Nawal El Sadaawi, Egyptian author

Agnes Frimston talks to the Egyptian author of more than 50 books including Woman at Point Zero and The Face of Eve. She is one of the BBC’s 100 inspirational women of 2015

The World Today
2 minute READ

Agnes Frimston

Deputy Editor, The World Today

You were among the crowds in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011. Have your hopes for Egypt been realized?

A revolution takes time. The French revolution took decades. We can say we are going forward and we are going in the right direction and if there are mistakes made by the government we can correct them. I am not for military government or individual rule in any country, but I have to be fair. The 2011 revolution was aborted by external powers which supported the Muslim Brotherhood because they wanted Egypt to be divided like Iraq, Libya and Syria. So the people went out into the streets against Mohamed Morsi. We asked the army to come and support us, and so Sisi came in. And Sisi is better than Sadat or Mubarak and especially Morsi. It was not a coup d’état.

In Britain some women have said that the veil is feminist statement because it is a choice.

I am very critical of the phrase ‘free choice’. You cannot choose freely in a capitalist patriarchal religious system that condemns you if you do not conform or adapt to society. I am condemned because I don’t wear make-up, because I don’t dye my hair. They say I am not an ideal woman. So we are all condemned by patriarchy, by capitalism, by religions, and we are all in the same boat. All religions oppress women. Women in the UK are oppressed by make-up and by the job market. We are all living in one world, not three.

So how do you rebel as a woman?

I rebel by writing, by the way I live. If I am against the patriarchy, I cannot accept a patriarchal man. I have tried: I married three times and divorced three husbands. So that’s what I do: fighting in my private life exactly as I fight in my public life.

Female genital mutilation was made illegal in Egypt in 2008. Do you think that it has had an impact on the number of women who have been cut?

You cannot eradicate it with a law. A law cannot be effective without education and that’s why the percentage of women who have been cut has not diminished. This will take time.

The government is not really serious about eradicating female genital mutilation. They are afraid of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi groups so they are hesitant and there is no national educational programme against female genital mutilation. So how can people know? Most of them won’t talk about it – it’s a taboo. The world is silent about male circumcision. Because male circumcision is mentioned in the Old Testament, they are afraid to be labelled anti-Semitic. If you speak about male circumcision then you are anti-Semitic – it’s ridiculous.

What do you think is the biggest threat to women’s rights globally?

We live in a jungle, that’s my conclusion. And we are all in the same boat: men and women. I do not divide people by their genital organs. Thatcher was a woman. Hillary Clinton and Angela Merkel are women but their brains are patriarchal.

What do you think is the appeal of organizations such as Islamic State for young women?

But men go too. Men and women go because they are frustrated with this jungle they live in. I met women in Kurdistan last year who joined the so-called ISIS, and I asked them: ‘Why did you join?’ They said: ‘We are fed up, we can’t eat, we don’t have work, and those Islamic groups give us work and food and prestige and we are fighting for something.’ They brainwash them. They tell them they are fighting for God, for Muhammad. So that’s why they join. You cannot imagine the unemployment rate in Egypt – university graduates have no work. So they join Daesh.

So they’re looking for an identity?

Not only identity – they are looking for a life, for work, for money. You need a salary before your identity. I am very critical of identity politics: what do you mean by ‘identity’? What is my identity? I am not Egyptian, I’m not Muslim, I’m not even a woman, I am a human being, fighting for justice anywhere, but especially at home. That’s my identity.

Nawal El Saadawi’s novels have been reprinted by Zed Books