PEN WORLD VOICES - Critical Minds, Social Revolution:
Egyptian Activist Nawal El Saadawi
Critical Minds, Social Revolution
The Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture by Nawal El Saadawi
Cooper Union, NYC - May-2009 - Nawal El Saadawi and Kwame Anthony Appiah
(Editor's Note: If you were among the hundreds of thousands of protestors gathered in Tahrir Square witnessing the resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, you might not have noticed a petite woman, nearly 80 years old with a cloud of white hair. You might not have noticed her, but Dr. Nawal el Saadawi is a leading Egyptian feminist, sociologist, medical doctor, and militant writer on Arab women's issues; and one of the most widely translated contemporary Egyptian writers. In 2009, el Saadawi gave the Arthur Miller Freedom to Write lecture at the PEN World Voices Festival in New York City.)
On the final night of the PEN World Voices Festival, they sat next to each other on stage at Cooper Union in New York City - Kwame Anthony Appiah, President of PEN American Center and professor of philosophy at Princeton University, and Nawal El Saadawi, a leading Egyptian feminist, socialist, medical doctor, and militant writer on Arab women’s issues.
After a brief introduction by the soft-spoken, Oxford-educated Appiah, the diminutive, El Saadawi, took over the stage, a burning flame, burning brighter with each word. For starters, El Saadawi made it clear that she would have preferred not to sit on stage at all.”No one is higher or lower,” she said. And from there, she took off.
“The word freedom is an illusion,” she added. “In the U.S. we are not free. Just because this is a country where people have the freedom to dress and undress, that kind of freedom is an illusion. Without changing language we are not free.”
El Saadawi has been writing for more than 25 years about women, particularly Arab women, their sexuality and legal status. In Egypt, her writings, often considered controversial and dangerous to society, were banned. She was imprisoned under the Anwar Sadat regime, for alleged “crimes against the state.”
“I was arrested,” she says. “Because I believed Sadat. He said there is democracy and we have a multi-party system and you can criticize. So I started criticizing his policy and I landed in jail.”
El Saadawi continued to write in prison, using a “stubby black eyebrow pencil” and “a small roll of old and tattered toilet paper.”
“I remember in prison,” she said. “The jailers came every day to inspect my cell looking for a piece of paper. They said it was more dangerous than a gun. But I was happy in prison because really we are all prisoners of the system.”
El Saadawi is fearless. She grew up as one of nine children in a village near the Nile River. As a young girl she was circumcised. (According to Sadaawi, 97% of Egyptian woman are genitally mutilated.) But her parents believed in education for girls - a rarity at the time - and had dreams of her becoming a doctor. And so she went to medical school.
“Writers should study science,” she says. “I learned and wrote about bone and got to see the heart and the light of the flesh. Seeing death every day helped me link death to life. There is no separation between the physical and the spiritual. And we must remember that there is no safe place. I can have a car accident. I think that death and life are one and to be afraid of death is the major reason writers don’t put down on the page what they really think.”
To amplify her point, she says that in 2008 she was acquitted of a lawsuit that would have stripped her of Egyptian citizenship after she wrote a play called, God Resigns at the Summit.
The founder and president of the Arab Woman’s Solidarity Association (ASWA), also made clear that if we are to change the world, we must link individualism with collectivism.
“An individual does nothing alone,” she says. “When we organize we grow strong.” And, she added, “Without a critical mind we can’t be creative or participate in a social revolution.”
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