Nawal El Saadawi The spread of feminism

DISCLAIMER: The following learning module contains a lot of explicit content that may be disturbing to readers. This involves scenes of female circumcision, sexual abuse, rape, etc. however, this has to be explained in order for readers to know the severity of issues that still occur to this day. Thank you.

Nawal El Saadawi was scarred for life ever since the age of six. She was awoken by four pairs of rough hands that pinned her down and caused agony upon her by cutting her clitoris off. El Saadawi was shocked to find that these rough hands belonged to the softhearted women of her household. From there, a feminist was born. El Saadawi continued to look back on that traumatizing event and began to question all aspects of Egyptian society regarding women. This furthermore, had became the seed that allowed her to grow into becoming a dedicated advocate for controversial issues such as female circumcision, prostitution, divorce, rape, and more issues women have been facing for years.

A mother accompanied by other women, performing female circumcision on her daughter. As seen, the daughter is in an immense amount of pain. The mother can't bear to watch what is being done to her daughter as she grips her daughter's hand from not moving which is exactly what El Saadawi had experienced at the age of six.

Growing up in an Egyptian society was a huge challenge set upon El Saadawi and all other women found in her situation. In this environment, the birth of boys were praised and celebrated while birth of baby girls were mourned upon. As El Saadawi continued to grow, her mom would demand she stay in while her brothers were free to play outside and do as they please, thus reinforcing the male dominant gender expectations within Arab society. El Saadawi would question ask, "Why?!" but her mother would simply respond, "Because it is so." El Saadawi never took this lightly, determined to find gender equality in a biased society that sided with men.

Below is an article that describes The Sebou Ceremony which celebrates a newborn baby brought into Egyptian society... only if it's a boy. The author, Bizzari, describes signs to look for when a woman's pregnant that could determine if you'll be presented with a boy or cursed with a girl.

El Saadawi also lived through the Sadat regime. President Anwar Sadat was responsible for El Saadawi losing her job as Egypt's Director of Public Health. He was in office as Egypt's president for 11 years in which he reversed Egypt's political ties. Sadat found an ally within US and turned on the Soviet Union. Despite his sudden change to follow western influences, Sadat continued to enforce the traditional idea that perceived a man's dominance over women. Not only did the Sadat regime take away El Saadawi's jobs, but they also had imprisoned El Saadawi for 11 years due to her 'acts of rebellion.' Under the Sadat regime, all aspects of Egypt became corrupt because he and his wife implemented the collide of religion and politics. El Saadawi says they had "played a huge role in her exile, imprisonment, everything." Not only this but they also had banned the Egyptian Women's Union that El Saadawi played a huge role in and had overall fragmented the feminist movement.

Caption: The following video from 1:10 - 2:16 talks about El Saadawi's views on her treatment under the Sadat regime and the impact he had on the Egyptian society.

Female circumcision

Female Circumcision, which is also known as female genital mutilation (FGM), is a major problem within Egypt and it's surrounding countries that has been practiced for many years. El Saadawi's mother, aunts, and grandmother as well as herself had all been circumcised and the reasoning dates back with cultural and religious beliefs.

Reasoning: In a heavily traditional environment, El Saadawi and her culture believe that sex is to be practiced after marriage, to ensure purity within one's sacred body. In order to ensure that a woman's body is pure, elder women in the family perform circumcision because it is believed that this surgery removes the urge for women to desire sex. This has never been actually proven nor is it sanitary/healthy for women either. The only reasoning El Saadawi believes that women don't desire sex after circumcision is because they are traumatized from the abuse to the vaginal area and are embarrassed to ever show a man their body.

El Saadawi had come across a case where a young girl came in with her husband with an appearance of a pregnant belly. She was pale and so thin, El saadawi thought she couldn't have been more than 12 years old. She was 16 years old. Her husband believed she was just pregnant but after El Saadwai examined her, it was concluded she wasn't pregnant. El Saadwai noticed she was born with a thick, elastic, non-perforated hymen. So, the swelling of her belly wasn't because of pregnancy, but due to her menstrual flow that had built up within her vagina month after month of not being able to discharge from her body. El Saadawi had made an opening within her hymen and watched as the accumulated blood rushed out her body. Later on, the girl explained her husband had accused her of not being a virgin because she had not bled the night of marriage (a ceremony I will touch upon later), so she had been living a marriage filled with abuse, hostility, and unhappiness because of the accusations only to later find out it was due to her circumcision done when she was younger.

As a solution to the problem, El Saadawi believes it's essential to educate people of the consequences that come with the procedure. Usually, the procedure is done at home with women and unsanitary tools in order to keep the event 'sacred.' However, this aids to the young girls risk of disease, infection, or even death. During El Saadawai's time as a physician, she witnessed one too many cases where the a young women would come in with an infected vagina due to a poor circumcision procedure when she was younger. El Saadwai argues that families are more likely not to perform the procedure if they knew that it could result in infection, abnormal pregnancies, or even death.

