July issue 2006
Interview: Dr. Nawal El Saadawi
“George Bush and Bin Laden are twins”
– Dr. Nawal El Saadawi
Every time I see Nawal El Saadawi I am amazed at her energy and will. I never tire of interviewing her, for I know she will always have something new and original to say. The writer and activist has not only carved out a niche for herself in the Arab world but also in international feminist circles. And at 74 years old, saddled with a bad back and broken knee, the world would have understood if she had decided to take life a bit easier.
But a life of rest and leisure is not for her. A long career as a prolific, and invariably controversial, writer, tireless champion of women’s rights and equality, and dedicated protestor against religious fundamentalism has gained her many fans — and scores of influential enemies. El Saadawi has paid a price for public stands. She’s been dismissed from lucrative government postings, sent to prison, forced into exile (with several fatwas announced against her on charges of apostasy) and pushed into a forced divorce from her second husband. Amazingly, none of this has dimmed the fight or subdued her spirit. “My crime has been to think, to feel,” she writes in her autobiography.
True to her character, El Saadawi has risen to new challenges. In December 2004, she announced her decision to enter Egypt’s presidential election race. Sure she would not win — Hosni Mubarak announced conditions that made it impossible for anyone to contest the elections except himself — she nevertheless presented herself as a candidate and furnished a programme.
When I met her in Cairo in the summer of 2005, she was trying to rest after the intensely hectic pace of a just concluded conference convened by her organisation, the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association (AWSA). But her apartment was anything but a peaceful oasis. Envoys from her village filled her home, anxious to discuss how best to organise a public meeting with Nawal there, as part of her campaign (an earlier meeting had been cancelled by the police.)
As expected, El Saadawi was silenced at every step of her campaign. She later withdrew her candidature and, predictably, Mubarak went on to win the presidential elections in September 2005.
But her indomitable spirit had conveyed the message: women can do it. Dr. Nawal El Saadawi became the first woman in the Arab world to present herself as a candidate in her country’s presidential elections, thereby breaking a taboo. And now she is probably the first woman in the Middle East engaged in founding a feminist political party.
In this interview with Kolkata-based journalist Aditi Bhaduri, Dr. Nawal El Saadawi, a vocal opponent of religion-based politics, spoke candidly about women’s issues, her ongoing conflicts with the Egyptian establishment, her run for president and the election results, which subsequently saw the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood.
A:To change the philosophy of the government, of education, and even of religion. I want to separate religion from state. We have to criticise the head, not the tail.
Many women in Egypt were against the Minister of Interior because at a demonstration against Mubarak, many women were sexually harassed by the police. But this minister was just the tail. Scapegoating will remain part of the political system, and so long as we live in capitalistic and imperialistic systems, only the weak will be punished, and the real criminals will get away scot-free.
I hate politics and I am not a politician. I was compelled, in fact, to run. I’d prefer to write a novel instead and stay away from all this muck.Politics is a very dirty game, but I was compelled because many young people, mostly unemployed graduates, approached me, hoping to find a way to go abroad. They wanted either to study or work there, and I told them to stay here and fight. So they asked me to fight with them, and that’s why I decided to run. They supported me and that’s why I was able to file my candidacy. Otherwise, I didn’t have the money for campaigning.
Being 74 years of age, and not a politician, my running was more symbolic. It was a symbolic gesture, to break taboos, to show that women can do it, to question the sacred position of the president and to open the doors for other younger women to go out and be brave.
A controversy broke out whether a woman could become president. The religious authorities had different opinions on the issue. The Sheikh of Al Azhar, Dr.Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, declared that in Islam a woman can become President, whereas Mufti Dr. Ali Goma’a said that Islam is categorically against allowing a woman to become president of the country “because of her physiology and her monthly periods.” Incidentally, in the villages of Egypt, women often work in the fields from dawn to dusk, despite their monthly periods.
Q: What made you withdraw your candidature and boycott the elections?
A: They were fighting me and trying to silence me. My relatives and other people in my village collected money for the campaign. A big conference was scheduled in my village on April 15, 2005, but the police prevented it and threatened my relative — a doctor employed by the government — who was organising it. They also threatened the peasants and the women there and told them that if they started campaigning and supporting me, they would be fired from their positions or put into prison. So these people were afraid. We tried to convene it unofficially by saying it was a family meeting, but they silenced me on television and in other media. I cannot be published and I cannot write, except in the very small opposition papers. So how could I reach out to the people?
