Nawal El Saadawi

Nawal El Saadawi (Arabic: نوال السعداوي, born 27 October 1931) is an Egyptian feminist writer, activist, physician, and psychiatrist. She has written many books on the subject of women in Islam, paying particular attention to the practice of female genital mutilation in her society. She has been described as "the Simone de Beauvoir of the Arab World".[2]

Nawal El Saadawi
Nawal El Saadawi at the 2010 Göteborg Book Fair
Native name
نوال السعداوي
Born (1931-10-27) 27 October 1931
OccupationPhysician, psychiatrist, author
Sherif Hatata
(m. 1964; div. 2010)

She is founder and president of the Arab Women's Solidarity Association[3][4] and co-founder of the Arab Association for Human Rights.[5] She has been awarded honorary degrees on three continents. In 2004, she won the North–South Prize from the Council of Europe. In 2005, she won the Inana International Prize in Belgium,[6] and in 2012, the International Peace Bureau awarded her the 2012 Seán MacBride Peace Prize.[7]

Nawal el Saadawi has held the positions of Author for the Supreme Council for Arts and Social Sciences, Cairo; Director General of the Health Education Department, Ministry of Health, Cairo, Secretary General of the Medical Association, Cairo, Egypt, and medical doctor at the University Hospital and Ministry of Health. She is the founder of the Health Education Association and the Egyptian Women Writers' Association; she was Chief Editor of Health Magazine in Cairo, and Editor of Medical Association Magazine.[8][9]

Early life

The second-eldest of nine children, Saadawi was born in 1931 in the small village of Kafr Tahla.[9] Her family was at once traditional and progressive: El Saadawi was "circumcised" (her clitoris cut off)[10] at the age of six, yet her father insisted that all his children be educated.[9]

Her father was a government official in the Ministry of Education, who had campaigned against the rule of the British occupation of Egypt and Sudan during the Egyptian Revolution of 1919. As a result, he was exiled to a small town in the Nile Delta, and the government punished him by not promoting him for 10 years. He was relatively progressive and taught his daughter self-respect and to speak her mind. He also encouraged her to study the Arabic language. Both her parents died at a young age,[9] leaving Saadawi with the sole burden of providing for a large family.[11]

Her mother was from a family of Turkish origin; El Saadawi has described her grandfather, Shoukry Bey, and his family as "all of whom had the fair skin of the Turks".[12] Her maternal grandmother was also of Turkish origin.[13]


Saadawi graduated as a medical doctor in 1955 from Cairo University. That year she married Ahmed Helmi, whom she met as a fellow student in medical school. The marriage ended two years later.[14][10] Through her medical practice, she observed women's physical and psychological problems and connected them with oppressive cultural practices, patriarchal oppression, class oppression and imperialist oppression.[15]

While working as a doctor in her birthplace of Kafr Tahla, she observed the hardships and inequalities faced by rural women. After attempting to protect one of her patients from domestic violence, Saadawi was summoned back to Cairo. She eventually became the Director of the Ministry of Public Health and met her third husband, Sherif Hatata, while sharing an office in the Ministry of Health. Hatata, also a medical doctor and writer, had been a political prisoner for 13 years. They married in 1964 and have a son and a daughter.[11] Saadawi divorced Hatata after 43 years of marriage.[16]

In 1972, she published Woman and Sex (المرأة والجنس), confronting and contextualising various aggressions perpetrated against women's bodies, including female circumcision. The book became a foundational text of second-wave feminism. As a consequence of the book and her political activities, Saadawi was dismissed from her position at the Ministry of Health.[15] She also lost her positions as chief editor of a health journal, and as Assistant General Secretary in the Medical Association in Egypt. From 1973 to 1976, Saadawi worked on researching women and neurosis in Ain Shams University's Faculty of Medicine. From 1979 to 1980, she was the United Nations Advisor for the Women's Programme in Africa (ECA) and the Middle East (ECWA).[17][18]


Long viewed as controversial and dangerous by the Egyptian government, Saadawi helped publish a feminist magazine in 1981 called Confrontation. She was imprisoned in September by President of Egypt Anwar Sadat.[19] She was released later that year, one month after the President's assassination. Of her experience she wrote: "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."[20] In 1982 she founded the Arab Women Solidarity Association.[21]

Saadawi was one of the women held at Qanatir Women's Prison. Her incarceration formed the basis for her memoir, Memoirs from the Women's Prison (Arabic: مذكرات في سجن النساء , 1983). Her contact with a prisoner at Qanatir, nine years before she was imprisoned there, served as inspiration for an earlier work, a novel titled Woman at Point Zero (Arabic: امرأة عند نقطة الصفر, 1975).[22]

