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October 31, 2012

Interview: Nawal El Saadawi on Feminism, Religion and Freethought

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Nawaal El Saadawi

We managed to conduct a brief interview with writer, activist, and arguably the most prominent figure in the history of Egyptian feminist movement – Dr. Nawal El Saadawi, who is nothing short of an inspiration for feminists around the globe. Her prominent works include Woman at Point Zero, God Dies by the Nile, and her autobiography Memoirs of a Woman Doctor. Despite the attempts to silence her outspoken views and fight against misogyny by the Islamists, she is still active as ever in writing and feminist activism in Egypt. We thank her daughter and author Mona Helmy for arranging the interview.

1. It is extremely hard for people to be critical of religion in Islamic countries including Egypt. You yourself have spent time in prison for your outspoken views. And this continues to date – for instance recently Alber Saber was arrested for his criticism of Islam. Are you optimistic about the future of freedom of speech and religion in Egypt and other Islamic countries?

Hope is power, and for that reason, I am indeed optimistic about the future.

2. What do you think of the future of women’s rights in brotherhood-dominated Egypt is nowadays, and Middle East in general?

I believe we can change our future and future of women’s rights by our collective will, unity , and continuing the struggle against internal and external oppressive powers, including religious groups: Christian, Jewish, Islamic or any other.

3. Do you think the Arab Spring has contributed to the political awareness of women?

Yes, I do believe that the revolution in our countries has increased the political awareness of women as well as others.

4. Do you think the rise of Islamist parties in Egypt and Tunisia will make things worse for women?

I am, and have always been critical of all religious governments in any country – be it Israel, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Egypt or other. I believe that separation of religion and government is the solution, not religious governments.

5. Mona Eltahawy mentioned your meeting in Cairo which brought together feminist groups and women and men who are keen about focusing on women’s rights in Egypt. Could you talk to us a bit about that conference?

Yes, we did establish the Egyptian Women’s Movement which seeks to unite most progressive women’s and men’s groups. We will have our global–local conference in Cairo 15-16 March 2013   and our mission statement is “Creativity, Revolution and Women“

6. Western feminism in general, has been criticized by many for its cultural relativist views. Do you subscribe to the cultural relativist school of thought?

Culture and Religion are socio-political and economic ideologies inseparable from the ruling system. No, I don’t subscribe to the perverse notion of cultural relativism and I am indeed critical of cultural relativism, identity politics and other post-modern deceptions which hinder the progress of women.

 7. Prominent feminists like Taslima Nasrin for instance – have been extremely critical of religions in general, and Islam in specific, especially for its misogyny. Don’t you think they raise a valid point? Aren’t most religions fundamentally patriarchal and misogynistic?

I do tend to agree with them. Religions in general, are in my view, devoid of justice and are oppressive to women and the poor.

8. I loved your quote from an article – “Doubt is the first step towards knowledge, not faith.” How relevant free thought, in your opinion? Do you think of childhood indoctrination as a serious issue?

Indeed, doubt is the first step towards knowledge. Freethought in children is quite essential, and their critical thinking skills should be nurtured at home and in primary schools. And yes, childhood indoctrination is without doubt a very serious issue and should be eradicated.

9. What is it that motivates you and keeps you going as a feminist and as a writer? Could you tell us a bit about your favorite books and authors that inspire you?

The pleasure of creativity is the force that keeps me going, and renews my energy and hope. About inspiration – I am rather inspired by life experiences more than books and writers.

10. Are you working on anything at the moment?

Yes, I am working on a new novel at the moment.



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  1. Selma Muhic Dizdarevic

    Would be great to know more about the conference, I couldn´t find information about it.

  2. Polona Florijančič Polona Floriyanchich

    yes, Salma – I would love more info on the conference as well… I'd love to go…

  3. F.

    I enjoyed reading this interview. It gave me more insight into Nawal el Saadawi, and it asked some very pertinent questions. I’m glad a well-known non-Western feminist called out cultural relativism and identity politics for what they are: deception.

  4. Claudia Leone

    cool woman

  5. Jean-Lou Rouche

    "Culture and Religion are socio-political and economic ideologies inseparable from the ruling system. No, I don’t subscribe to the perverse notion of cultural relativism and I am indeed critical of cultural relativism, identity politics and other post-modern deceptions which hinder the progress of women."

  6. Alinka Seth

    Thank you very much, Nawal, you are a great woman! You are a very good teacher!
    To all, who read my comment, please join:

  7. Lejla Sunagic

    I became fascinated by this woman from the moment I read her (auto)biography (mentioned in the interview) and inspired to translate the book. It was recently released in Croatia, for those who want to read it in the related language, including an interview she kindly provided to accompany the edition.

  8. belqroyal

    Correction…the picture above of a younger Nawal is actually Meena Keshwar Kamal, the spirit of the women revolution in Afghanistan. You might want to look into her short but beautifully inspiring, jaw dropping, and courageous life!

  9. Rosalinda

    I wouldn’t say she is ” the most prominent figure in the history of Egyptian feminist movement “. To me that still is Huda Shaarawi, the first Egyptian feminist of the first gulf.

    She was the godmother and founder of Eyptian feminism.

    Coming from a privileged Ottoman family and born and raised in a harem, she threw her face veil in the Nile, saying “This is something of the past”. She tirelessly fought for women’s rights and was active in the nationalist movement of Saad Zaghlul.

    For more info about her, one can read The Harem Years (based upon her own diaries) and “Casting Off the Veil , The Life of Huda Shaarawi, Egypt’s First Feminist”.

  10. Great interview, thanks. This woman so easily inspires.

    If you’re interested in her views on the July revolution (‘the end of US colonialism’), I interviewed her a few weeks back.


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