Egyptian doctor, writer and courageous human rights defender passes at 89

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OVER the course of a lifetime spent fighting for women’s rights and equality, Nawal El Saadawi inspired generations of women even while she faced threats against her life and imprisonment.

She died this week in a Cairo hospital after a long illness.

The author of more than 55 books including ‘Women and Sex’ in 1972 and ‘The Hidden Face of Eve’ in 1980, El Saadawi campaigned against women wearing the veil, polygamy and inequality in Islamic inheritance rights between men and women.

Government officials, including the late president Anwar Sadat, tried to silence her voice but were unable to intimidate her. Sent to jail during a political crackdown on intellectuals, she used her time to write ‘Memoirs from the Women’s Prison,’- jotting down thoughts on a roll of toilet paper using an eyebrow pencil a fellow prisoner smuggled in. Published in 1983, it helped shape the discourse on women’s liberation in the Arab world.

El Saadawi was one of nine children and was six years old when she was forced to endure the dangerous practice of female genital mutilation (FGM). In her book, ‘The Hidden Face of Eve,’ she described undergoing the agonizing procedure on the bathroom floor, as her mother watched alongside. “That deep wound in my body never healed,” she wrote in an autobiography.

The experience fueled her campaign against FGM throughout her lifetime, arguing that it was a tool used to oppress women. FGM was banned in Egypt in 2008, but El Saadawi condemned its continued practice.

In the 1990s, Saadawi fled from Islamist attacks and found asylum at Duke University in North Carolina where she taught and completed two volumes of autobiography. Upon returning to Egypt, however, she continued to face fundamentalist accusations of apostasy and heresy.

“Women cannot be liberated in a class society or a male-dominated patriarchal society. This is why we have to get rid, fight against class oppression, gender oppression, and religious oppression,” El Saadawi told CNN in an interview in 2011. “We cannot speak about revolution without women,” she further said.

The founder and president of the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association and co-founder of the Arab Association for Human Rights, she was awarded honorary degrees on three continents. In 2012, the International Peace Bureau awarded her the 2012 Seán MacBride Peace Prize.

“Such a sad loss for our region, our world,” said Turkish novelist and women’s rights activist, Elif Shafak, in a tweet. “Rest in peace, rest in power, sisterhood and books.”


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