Further persecution, teaching in the US, and on-going activism

In 1988, when her life was threatened by Islamists and political persecution, Saadawi was forced to flee Egypt. She accepted an offer to teach at Duke University's Asian and African Languages Department in North Carolina, as well as at the University of Washington. She has since held positions at a number of prestigious colleges and universities including Cairo University, Harvard, Yale, Columbia, the Sorbonne, Georgetown, Florida State University, and the University of California, Berkeley. In 1996, she moved back to Egypt.[23][24]

Saadawi has continued her activism and considered running in the 2005 Egyptian presidential election, before stepping out because of stringent requirements for first-time candidates.[25] She was among the protesters in Tahrir Square in 2011.[26] She has called for the abolition of religious instruction in the Egyptian schools.

Saadawi was awarded the 2004 North–South Prize by the Council of Europe.[27] In July 2016 she headlined the Royal African Society's "Africa Writes" literary festival in London, where she spoke "On Being A Woman Writer" in conversation with Margaret Busby.[28][29]

She was in Göteborg Book Fair which took place on September 27–30, 2018 were she attended a seminar on development in Egypt and the Middle East after the Arab Spring [30] and stated during her talk in the event that "colonial, capitalist, imperialist, racist" global powers, led by the United States, collaborated with the Egyptian government to end the 2011 Egyptian revolution. She added that she remembered seeing then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Tahrir Square handing out dollar bills to the youth in order to encourage them to vote for the Muslim Brotherhood in the upcoming elections.[31]


Saadawi began writing early in her career. Her earliest writings include a selection of short stories entitled I Learned Love (1957) and her first novel, Memoirs of a Woman Doctor (1958). She has since written numerous novels and short stories and a personal memoir, Memoir from the Women's Prison (1986). Saadawi has been published in a number of anthologies, and her work has been translated from the original Arabic into more than 30 languages,[32] including English, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Italian, Dutch, Finnish, Indonesian, Japanese, Persian, Turkish, Urdu and others.

In 1972, she published her first work of non-fiction, Women and Sex, which evoked the antagonism of highly placed political and theological authorities. It also led to her dismissal at the Ministry of Health. Other works include The Hidden Face of Eve, God Dies by the Nile, The Circling Song, Searching, The Fall of the Imam[33] and Woman at Point Zero.

She contributed the piece "When a woman rebels" to the 1984 anthology Sisterhood Is Global, edited by Robin Morgan.[34]

Saadawi's novel Zeina was published in Lebanon in 2009. The French translation was published under the pseudonym Nawal Zeinab el Sayed, using her mother's maiden name.[35]

Saadawi speaks fluent English in addition to her native Egyptian Arabic.[36] As she writes in Arabic, she sees the question of translation into English or French as "a big problem" linked to the fact that

"the colonial capitalist powers are mainly English- or French-speaking.... I am still ignored by big literary powers in the world, because I write in Arabic, and also because I am critical of the colonial, capitalist, racist, patriarchal mind set of the super-powers."[37]

Her book Mufakirat Tifla fi Al-Khamisa wa Al-Thamaneen (A Notebook of an 85-year-old Girl), based on excerpts from her journal, was published in 2017.[38]


Advocacy against genital mutilation

At a young age, Saadawi underwent the process of female genital mutilation.[39] As an adult she has written about and criticized this practice. She responded to the death of a 12-year-old girl, Bedour Shaker, during a genital circumcision operation in 2007 by writing: "Bedour, did you have to die for some light to shine in the dark minds? Did you have to pay with your dear life a price ... for doctors and clerics to learn that the right religion doesn't cut children's organs."[40] As a doctor and human rights activist, Saadawi is also opposed to male circumcision. She believes that both male and female children deserve protection from genital mutilation.[41]


In a 2014 interview Saadawi said that "the root of the oppression of women lies in the global post-modern capitalist system, which is supported by religious fundamentalism".[42]

When hundreds of people were killed in what has been called a "stampede" during the 2015 pilgrimage (Hajj) of Muslims to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, she said:

"They talk about changing the way the Hajj is administered, about making people travel in smaller groups. What they don’t say is that the crush happened because these people were fighting to stone the devil. Why do they need to stone the devil? Why do they need to kiss that black stone? But no one will say this. The media will not print it. What is it about, this reluctance to criticize religion? ... This refusal to criticize religion ... is not liberalism. This is censorship."[16]

She has said that elements of the Hajj, such as kissing the Black Stone, had pre-Islamic pagan roots.[43] Saadawi has been involved in the academic exploration of Arab identity throughout her writing career.[44]


