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Egypt's face of courage

WITH her shock of white hair and cheerful demeanour, no one listening to the woman addressing American university students could have imagined the life she had led. Yet, Dr. Nawal el Saadawi from Egypt is one of the most remarkable women of our time. In 60 years of her life, she has known the price women pay in a tradition-bound society if they question these traditions. And despite persecution and imprisonment, she has not been silenced. That chance meeting with her three years ago remains vivid, not just for what Dr. Saadawi said but her personality, her interest in people and her passion.

On May 6, Dr. Saadawi, a leading Egyptian feminist, trained psychiatrist, and writer and novelist, gave an interview to an Egyptian magazine which has brought upon her another round of persecution. But this is hardly a new experience for her. For ever since Dr. Saadawi decided to use her pen to expose the true conditions of women in Egyptian society, she has invited the wrath of the traditionalists in her country and beyond. Although her 27 books and numerous articles have made her an internationally acclaimed writer, in her own country and several other Arab countries her books are banned. Earlier this year, at the book fair in Cairo, many of her titles could not be displayed.

In the recent interview with the magazine Al Midan, Dr. Saadawi repeated what she has often said in the past and about which she has written innumerable books, the most famous of which is The Hidden Face of Eve. She linked questions of sex and gender to politics, economics and culture and she suggested that religion was used by the powerful in all societies. She also restated her opposition to the veil, to polygamy, to inequality between men and women in inheritance rights and said that these were in contradiction to the true spirit of Islam. In similar interviews in the past, she had said, "Women are oppressed in all religions. The problem is not Islam, it is the political systems that use Islam and religion."

The magazine sensationalised some of her responses and quoted her out of context. What is worse, it took the interview to the Mufti of Egypt who issued a declaration accusing her of having strayed out of the bounds of Islam. Taking the cue from this statement, a lawyer, Mr. Nabih Al Wahsh moved a case of Hisba against Dr. Saadawi on grounds of apostasy, or renunciation of a religious faith, and tried to prove that she was legally unfit to be the wife of a Muslim.

Although Dr. Saadawi has written against this particular provision in the past because it was used against another well- known couple in Egypt, she never expected that there would be a move to annul her marriage of 37 years to Dr. Sherif Hetata, a medical doctor, on grounds of apostasy.

The case was heard on May 18 where Dr. Saadawi stated, "We affirm that no matter what the outcome of this outrageous case, we will continue our life together and remain in Egypt which is where we belong and that no one can make us act differently." On June 18, the state prosecutor will decide whether there is any basis to the case being pursued. In case he does pursue it, Dr. Saadawi could face arrest and imprisonment if she defies the court's decree.

But then the walls of prisons are no strangers to this incredibly brave woman, who is as inspiring in person as she is in her books. As a psychiatrist, Dr. Saadawi conducted a study on women and neuroses in the notorious Qanatir Women's Prison outside Cairo. One of the women she came across was Firdaus, who faced the death sentence for having killed a pimp. Her interactions with Firdaus led to the writing of one of her most remarkable books, Woman at Point Zero.

Little did Dr. Saadawi realise when she wrote the book, that in a few years time she would find herself in the same prison. Her crime? Questioning the establishment and writing forcefully about women's rights, which were considered "crimes against the State". In the regime of President Anwar Sadat, Dr. Saadawi was one of thousands of intellectuals thrown into prison. Before that she had already been stripped of her post as Director of Health, as editor-in-chief of Health magazine and as assistant general secretary of the Medical Association of Egypt.

Her experiences in prison form the substance of another fascinating book, Memoirs from the Women's Prison. Although she was denied pen and paper, she kept notes with the help of a "stubby black eyebrow pencil" and "a small roll of old and tattered toilet paper".

After her release from prison, Dr. Saadawi wrote these inspiring lines: "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. Nothing is more perilous than knowledge in a world that has considered knowledge a sin since Adam and Eve ... There is nothing in the world that can strip my writing from me."

Thousands of people across the world, who have been touched by Dr. Saadawi's writings and who have been inspired by her courage, will be thinking of her as she confronts the unreasonable and unjust laws in her country. Although in the mid-1990s, she chose to live in exile for five years, she came back to Egypt in 1999 determined to continue living in her own country. But despite her international status, her detractors will not leave her alone. And Dr. Saadawi understands why. She recently wrote, "Those who are in power have always tried to silence my voice. These attempts to silence me have increased steadily in the past years which have witnessed the predominance of capitalist neo-liberal forces and their allies, including religious fundamentalism."

Our situation may be different in India at present. But signs of similar intolerance are more than evident.


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