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Remembering Nawal El Saadawi, Egyptian Trailblazer and Feminist Advocate

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Nawal El Saadawi, one of the most outspoken feminist leaders in the Arab world, died on Sunday in Cairo. She spent much of her life defying Egyptian authorities and traditions. When her parents tried to marry her off at the age of 10, she blackened her teeth to try to make the idea less attractive. Instead, she wound up graduating from medical school. Dr. Saadawi endured death threats, imprisonment, exile and censorship. She published more than 50 books.

Mona Eltahawy is an Egyptian American journalist and feminist who has written about her, and she joins us now from Montreal. Thanks so much for being with us.

MONA ELTAHAWY: Thank you for having me, Scott.

SIMON: Help us understand what Dr. Saadawi meant to you, for example, growing up.

ELTAHAWY: You know, I first encountered Nawal when I was 13 years old. We were watching a documentary about Egypt, and this woman came on the screen with bright white hair, and she spoke so passionately. And I remember feeling both terror and thrill at seeing this Egyptian woman.

And a few minutes later, a man came on the screen, and he said, this woman is terrible. She makes Egypt look bad. She gives Egypt such a bad reputation. And 13-year-old me thought, my goodness, who is this woman who is so powerful, whose words alone threaten an entire country's reputation? I want to know her. And then when I was in my early 20s, I actually did meet her. I met her in Cairo when I interviewed her as a journalist, and she was equally terrifying and thrilling.

SIMON: We want to run a clip of Dr. El Saadawi talking to U.K.'s Channel 4 News in 2018.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NAWAL EL SAADAWI: Feminism is not a Western invention. Feminism was not invented by American women, as many people think. No, feminism embedded in the culture and in the struggle of all women all over the world.

SIMON: What was the impact of a of a statement like that?

ELTAHAWY: Well, it's the reality of my life and the lives of so many other women. I encountered Nawal on the bookshelves of my university in Saudi Arabia, along with Moroccan sociologist and feminist Fatima Mernissi. But I also know that I have that heritage in my country. In the 1920s, the Egyptian Women's Union was launched by an Egyptian woman called Huda Sha'rawi. In the 1950s, an Egyptian feminist called Doria Shafik stormed the Egyptian Parliament along with 1,500 women to demand the right to vote and to run for office.

So these women have such broad shoulders that they've given us to stand on. And absolutely, feminism is indigenous to Egypt and the African continent. So when Nawal says it was not invented by Western feminists, that absolutely resonates with me. And that's one of the reasons that I get so upset when people call Nawal El Saadawi the Simone de Beauvoir of the Arab world. That deeply enrages and upset me because I don't need a Western symbol of feminism to acknowledge and honor my own symbol of feminism.

SIMON: Nawal El Saadawi was also in Tahrir Square in 2011, and there was - as I'm sure I don't have to remind you, there was a lot of hope at that particular time that Egypt would come into a better time, and specifically Egyptian women. What happened in your estimation?

ELTAHAWY: Well, first off, it was a thrill to see Nawal El Saadawi in Tahrir Square because I consider her a revolutionary, long before the revolution that we saw on the streets of Egypt, including in Tahrir Square in 2011. So it was great to see this woman in her 80s there being honored by fellow Egyptian women and men.

But one of the authorities or forms of authorities that Nawal El Saadawi also criticized and constantly railed against, besides Egyptian political regime and religious authorities, was the United States. So she constantly spoke out against capitalism and imperialism, and she considered the United States an imperial power that stood in the way of liberation.

What happened is, five U.S. administrations which had propped up the Mubarak regime, that kind of propping up continues with the regime in Egypt now. To ask an Egyptian people that rose up for freedom and that managed to topple one man, the regime remains, and one of the reasons the regime remains is that it is armed to the teeth by the world's most powerful and wealthiest country. That is the United States. So it's great to see Nawal at Tahrir Square. It was great to see Egyptian women in equal number with Egyptian men. But the revolution did not have gender equality at its heart. But now in Egypt, there really is a feminist revolution.

SIMON: And do you see as is part of Dr. El Saadawi's legacy?

ELTAHAWY: Absolutely, because, you know, when she told me that her grandmother told her that religion is freedom, love and justice, those principles, those values are very similar to the chants we heard in Tahrir Square - bread, liberty, social justice, human dignity. She said those things as a feminist revolutionary. And those women who were in Tahrir Square and those women who are now part of the feminist revolution, many of them are younger than me. Many of them in the feminist revolution now in Egypt were 10 years old when Nawal El Saadawi was in Tahrir Square.

SIMON: How is she viewed in Egypt? A great national figure that was divisive? Help us understand it from the Egyptian perspective.

ELTAHAWY: You know, one of the things that Nawal El Saadawi said that I also will always remember was that she had received awards from all over the world, and the only country that hadn't awarded her was Egypt, her country of birth. So that really speaks to the magnitude of the challenges that she posed. And of course she was divisive. It's not the role of feminists to unite people. It's the role of feminists to challenge patriarchy, to challenge misogyny, to challenge capitalism, to challenge imperialism. And Nawal challenged all of those.

And I think the best way to capture that is my favorite two sentences from one of Nawal's works. And it's from her novel “Woman At Point Zero," in which the female protagonist says - so this is a woman, a sex worker who has been sentenced to death for killing her pimp. And in the novel, she relates to the narrator that the men who put her on trial said to her, you are a savage and dangerous woman. And she said, I told them I speak the truth. And the truth is savage and dangerous. And that, for me, is the essence of Nawal El Saadawi and the essence of feminism. She was savage and dangerous, and feminism has to be savage and dangerous.

SIMON: Mona Eltahawy is an Egyptian American journalist and feminist. Thanks so much for being with us.

ELTAHAWY: Thank you for having me, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.