Saadawi describes the Islamic veil as "a tool of oppression of women".[41] She is also critical about the objectification of women and female bodies without male bodies in patriarchal social structures common in Europe and the US.[45]

United States

In a 2002 lecture at the University of California, Saadawi described the US-led war on Afghanistan as "a war to exploit the oil in the region", and US foreign policy and its support of Israel as "real terrorism".[46] Saadawi has opined that Egyptians are forced into poverty by US aid.[47]


Saadawi is the subject of the film She Spoke the Unspeakable, directed by Jill Nicholls, broadcast in February 2017 in the BBC One television series Imagine.[48]

Selected awards and honors


Saadawi has written prolifically, placing some of her works online.[52] Her books include:

  • Memoirs of a Woman Doctor (1960, 1980; translated by Catherine Cobham, 1989)
  • Searching (1968; translated by Shirley Eber, 1991)
  • The Death of the Only Man in the World (1974; translated by Sherif Hetata, 1985) Published in English as God Dies by the Nile
  • Woman at Point Zero (1975; translated by Sherif Hetata, 1983)
  • The Hidden Face of Eve: Women in the Arab World (1977; translated by Sherif Hetata, 1980)
  • The Circling Song (1978; translated by Marilyn Booth, 1989)
  • Death of an Ex-Minister (1980; translated by Shirley Eber, 1987)
  • She Has No Place in Paradise (1979; translated by Shirley Eber)
  • Two Women in One (1983; translated by Osman Nusairi and Jana Gough, 1985)
  • The Fall of the Imam (1987; translated by Sherif Hetata, 1988)
  • Memoirs from the Women's Prison (1984; translated by Marilyn Booth, 1994)
  • The Innocence of the Devil (1994; translated by Sherif Hetata, 1994)
  • North/South: The Nawal El Saadawi Reader (1997)
  • Love in the Kingdom of Oil, translated by Basil Hatim and Malcolm Williams (Saqi Books, 2000)
  • The Novel (2004; translated by Omnia Amin and Rick London, 2009)
  • A Daughter of Isis
  • Dissidenza e scrittura (2008)
  • L'amore ai tempi del petrolio, translated by Marika Macco, introduction by Luisa Morgantini, Fagnano Alto: Editrice il Sirente, 2009. ISBN 978-88-87847-16-1

Publication history

The following is a complete list of her books.[53]

Novels (in Arabic)

  • Memoirs of a Woman Doctor (Cairo, 1958)
  • The Absent One (Cairo, 1969)
  • Two Women in One (Cairo, 1971)
  • Woman at Point Zero (Beirut, 1973)
  • The Death of the Only Man on Earth (Beirut, 1975)
  • The Children’s Circling Song (Beirut, 1976)
  • The Fall of the Imam (Cairo, 1987)
  • Ganat and the Devil (Beirut, 1991)
  • Love in the Kingdom of Oil (Cairo, 1993)
  • The Novel (Cairo: Dar El Hilal Publishers, 2004)
  • Zeina, Novel (Beirut: Dar Al Saqi, 2009)

Short-story collections (in Arabic)

  • I Learnt Love (Cairo, 1957)
  • A Moment of Truth (Cairo, 1959)
  • Little Tenderness (Cairo, 1960)
  • The Thread and the Wall (Cairo, 1972)
  • Ain El Hayat (Beirut, 1976)
  • She was the Weaker (Beirut, 1977)
  • Death of an Ex-minister (Beirut, 1978)
  • Adab Am Kellet Abad (Cairo, 2000)

Plays (in Arabic)

  • Twelve Women in a Cell (Cairo, 1984)
  • Isis (Cairo, 1985)
  • God Resigns in the Summit Meeting (1996), published by Madbouli, and four other plays included in her Collected Works (45 books in Arabic), Cairo: Madbouli, 2007

Memoirs (in Arabic)

  • Memoirs in a Women’s Prison (Cairo, 1983)
  • My Travels Around the World (Cairo, 1986)
  • Memoirs of a Child Called Soad (Cairo, 1990)
  • My Life, Part I, Autobiography (Cairo, 1996)
  • My Life, Part II, Autobiography (Cairo, 1998)
  • My Life, Part III, (Cairo, 2001)

Non-fiction (in Arabic)

  • Women and Sex (Cairo, 1969)
  • Woman is the Origin (Cairo, 1971)
  • Men and Sex (Cairo, 1973)
  • The Naked Face of Arab Women (Cairo, 1974)
  • Women and Neurosis (Cairo, 1975)
  • On Women (Cairo, 1986)
  • A New Battle in Arab Women Liberation (Cairo, 1992)
  • Collection of Essays (Cairo, 1998)
  • Collection of Essays (Cairo, 2001)
  • Breaking Down Barriers (Cairo, 2004)

