from 1919. He experienced censorship throughout his life. His literary critical book, On Pre-Islamic Poetry, which was published in 1926, was banned because it suggested that the Qur’an might not be seen as an objective source of history. 

Throughout his life, he combined his literary interests with political and diplomatic roles, and was a fierce supporter of the Egyptian revolution in 1952, Arab unity and social reform. Prior to the Revolution, Hussein was censored again when he found himself at odds with the Egyptian government. Stories he had published in the periodical Katib al-Masri came out as a book, The Sufferers, in 1947. The book was banned by the government. It was immediately published in Lebanon, and smuggled back to Egyptian readers from there and only became available in Egypt after the Revolution. 

Responding to the banning of his book he was insightful about the perils of censorship: ‘I try to comprehend the source of the fear that turned the government against this book, causing it to deprive it of life in Egypt, and I am unable to understand.’ Government ‘fear’, he stated, ‘is the pitfall of oppression’. He also spoke of how censorship had stimulated new forms of literary expression, including the use of ambiguity, symbols, riddles, and allusions in Egyptian literature. 

He became minister of Education in 1950 and he represented the Egyptian PEN centre at the UNESCO International Conference of Artists held in Venice in 1952. 

Egyptian PEN was founded in 1934, and was resurrected in 1945, a key moment in the history of PEN’s global expansion, particularly in the Middle East, with PEN Lebanon also being created just after the Second World War. Hussein was an important figure in the early years of the centre, using his global reputation to promote Egyptian PEN on the world stage. 

In 1934, he attended the inauguration of the Egyptian PEN centre at the League of Nations Restaurant, Sharia Maghrabi. However, it was at the 1952 UNESCO Conference brought together creative artists, including Henry Moore representing the world of sculpture, and Lucio Costa representing architecture that he made a mark. The conference issued declarations on artistic rights against discrimination on the grounds of ‘political convictions’. But there were also fierce debates about the role of the State with regard to the arts. 

Hussein, representing PEN, delivered an important statement on ‘The Writer in the World Today’. Intervening in the heated debate about government responsibilities towards and power over writers, he argued that writers should not be maintained financially by the government. Literary writing is a ‘disinterested, uncompromising activity of a free mind.’ He was ‘bitterly opposed to State and private patronage which endangers the writer’s freedom. A writer, then should have a profession as ‘far removed from the writer’s personal tastes the better.’ The writer’s duty, he concluded ‘is to preserve his integrity’. In the context of the cultural cold war in the early 1950s, the issue of State patronage was a very live one. While both the Soviets and the US ploughed enormous state subsidies into the arts, ‘disinterested’ literary freedom was often politicised as being pro-Western and anti-Soviet . Yet Hussein’s anti-state individualism, a product of his long experience at the hands of state censors, was not reducible to an anti-Soviet cultural politics.

In 1973 he received the United Nations Human Rights award.