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Nawal El Saadawi (Nawwal al-Sa’dawi) is a leading Egyptian feminist, a medical doctor who specialized in psychiatry, an activist, and a militant writer on Arab women’s oppression and their desire for self-expression. She is one of the most widely translated contemporary Egyptian writers and her work is available in thirty languages.


El Saadawi was born in 1931 in Kafr Tahla, a small village outside of Cairo, in the Nile Delta region of Lower Egypt. Her family was relatively traditional, and yet somewhat progressive. Her father was a government official in the Ministry of Education; his integrity as a man opposed to corruption gave El Saadawi a model of independent thinking and also taught her self-respect. Against the common practice, her father insisted that all of his nine children should be educated and sent them all to school. El Saadawi’s mother came from an upper-class family; she died when El Saadawi was twenty-five, and soon afterward, El Saadawi’s father died. El Saadawi said about her mother that she would have been an early fighter for women’s rights, if she had not buried her beliefs in her marriage.

In 1949 El Saadawi entered medical school; she received her M.D. in 1955 from the University of Cairo, and a master’s degree in public health from Columbia University, New York, in 1966. Immediately after her graduation, El Saadawi practiced psychiatry at the University Hospital in Cairo and eventually rose to become Egypt’s director of public health. Since she began to write she has focused on women, particularly Arab women, and even more specifically on their sexuality and legal status. For some time she published nonfiction, such as al-Mar’a wa’l-Sira al-Nafsi (1976, Woman and Self-Struggle ), a text about women and psychological conflict, and The Hidden Face of Eve (1977), in Beirut. Woman at Point Zero (1975) was partly based on material about women’s mental health that she had collected at Ayn Shams University. Memoirs from the Women’s Prison (1983) was published in London.

During the period 1973 to 1978, El Saadawi was a writer at the High Institute of Literature and Science. She was also a researcher at Ayn Shams University’s Faculty of Medicine in Cairo, worked for the United Nations as the director of African Training and Research Center for Women in Ethiopia (1978–1980), and as adviser for the United Nations Economic Commission for West Africa in Lebanon. El Saadawi has denounced the patriarchal grounds of all great religions, including Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Typically, her narrative combines fiction with nonfiction elements: her own knowledge of medical sciences, autobiographical details, and depiction of social ills.

As a result of her literary and scientific writings El Saadawi lost her job in the Egyptian government in 1972. The magazine Health , which she had founded and edited for more than three years, was closed down. Long viewed as controversial and dangerous by the Egyptian government, El Saadawi was arrested in September 1981, along with many other objectors to the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, by President Anwar Sadat’s regime. She was imprisoned for two months in Qanatir Women’s Prison under the Egyptian Law for the Protection of Values from Shame. She was released one month after Sadat’s assassination in October 1981. After her novel The Fall of the Imam (1987) was published in Cairo, she began to receive threats from fundamentalist religious groups. She lived in exile for five years with her husband in the United States, where she taught at Duke University and at Washington State University. In 1996 she returned to Egypt.

On 15 June 1991 the government issued a decree that closed down the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association (AWSA) over which she presided, and handed over its funds to the association called Women in Islam. Six months before this decree, the government closed down the magazine Noon , published by the AWSA. El Saadawi was editor in chief of this magazine. In 2004 Cairo’s al-Azhar University, the most influential seat of Sunni Muslim learning in the world, banned her novel The Fall of the Imam . Her new novel, published in Cairo and titled al-Riwaya (2004), was also banned by al-Azhar and by the Coptic Church in Egypt. Her convictions led her to take action in politics: She ran for president of Egypt in the December 2004 elections.


Name: Nawal El Saadawi (Nawwal al-Sa’dawi)

Birth: 1932, Kafr Tahla, Egypt

Family: Husband, Sherif Youssef Hetata; one daughter; one son

Nationality: Egyptian

Education: M.D., Cairo University, 1955; master’s degree in public health, 1966, Columbia University


  • 1966: Named director of the Health Education Department, Ministry of Health, Egypt
  • 1968: Founding member and chief editor of the magazine Health
  • 1971: Founds the Egyptian Writers Women’s Association
  • 1974: Wins literary award from the Supreme Council for Arts and Social Sciences, Cairo, Egypt
  • 1978: Named UN adviser for the Women’s Program in Middle East (ECWA) and in Africa (ECA)
  • 1982–present: Founds and directs the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association (AWSA)
  • 1993: Visiting professor at diverse universities in the United States and in Barcelona, Spain
  • 2003: Named international writer of the year, International Biographical Center, Cambridge, England
  • 2004: Candidate for presidential elections in Egypt


El Saadawi was influenced by what she experienced in her life as a woman, as a professional, as a writer, and by the witnessing of humiliating and unfair practices. This has led her to speak out in support of political and sexual rights for women and constantly reiterate women’s power in resistance. For example, at age of six, El Saadawi’s family forced her to undergo a clitoridectomy, and as an adult she wrote about and criticized the practice of female and male genital mutilation. Her early work is considered pioneering in modern feminist fiction in Arabic. Since the 1970s she began to criticize openly the patriarchal system and tackle taboo problems: female circumcision, abortion, sexuality, child abuse, and different forms of women’s oppression.


El Saadawi is perceived positively both in the Arab countries and in Western countries. She has received several awards, including High Council of Literature Award (1974), the Literary Franco-Arab Friendship Award (1982), and the Literary Award of Gubran (1988). However, Western feminist readers have criticized her fiction as repetitive in theme and programmatic. Also, she said in an interview with Stephanie McMillan for the magazine Two Eyes that, in the United States, “capitalists, right wing, Christian fundamentalists, and their media” (1999) attacked her because of her points of view.


El Saadawi is well known in Arab countries and in many other parts of the world. Her novels and other writings on the situation of women have had a deep effect on following generations of young women over the last four decades. In addition to writing, she participates in other forms of political struggle, such as her campaign against female and male circumcision; against the United States aggression of the Gulf War; against social and economic injustice. She has also contributed to the Report on U.S. War Crimes against Iraq to the Commission of Inquiry for the International War Crimes Tribunal that was written by former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark and others, and she served on a mission to bring medical aid to Iraq in defiance of U.S. sanctions. She is currently active in the Egyptian Women’s Union, which has been declared illegal in Egypt by the government.


You can not be creative in a system that is very unjust, like the system we live in, unless you are a dissident. Because when you are creative you are for justice, for freedom, for love.[…] You become angry, if this injustice is happening to you or to others.[…] You want to change the system that created this hunger …. I open up to understand the connection between international, national and family oppression. And why we have poverty. It’s social, political.[…] It’s made by the political system, internationally and nationally. So if you are creative, you will feel these children who are beggars, you will be angry, and you’ll fight to make them eat. So I do not separate between writing and fighting. So what I do is make the connections. To undo the fragmentation of knowledge. Because the knowledge we receive in university is very fragmented. I try to undo this fragmentation.


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