As time has passed, the amount of circumcisions done has lessened but still remains a huge issue to this day because of the religious and cultural values that follow (as seen on the graph).
El Saadawi, who is 85 years old as of 2016, has dedicated 60+ years of her life to advocating for women's rights.

Nawal El Saadawi: Advocate for Change (from 1950's -1980's)

  • Educated at Cairo University, 'Ayn Shams University, and Columbia and has taught at many prestigious schools across the US (i.e. Yale, Cal Berkeley, Univ of Florida, Columbia, etc)
  • 1955 - 1965: Worked as physician where she observed the harsh treatment of many of her patients
  • 1960: Published Memoirs of a Woman Doctor
  • 1966: became director general for Ministry of Health in Egypt
  • 1968: founded Health┬ámagazine which would later be shut down by govt due to thought-provoking ideas that didn't align with Egyptian customs
  • 1969: published Women and Sex which led to her expulsion from her job in Ministry of Health
  • 1972: The Thread and the Wall published
  • 1973 - 1976: she worked on researching women and neurosis in Ain Shams University's Faculty of Medicine
  • 1977: Hidden Faces of Eve published
  • 1979 - 1980: she was the United Nations Advisor for the Women's Program in Africa (ECA) and the Middle East (ECWA)
  • 1982: founded Arab Women's Solidarity Association (which govt eventually shuts down)


The procedure of circumcision also does not prevent girls from being raped. Rape occurs ever so often from men that are usually within the family or family friends and is usually targeted towards very young girls.

El Saadawi had also mentioned how one of her patients had been seduced and raped by her own grandfather since the age of 5. The young girl lived in a busy house with many siblings and cousins that always kept a smile on her face. When her grandfather would walk in the room, everyone would come completely silent and the smiles would swipe off their face. Her mother always warned her not to go into the garden with grandfather alone but one day he called her. She said, he kept inching closer and closer and she was scared that he would disappoint him if she resented. But, she knew it was wrong. When her mother would ask of her whereabouts she would lie and say she was outside playing with her cousins in order to protect her grandfather and her's "little secret" is what he told her to call it. She realized as she grew older that he manipulated her into having sex with him multiple times.

Linked below is an article articulating the mistreatment of women in Egypt: "the worst place in the Middle East to be a woman"

Inequality within Marriage:

Divorce for some women in Egypt seems impossible because the judicial system always seemed to side with the man. When women were to be married, most of the time they were arranged. El Saadawi touched on the topic of prostitution within marriage as well. Noble families would give their most beautiful daughter's hand in marriage in exchange for materialistic items, land, or even just for associations with the family. This, El Saadawi notes, is a form of prostitution because the family ultimately sells their daughter's in exchange for items, relation ties, etc.

Women didn't really have a say in who they were to marry and if their marriage isn't going well, filing for divorce becomes a huge fight that most are not willing to stand for. El Saadawi had personally filled for divorce and was successful and El Saadawi sees this as a huge victory because she was able to take control of her own relations, something a lot of women have no power over. Laws have even been passed that degrade women and reinforce male dominance in Egypt as seen in the linked article below:

"The law is almost always on the side of men" - Nawal El Saadawi

If women were willing to disobey their husbands and try to file for divorce, they were abused not only the husband but by the government as well. El Saadawi had came across cases where a young bride tried to leave her husband and instead had acid thrown all over her face, instantly burning her flesh.

Pictured here is a women who underwent severe burns on her face because her husband had thrown acid on her face. These are just some of the cases El Saadawi had to treat for her patients working as a doctor in Egypt.

Wedding Ceremony

After a couple gets married, a ceremony takes place behind closed doors to ultimately test whether the bride is a virgin or not. The daya would embed her long nail into the hymen of the bride and blood was to fall out, drenching the white towel. Drums would sound to drown out the screaming of the bride. Sometimes, the husband would be the one replacing the finger of the daya and the abuse worsened in these situations.

The video below describes the wedding ceremony that takes place (2:15 - 3:45)

Leadership Charcteristics

  • Courage: El Saadawi holds the leadership characteristic of courage because of her will to continue advocating for change despite the setbacks her country and religion tried to put on her. Courage can be defined as the ability to do something that frightens another and that is exactly what El Saadawi had done. However, she knew that people would be scared. El Saadawi had stated, "When all the world seems to be against you, you may start to think 'Maybe I'm wrong,' but I never started to think that."
  • Hope: El Saadawi holds the leadership characteristic of hope because of her determination to obtain full equality to that of a man within Egypt. She has dedicated her whole life and still continues to fight the injustice within her writings. She never gets discouraged despite the setbacks and continues to advocate for change because of the immense amount of letters she gets from young women who say her writing has helped them for the better.
  • Empowerment: El Saadawi holds the leadership characteristic of empowerment because of the progress she's made. More women are beginning to speak out against their abusers whether it be the the government, law, husband, or any other drawback. El Saadawi had started many organizations and unions to help unite women and although they continue to be targeted by the government, El Saadawi continues to inspire.

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