Novels translated into English

  • Woman at Point Zero (London: Zed Books, 1982), reissued 2008
  • God Dies by the Nile (London: Zed Books, 1984), reissued 2008
  • Circling Song (London: Zed Books, 1986), reissued 2008
  • The Fall of Imam (London: Methuen, 1987), London: Saqi Books 2001, 2009
  • Searching (London: Zed Books, 1988), reissued 2008
  • Two Women in One (London: Al-Saqi Books, 1992)
  • Memoirs of a Women Doctor (London: Methuen, 1994) (also: City Lights, USA, 1993)
  • The Well of Life, two novels (London: Methuen, 1994)
  • The Innocence of the Devil (London: Methuen, 1994) (also: University of California Press, 1995)
  • Love in the Kingdom of Oil (London: Saqi Books, 2001)
  • The Novel (Northampton, Mass: Interlink Books, 2009)
  • Zeina (London: Saqi Books, 2011)

Short stories translated into English

  • Death of an Ex-minister (London: Methuen, 1987)
  • She Has No Place in Paradise (London: Methuen, 1987)

Non-fiction translated into English

  • The Hidden Face of Eve (London: Zed Books, 1980), reissued 2008
  • My Travel Around the World (London: Methuen, 1985)
  • Memoirs from the Women’s Prison (London: Women’s Press, 1985) (also: University of California Press, USA, 1995)
  • Nawal El Saadawi Reader, essays (London: Zed Books, 1997)
  • Vol 11 Nawal El Saadawi Reader (Zed Books 2009)
  • Part I A Daughter of Isis, autobiography (London: Zed Books, 1999), reissued 2008
  • Part II Walking Through Fire, autobiography (London: Zed Books, 2002), reissued 2008

