x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Top Egyptian feminist says 'nothing has really changed' since revolution

Faisal Al Yafai talks revolution, religion and equality with Nawal El Saadawi, Egypt's most celebrated feminist.

Nawal El Saadawi: "There is a counter-revolution trying to abort the revolution in Egypt." Jeff Topping / The National
Nawal El Saadawi: "There is a counter-revolution trying to abort the revolution in Egypt." Jeff Topping / The National
The microphones have been switched on backstage and we hear her before we see her. When Nawal El Saadawi finally emerges on the stage at the Emirates Literature Festival in Dubai earlier this year, the crowd stands to applaud her. She is smiling broadly and moves with a swiftness that belies her age: Egypt's most famous feminist will turn 80 in October.

El Saadawi evokes deep affection in her audience, many of whom are young women. For them, as indeed for women of other generations, she is something of a lodestar for dissidence and activism, a celebrated writer and thinker, a woman who has written dozens of books and has even been imprisoned for her writings.

Since the Egyptian revolution last year, El Saadawi has emerged as one of the most eloquent speakers about the uprisings, in part because of her extraordinary enthusiasm for what she experienced in Tahrir Square.

So often the revolution in Egypt is painted as a step, a part of a political story, a move towards something greater. El Saadawi shows that, at that moment - and maybe only at that moment - it was a real revolution, a revolution of ideas, of heart and soul. Her audience feels the pull and the possibility of that moment. When she tells them about how she slept in Tahrir Square, they applaud. "I was changed by the revolution," she says.

A few days later, El Saadawi spoke to The Review from Cairo. We are meant to talk about women in the Arab world after the Arab Spring, but it is soon clear that El Saadawi does not like neat political boxes.

"I cannot separate the liberation of women, as half of the society, and the liberation of the country," she says. "I cannot separate between revolution in relation to women's rights and revolution in relation to country rights: women and men and peasants and the working class. You cannot liberate women in a country that is colonised and not liberated."

Yet for all her early optimism, the movement in Egyptian politics has been anything but revolutionary. The military remain in control and the power of the Islamists is growing. Asked in Dubai who she would vote for, she was unequivocal: "Nobody! Not one of the them. Because none of them comes from the revolution. I am waiting for someone who was in Tahrir Square, who suffered with us. If they come forward, I will vote for them."

Egypt's transition to democracy is ongoing, but much of the enthusiasm of the youth movement appears to have been co-opted by more experienced political operators such as the Muslim Brotherhood. As one of the Tahrir revolutionaries said: "We broke down the gate, only to have the Islamists walk through."

El Saadawi agrees. "There is a counter-revolution [that] is trying to abort the revolution in Egypt. The counter-revolution is in two parts: the powers outside the country, the [western] powers that are benefiting from the oil of the Middle East. And the inside power that is the local government and the military.

"They are aborting the revolution. Not only in relation to women but in relation to many other things ... [such as] the economy [and] corruption."

El Saadawi's critique is that the revolution demanded widespread change in the way Egypt was governed: the neoliberal reforms of the past decade have impoverished large sections of Egyptian society, while corruption runs through official life. It was deep-rooted issues like these that she believes needed to be tackled.

Yet these issues have not been much discussed in the post-revolutionary period. The state of Egypt's economy or the orientation of its foreign policy have not faced serious scrutiny.

Rather, I tell El Saadawi, the political discussion appears to have been focused on the terrain of women's bodies, with calls by Salafists to ban bikinis on Egypt's tourist beaches, debates over whether women would be compelled to wear the veil, and a running discussion about the use of invasive "virginity tests" on protesters.

It is a distraction says El Saadawi "because the Muslim Brotherhood are capitalists. The Brotherhood and the Salafi groups and the Christian groups, all religious groups, they don't have an economic policy ... They don't care about poverty, because most of them are rich, they are the upper class or upper middle class, who benefit from capitalism. So they want to divert the revolution from its economic and social goals, to superficial things like," she laughs mockingly, "the beard, the moustache, the veil and all that nonsense."

"Religious fundamentalist groups, with the colonial powers, American and European colonial powers, are two faces of the same coin. So if the Muslim Brotherhood now or the religious groups and all that are speaking about the veil and virginity, it is because they do not want to speak about economic problems, and capitalism and colonialism."

Even so, it is noticeable that the discussion about, for example, the veil, has not been led by nor especially included Egyptian women. It has been about them, with a tendency towards the consequences of not wearing it.

This was a theme El Saadawi raised in Dubai, about how often the threat of punishment is directed at women: punishment for what they think, for who they meet, for what they say. "We are so afraid of punishment," she told the audience. "The fear of punishment hangs over the Arab woman.

"[This is] because women are the weakest part of the society," she says. "Women do not have a [political] party. We are not allowed to have a party. Women are oppressed by all religions. Women are economically weak. Women are in a very bad situation ... that's why they try to punish them more, because they are weak.

"The poor and women are the two sectors that are punished more, because we are dominated by power and not justice."

Often this punishment is threatened in the context of religion: "Every political group interprets religion according to their interest and according to their power. And they impose their interpretation on women, on the poor, on the people who are weak. That's why I want a total separation between religion and politics."

Why, I ask, does Egypt appear to use religion as a method of social control? She replies that this occurs everywhere - from her years teaching at Duke University in South Carolina, she saw such imposition by Christian believers first hand. But is it not more noticeable in some Arab states?

"Yes, because most of the people are illiterate. It is very easy to brainwash millions of people in Egypt who are not educated."

Does she think a woman will ever lead Egypt? "Yes, it's not a matter of a woman; it's a matter of a brain. The brain of a woman can be better than the brain of a man. It has nothing to do with the genital organs.

"There are many women in Egypt who have better insight and better intelligence than Mubarak and Sadat and all of them.

"[But] the political groups hate intelligent women. They don't want her to be a creative writer or a creative president. They want her to just be a wife and a mother, according to religion and according to custom law."

El Saadawi has said she felt the Egyptian revolution was delayed for 70 years. She has often told the extraordinary story of going out with her grandmother when she was 10 years old to protest against King Farouk and continuing British influence in Egypt - this was in the 1940s, a decade before the revolution that made Egypt a republic.

"All my life I was demonstrating ... against Nasser, against Sadat, against Mubarak ... So I feel that nothing really has changed. We are still facing a system based on power and no justice, in Egypt and in the world."

I ask her how long she thinks this revolution will take.

"Ah, it will take a long time. And especially with this backlash. Because now we have this counter-revolution, we have this abortion of the revolution. So it will take years.

"But I am always hopeful because hope is power."

Faisal Al Yafai is a columnist for The National.