Q: Following the December 2005 parliamentary elections, the Muslim Brotherhood won one-fifth of the seats in the People’s Assembly. What do you see as the main force behind the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood?
A: It is the American, European and Israeli intervention in our country and the collaboration of our local government that is the main force behind the rise of the Muslim Brothers. This began a long time ago — since the 1970s, it was Sadat’s “open door” policy and his encouragement of religious extremism, to religiously divide and rule the people and the country.
One of the reasons I went to prison in 1980 for alleged “crimes against the state” was because I criticised Anwar Sadat when, at the behest of the Americans, he started the multi-party system. As they knew the conditions here, they promised him US aid in return for “democracy.” But Sadat did not believe in any multi-party system or democracy — he was a dictator who did not want democracy in Egypt.
Twenty-five years have passed since Sadat’s death and now the US government, under George Bush, is pressurising Mubarak to initiate democracy and introduce a multiple-candidates system, changing the 76th item of the constitution. A big farce is being played out to deceive us into believing there’s democracy when actually there is none.
This has happened so that American intervention can let the markets of global capitalism flow into Egypt, and in order to understand this, we have to link it
Q: So do you think the Muslim Brothers will help America achieve this?
A: Yes, they are also capitalists, patriarchal, class-oriented and against socialism. They are for patriarchy, for class and gender discrimination. This has always been the case — first it was the British who encouraged religious fundamentalism — the Muslim Brothers have been active since 1924, when they were helped by British colonialism to divide and rule Egypt — and now it’s the Americans.
Q: So with the coming of Muslim Brothers to the Egyptian parliament was there a huge vacuum being filled? If so, why didn’t a more liberal party succeed in filling the vacuum?
A: Yes, there was a vacuum as we don’t have any opposition, just a legal “official opposition” that is created by the government and will not be a threat to it. The real opposition is silent, it is censored. People like us have been silenced. Ayman Nour is in prison, though he is also class-oriented. The orientation of the government is class and patriarchy and so it prevented more radical ones like us from competing. So now the Muslim Brothers are the legal opposition.
Q: An MP from the ruling NDP Party, Mr. Khalifa Radwan, said “The Muslim Brothers have revitalised parliament.” Do you agree with this outlook?
A: Revitalised parliament? In what way, what is the motivation, what is their goal? How do you mean “revitalise?” I think the man is playing with words. The Muslim Brothers have a lot of money in Europe and New York. It is supported by the Europeans and the Arab Gulf countries. So they are all for class and patriarchy and are helped by many others who are scared of socialism. You see for all of them the main enemy is socialism.
Q: What do you expect from an opposition party and do you think the Muslim Brothers are fulfilling their responsibility as the largest opposition bloc?
A: The Muslim Brothers are for patriarchy, for class, for gender discrimination. How can I expect anything from them? We feminists are in a very difficult position.
Q: Would you rather have no opposition than have a religious fundamentalist party as the opposition?
A: Yes, I would rather have no opposition than have a religious fundamentalist party like Muslim Brothers as the opposition. Of course we need opposition, a democracy cannot function without opposition. But [in Egypt] only the most radical is allowed. The real opposition is not allowed.
Q: So you feel that state and religion ought to be divorced from each other?
A: Yes, I am for a secular state and I am totally against religion being mixed up with politics. And I am also against multi-culturalism. Multi-culturalism is the policy that colonisers use to divide and oppress people. Women, especially, are victims of multi-culturalism. My election programme called for a complete separation of religion and state.
Q: Describe the state of other political parties in Egypt now?
A: All the political parties are collapsing now and even the Muslim Brothers have divisions and problems.
Q: Many people view Egypt as a satellite of the US.Do you see Egypt emerging from the grips of Washington and steering its own course?
A: We have a population of 73 million. We can be liberated any time. I am not pessimistic like other people who say we cannot fight a superpower. I do not know how long it will take — it depends on our mobilisation, how soon we can do it. Our local government is also collaborating with the foreign imperialists.
Q: How do you view the role of Egypt in an increasingly hostile world pitting Islam against the west?
