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From the September 2001 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 48, No. 9).

Battling Bigotry

Nawal el-Saadawi

Tekla Szymanski, World Press Review Associate Editor

Nawal el-Saadawi in the 1980s (Photo: AFP).
“I was brought up to believe in the basic principles of Islam. For me, Islam has always meant belief in God, the spirit of justice, freedom, and love. Wearing the veil is not necessarily an indication of high morals.” Nawal el-Saadawi, 70—feminist, physician, sociologist, Egypt’s most widely translated writer, and former left-wing government minister—has always been attacked for her uncompromising views. She was imprisoned under the administration of President Anwar Sadat; her books have been censored and banished, leading to her self-imposed exile in the United States from 1993 to 1996.

Now El-Saadawi is accused of apostasy. Backed by an obscure tenet of Islamic doctrine, hisba (which can be executed only by men), Egyptian lawyer Nabih el-Wahsh has filed a complaint against her in Cairo’s Civil Affairs Court. [Update: This was the case when WPR went to press. Since then, on July 30, the court threw out all the charges against Nawal el-Saadawi.] El-Wahsh demands that El-Saadawi be forced to divorce her husband of 37 years, Sherif Hetata, because her critical and immoral views of Islam and of Muslim society as a whole “have ousted her from the Muslim community,” thus obliterating her right to remain married to a Muslim. The cause for the outrage was an interview with El-Saadawi published in the independent weekly Al-Midan, in which she proclaimed that obeisance to the black stone—the goal of the pilgrimage to Mecca—was a “vestige of pagan practices.”

El-Saadawi vowed to fight the accusations, arguing that her remarks were taken out of context. Nevertheless, she still adheres to her convictions. “Religious hierarchy has tended to transform Islam into a series of rituals and outdated sermons,” she countered in a statement to Cairo’s Al-Ahram. “[Those] take people away from the true spirit of religion.” No one can separate her from her husband, she says. Only death.

“One of Egypt’s most outspoken women [and] the new Salman Rushdie,” as Johannesburg’s Mail & Guardian describes her, has withstood death threats by fundamentalist religious leaders and the scorn of fellow Egyptians. The white-haired writer pledges to stick to her beliefs: “I’ve acquired psychological immunity with time,” she says. Now her goal is to work on abolishing hisba, admitting that it “can be applied to others who are not in as strong a position as [my husband and I] are. We are living in a patriarchal system based on class and male domination. This system breeds religious fundamentalism, paradoxes, injustices, and violence.”

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