Imprisoned, exiled and accused of blasphemy, Nawal el Saadawi's fighting words have for decades polarised opinion in her Egyptian homeland. Helena Frith Powell talks to the writer about a lifetime spent pressing for equality and pushing the traditional bounds of a deeply patriarchal society The Shoubra district of Cairo is not the kind of place where people are clamouring to live. The traffic that runs in four lanes parallel to the Nile is relentless, fast and dangerous. The houses are little more than concrete boxes, and the apartment blocks so shabby they would be deemed fit for demolition in many cities. There is so much pollution and dust that the air is constantly hazy.
But it is a place that inspires Nawal el Saadawi, a woman who has spent most of her life fighting against injustice in all its forms, either as a doctor, writer or activist. She has carved out a role for herself as the champion of women in the Arab world who suffer from any form of abuse, inequality or the effects of religious fundamentalism. She has been both vilified and feted for her work, but she has remained consistent through imprisonment, death threats and exile.
"Some people say, 'Oh Shakespeare inspired me'," she tells me when we meet at her small apartment in a block of flats in Shoubra. "Of course, I enjoyed Shakespeare but I am inspired by life, by the streets of Cairo, by the view from here of houses below like boxes where people are slaves. When I smell the sweat and the sewage, then I want to write. And I am also motivated by the pleasure I get from writing. I want to be happy and writing makes me happy. It makes me happier than love or sex or food. I can forget all that when I am writing," she laughs.
El Saadawi laughs easily. When she does, her thick, curly silver hair bounces around her still youthful face, giving the impression of a woman half her age. Born in 1931, el Saadawi started questioning patriarchal society when she was a little girl and she hasn't stopped since. Her outspoken views have led to countless court cases against her and her closest relations. But she shows no sign of letting up.
Just last month, three clerics accused her of blasphemy for stating that religion should be separated from public life, while discussing her latest campaign, the Global Solidarity for Secular Society. She launched the Egyptian chapter just over a week ago. She calls it a movement aimed at promoting secularism and fighting religious fanaticism. "In the eyes of the law, as a woman, I am inferior to a man."
El Saadawi is married to Sherif Hetata, whom she met while she was working at the ministry of health. He was a political prisoner for 13 years and is also a writer, as well as the translator of many of her books into English. "Recently they tried to make my husband divorce me," she says. "They said as a good Muslim he couldn't be married to an infidel. I won my case. I am a winner. You must never retreat. When you retreat they hit you, but when you push head on you win. For me, no way back - head on until death!" she laughs again.
El Saadawi has an easy, warm and generous manner. She is still startlingly attractive, despite being almost 80. Her skin is clear and her brown eyes sparkle with wit, mischief and intelligence. She is tall and slim, and holds herself like a woman of 20. You get the impression she is extremely strong; both physically and mentally. A little like the illiterate peasant grandmother she talks of often and describes as one of her greatest role models. "A rebel with very good genes," she says of her.
El Saadawi was brought up with her mother, father and eight siblings. She speaks with great affection of her parents. "My father was really liberal, even revolutionary," she says. He was a civil servant [a director at the Ministry of Education in Egypt]. "And my mother had intelligence and ambition. She wanted to do so much but she died of cancer when she was 45 without doing anything except having nine children."
Does she feel at home in Cairo? She shakes her head. "Home is not about where I am. I would not call Cairo home. I feel at home wherever I meet people I feel at home with," she tells me, sitting at her desk. "I feel at home now while we are talking. Do you feel the same? I feel like I've known you for 100 years. We are talking about very intimate things, we enjoy ourselves. We have lost the feeling of the external world. And we got rid of the photographer," she says, throwing her head back and laughing, referring to the woman who was with us to take her picture for this feature. She takes my hand. "We can talk and talk and you can stay until tomorrow morning and we will never stop talking. That's home, that's home to me."
After three years of exile in the United States, el Saadawi has returned to her Shoubra apartment. The entrance looks like it hasn't been painted since it was built. One rickety lift serves all the floors in the building. El Saadawi is on the 26th floor, away from the dust and noise below in the "cement city" as she calls Cairo. But the upside is that on a good day she can see the Citadel and the Pyramids from her kitchen window.