A: You know the Davos capitalist multinational conference was on at Sharm el-Sheikh [recently]. So the Egyptian government was playing a role in [promoting] world capitalism. However, the role of the Egyptian people was different — they were protesting this conference. They were holding anti-globalisation, anti neo-colonisation conference.So the role of the Egyptian government and the Egyptian people is different.
Q: The triple bombings at the popular resort town of Dahab in Egypt on April 24, 2006, which killed at least 23 people and injured over 160 others, were the latest wave of terror attacks targeting innocent civilians. What are the links between US-Egypt cooperation, US foreign policy and these attacks?
A: Everything is linked — George Bush and Bin Laden are twins. All the fundamentalist movements — Jewish, Christian, Muslim — they all have the same face. I t is a religious revival to protect patriarchy, linked to class and gender oppression.
Nine-eleven was a product of this religious revival and of US policies in the world. They are forming the American empire, it cannot survive without religion and so they are using religion. Like Sadat did, to fight the jihad in Afghanistan — they used religion and you have to link it all up.
Q: How do you visualise the role of international bodies like the OIC? Do they make a difference to the plight of Muslims around the world?
A: Not at all. I think the Islamic Conference under the Saudi regime was active against communism, and the US and Europe used Islam against the USSR. Because, as I said, the real threat is socialism. The Americans and the Europeans used the Saudi regime, which is all for patriarchy and perpetuates class and gender
discrimination. So the Islamic Conference, under the authority of Saudi Arabia, is working against the poor.
Q: Do you believe that people get the governments they deserve?
A: Well, I think so. No one doles out democracy; you have to take it. We have had colonialism for thousands of years and thus have a slave mentality among both men and women. They are born in fear, live in fear and die in fear. And that’s why we are alone.
Q:But you are also a product of this society. You did not grow up in the west and you have not given in.
A: Yes, but I am an individual and I represent the few brave people who go to prison and pay a high price. I am still paying, but we are a minority. It’s not collective. It’s when you have collective courage that you can change, but at the moment it’s individual courage, which is beaten down by the government.
Q:Do you plan to enter the political fray for the next elections?
A: Not now. What I am thinking of — and many people are asking me to do this — is to start a feminist political party with both men and women in it. On the other hand, many of us thinkers and dissidents and writers — men and women — are currently setting up the Egyptian Women Union. One of the debates we have generated right now amongst both men and women is that from now on women should be able to carry their mother’s name as well. Till now it was the father’s name that dominated. Like I am Nawal El Saadawi because my father’s name was Saadawi. But from now on, I will write Nawal Zeinab El Saadawi, Zeinab being my mother’s name.
Q:One of the most dominant discourses amongst women in Egypt — indeed in the entire Muslim world — is that of the veil. What is your take on it?
A: The veil is a tool for the oppression of women. In the Arab world, it is now often used as a fashion statement. Here in Egypt, the women work, run after men, wear make-up, are chain-smoking, and still they cover their heads. And then this veil is being imported to other countries, the subcontinent and even to America! It is very fashionable for some feminists from the east now to trash western feminism to defend the veil. They are those who usually live in the west themselves, but try to flatter the local women in their own country for publicity. They defend the veil in the name of multi-culturalism. It is a lie.
Q:Are you working on any new books right now? Has there been a shift in the contents of your writing from gender-specific issues to more political issues, including fundamentalism or terrorism?
A: I have written many articles recently in the opposition newspapers against the Mufti’s fatwa on statues. You know recently in Egypt the Mufti announced that all statues are un-Islamic and should be done away with. So I wrote a lot against this. The articles are also on my website in Arabic.
I am working on a novel right now. I am exploring different ideas, especially what leads to suicide among young men and women, particularly among women. You know the suicide rate is high in Egypt. I am trying to explore minds, especially a mind like that of the veiled woman who recently, in response to the Mufti’s fatwa against statues, made her way into a small museum in North Cairo and started to smash the statues on exhibit there. I am trying to understand the minds of such people. So I am still in the stage of exploring.
But even earlier, many of my novels dealt with issues like religious fundamentalism. My novel, The Fall of The Imam, was on this theme and I was sent to prison for it. So it is nothing new.
Q:Do you see any hope for Egypt’s future?
A: I shall continue to cooperate with the democratic forces intent on freeing Egypt from a regime that continues to suppress its people and spread corruption and nepotism everywhere.