See also


  1. Mahmoud El-Wardani (24 April 2014). "El-Saadawi and Hatata: Voyage of a lifetime". Ahram Online. Retrieved 30 November 2015.
  2. "Nawal El Saadawi | Egyptian physician, psychiatrist, author and feminist". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 7 March 2016.
  3. "Arab Women's Solidarity Association United", Lokashakti.
  4. Hitchcock, Peter, Nawal el Saadawi, Sherif Hetata. "Living the Struggle". Transition 61 (1993): 170–179.
  5. Nawal El Saadawi, "Presentation by Nawal El Saadawi: President's Forum, M/MLA Annual Convention, November 4, 1999", The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association 33.3–34.1 (Autumn 2000 – Winter 2001): 34–39.
  6. "PEN World Voices Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture by Nawal El Saadawi", YouTube. 8 September 2009.
  7. "International Peace Bureau". Archived from the original on 25 September 2015. Retrieved 25 September 2015.
  8. "Nawal El Saadawi". Retrieved 12 February 2014.
  9. "Nawal El Saadawi". Retrieved 25 September 2015.
  10. Khaleeli, Homa (15 April 2010). "Nawal El Saadawi: Egypt's radical feminist". The Guardian. Retrieved 25 September 2015.
  11. "Exile and Resistance". Archived from the original on 2009-10-27. Retrieved 2010-06-23.
  12. Nawal El Saadawi (2013), A Daughter of Isis: The Early Life of Nawal El Saadawi, Zed Books, ISBN 1848136404
  13. Nawal El Saadawi (1986), Memoirs from the Women's Prison, University of California Press, p. 64, ISBN 0520088883, My eyes widened in astonishment. Even my maternal grandmother used to sing, although she was born to a Turkish mother and lived in my grandfather's house in the epoch when harems still existed.
  14. Koseli, Yusuf (2013). "A PSYCHOANALYTIC APPROACH TO THE NOVEL OF NAWAL EL SAADAWI TITLED MÜZEKKİRAT TABİBE" (PDF). The Journal of International Social Research. 6 (28). Retrieved 16 November 2014.
  15. Feminism in a nationalist century Archived 19 April 2010 at the Wayback Machine
  16. Cooke, Rachel (11 October 2015). "Nawal El Saadawi: 'Do you feel you are liberated? I feel I am not'". The Observer. Retrieved 23 October 2015.
  17. "Saadawi, Nawal el – Postcolonial Studies". Retrieved 31 July 2017.
  18. Saʻdāwī, Nawāl (15 December 1997). The Nawal El Saadawi Reader. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 9781856495141.
  19. Uglow, Jennifer S.; Hendry, Maggy (1999). The Northeastern Dictionary of Women's Biography. Northeastern University Press. pp. 189–190. ISBN 9781555534219.
  20. "Egypt's face of courage". The Hindu. 3 June 2001. Archived from the original on 30 October 2004. Retrieved 25 September 2013.CS1 maint: BOT: original-url status unknown (link)
  21. Sierra Hussey, "Biography of Nawal El Saadawi", South African History Online.
  22. "The Books of Nawal El Saadawi". The New Yorker. 7 March 2011. Retrieved 31 July 2017.
  23. Dr Dora Carpenter-Latiri, "The Reading Room: A review of ‘Memoirs of a woman doctor’", BMJ Blog, 11 November 2015.
  24. Jessica Ling, "Today in History: Happy 85th Birthday, Nawal El Saadawi!", Warscapes, 27 October 2016.
  25. "Egypt presidential aspirant pulls out", AlJazeera, 16 July 2005.
  26. Elizabeth Rubin, "The Feminists in the Middle of Tahrir Square", Newsweek, 6 March 2011.
  27. "north-south-centre-homepage". North-South Centre. Retrieved 18 March 2018.
  28. Kelechi Iwumene, "Africa Writes 2016: The Round-Up".
  29. "On Being A Woman Writer: Nawal El Saadawi in conversation", Africa Writes, 2 July 2016.
  30. "Nawal El Sadaawi to the book fair | Gothenburg-mail". Retrieved 10 October 2018.
  31. "Egyptian Women's Rights Activist Nawal El Saadawi: I Saw Hillary Clinton Handing Out U.S. Dollars In Tahrir Square So That People Would Vote For the Muslim Brotherhood", Memri TV, 30 September 2018.
  32. Judith Imel Van Allen, "Saadawi, Nawal El (1931–)", in Gary L. Anderson and Kathryn G. Herr (eds), Encyclopedia of Activism and Social Justice, Sage Publications, 2007, pp. 1249–1250.
  33. Philip Womack. "The Fall of the Imam by Nawal El Saadawi" (review), New Humanist, 20 August 2009.
  34. "Sisterhood Is Global: Table of Contents". Archived from the original on 8 December 2015. Retrieved 15 October 2015.
  35. "Radical writer back with vengeance". The National. 7 September 2009. Retrieved 17 November 2014.
  36. Hans Ulrich Obrist, "In Conversation with Nawal El Saadawi", e-flux Journal #42, February 2013.
  37. Dele Meiji Fatunla, "Nawal El Saadawi: 'My identity is not fixed'", New African, 30 June 2016.
  38. Mahmoud El-Wardani, "At 85, Nawal El-Saadawi writes about Nawal El-Saadawi", Ahram Online, 5 August 2017.
  39. Nawal el-Saadawi, The Hidden Face of Eve, Part 1: The Mutilated Half.
  40. Maggie Michael, "Egypt Officials Ban Female Circumcision" Archived 2 July 2007 at the Wayback Machine,, 30 June 2007.
  41. Allston Mitchell (16 May 2010). "Nawal al Saadawi". The Global Dispatches. Retrieved 12 February 2014.
  42. Fariborz, Arian (5 July 2014). "They don't want any really courageous people!". - Dialogue with the Islamic World. Retrieved 5 November 2015.
  43. Fiona Lloyd-Davies, "No compromise", Correspondent, BBC News, 26 October 2001.
  44. Hanadi, Al-Samman (2000). Diasporic Na(rra)tions: Arab Women Rewriting Exile. Indiana University. p. 25.
  45. El Saadawi, Nawal (1997). The Nawal El Saadawi Reader. Zed Books. Retrieved 8 April 2015.
  46. Pasquini, Elaine (March 2002). "El Saadawi Calls U.S. Foreign Policy 'Real Terrorism'". Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. Retrieved 17 November 2014 via
  47. Nielsen, Nikolaj (11 July 2013). "Nawal El Saadawi: 'I am against stability. We need revolution'". The Chronikler. Retrieved 19 November 2014.
  48. "She Spoke the Unspeakable", BBC One, Imagine, Winter 2017. Via Dailymotion.
  49. "Motvillig El Saadawi får Dagermanpriset". SvD (in Swedish). 9 January 2012. Retrieved 27 October 2012.
  50. "Lydnad är ett dödligt gift". Kultur (in Swedish). 15 May 2012. Retrieved 27 October 2012.
  51. "BBC 100 Women 2015: Who is on the list?". BBC News. 17 November 2015. Retrieved 3 August 2019.
  52. Works available online at Saadawi's website Archived 19 December 2006 at the Wayback Machine.
  53. "Nawal El Saadawi". 30 June 2008. Retrieved 12 February 2014.
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