El Saadawi is a woman who polarises opinion in her homeland. Adored abroad as a critic of female oppression, in Egypt there are those who wish she would be quiet. Even my driver shakes his head at the mention of her and says: "Not everyone agrees with her." Agree with her or not, she is a powerful voice. In the opening chapter of her book, The Hidden Face Of Eve, she describes how as a six-year-old she was taken from her bed in the middle of the night. She was "in that pleasurable state which lies halfway between wakefulness and sleep, with the rosy dreams of childhood flitting by, like gentle fairies in quick succession".
The next thing she knew, something cold and rough was reaching for her and she was carried to the bathroom with a hand "clapped over my mouth" by what she assumed was a gang of pirates sent to kidnap and kill her. Once laid out on the cold tiles of the bathroom floor, they held her down and circumcised her. She writes: "I screamed with pain despite the tight hand held over my mouth. The pain was not just a pain, it was like a searing flame that went through my whole body... I just wept and called out to my mother for help. But the worst shock of all was when I looked around and found her standing by my side. Yes, it was her, I could not be mistaken, in flesh and blood, right in the midst of these strangers, talking to them and smiling at them, as though they had not participated in slaughtering her daughter just a few moments ago."
Did she ever forgive her mother? "Of course," says el Saadawi, her voice full of affection. "I loved my mother. She was also a victim. She thought what she was doing was good and that it was best for me." Her relationship with her siblings has been more strained. "Our relationship is very fragile," she says. "They belong very much to the culture here. Most of my sisters are veiled." Partly as a result of el Saadawi's writing, a law was passed in 2007 to ban female genital mutilation, but she says that 97 per cent of women are still circumcised in Egypt. "You cannot eradicate such habits by law," she says. "We need education."
As the star pupil of her school in the village of Kafr Tahla on the banks of the Nile, medical school was a natural choice for the young el Saadawi. "It was also what my parents wanted," she says. "It is a respectable profession and also brings in money." She did extremely well at medical school, going on to become a thoracic surgeon, a health educator and latterly a psychiatrist. But writing has always been her main passion.
"I am a medical doctor and a fighter for human rights. But if I had to choose one thing, it would be writing," she explains. El Saadawi has written 47 books. More than 20 have been translated into English and many other languages. One of her books, Memoirs From The Women's Prison, published in 1984, was written while she was imprisoned for three months for allegedly plotting a coup to overthrow the government with the help of Bulgarians. In reality it had more to do with her opposition to the Jerusalem Peace Treaty and "my books and articles criticising [former president Anwar el] Sadat's policy and his submission to neocolonial domination". She wrote it in secret on rolls of toilet paper with an eyebrow pencil borrowed from a fellow inmate, a prostitute. "It was one of my best books because it was written in the agony of a real situation," she says. "The charges were ridiculous. I don't even know where Bulgaria is!" She was released a month after Sadat's assassination.
Her bestselling book, Woman At Point Zero, which is based on conversations with a prostitute condemned to death for murdering her pimp, was published in 1979. It has been translated into 30 languages and is studied in schools and universities around the world. But not in Egypt. Why? El Saadawi laughs. "Never, never will it be studied here," she exclaims. "It was never even published here. I gave it to a feminist editor here and she asked me how I could defend a prostitute. The critics called me a man hater."
it is true that el Saadawi's portrayals of men are relentlessly negative. So is she a man hater? Is it possible to hate men and be married three times? "Of course I don't hate men. Women in my books are also very contradictory. I am not a hater of men or women, but I am critical. The fact is that the patriarchal society produces men like this; they, too, are the victims. People really hate a woman who exposes patriarchy in a very deep way. It's like you uncover them and make them naked. Men are scared of me because I uncover them in my books. I am a fierce writer, aggressive and precise. The pen is like my scalpel and I pierce them with it."
El Saadawi's first husband was a young freedom fighter who "lost his life because he believed he should liberate Egypt from British rule". He began using drugs after the war and his health gradually deteriorated. Her second husband was a respected judge, whom she married in part because all her friends were telling her she should marry. "There was no real love," she says, "and he was scared of my writing."