Nawal El Saadawi on “Women, Egypt, and Revolution”

Nawal El Saadawi, the world-renowned Egyptian socialist-feminist, author, sociologist, and doctor, spoke in New York City at CUNY Graduate Center on March 16.  At age 80, she had just come from participating every day in “Tahrir Square”–the Egyptian revolution of Jan. 25-Feb. 11 which toppled the 30-year dictatorship of President Hosni Mubarak. Following is an edited version of notes from her talk. —A.J.

A virus from the revolutions in the Middle East is spreading to everywhere, including to Wisconsin, where recent mass demonstrations tried to stop the new law curtailing collective bargaining. A banner at the Wisconsin demonstrations read, “Walk like an Egyptian!”

When I came to the U.S. previously, I’d find that people didn’t hold a good view of Egypt. They would say, “You receive so much U.S. aid, why are people still so poor?” The people didn’t get the aid; it went to U.S. companies and to President Mubarak. And the aid made us into a U.S. colony. Women can’t be liberated within a country that is a colony.

There’s a connection among neo-colonialism, male domination, and class domination. Some feminists talk only about patriarchy and don’t see poor women. There has been feminization of poverty in Egypt. Half the population now lives in poverty.

We live in one world––a capitalist, patriarchal one. We don’t have peace because we don’t have justice, equality between countries, sexes, and classes. I hope that Wisconsin and all of the U.S. states will revolt, so that we have a world revolution.

The Egyptian revolution’s slogans were “dignity, equality, justice.” Women participated equally with men. I was in Tahrir Square every day, although I didn’t sleep there like the men. The men are still sleeping there to protect against counter-revolution. On the day when Mubarak sent in his “thugs” [plainclothes police or militia], riding camels and horses, wielding whips and swords, I was almost knocked down by a horse. Young men carried me away. Hundreds of women and men were arrested and killed before Mubarak resigned, leaving the military in control.

Then the military’s High Council angered women and young men by establishing a committee to amend the constitution––with no women and no youth on the committee. That’s when we organized a “Million Women March” in Cairo for International Women’s Day, March 8. A few thousand women came. There were actually more men than women. The women went home after the march, but the men stayed in the square. At night, they were attacked by the remnants of Mubarak’s thugs. A coalition of women and young men are still in the square, refusing cosmetic changes to the government and insisting that the revolution continue.

The military was divided. Young officers collaborated with the revolution, but the top officers were Mubarak supporters, and Vice President Omar Suleiman, whom Mubarak tried to arrange to take over, had come to the vice presidency from the military. When Suleiman read the announcement of Mubarak’s resignation, what you couldn’t see on TV was the young officer standing behind him with a gun pointed at him, to make sure he read what was written for him.

During the revolution, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates came to Egypt and met with the military leaders. The next day, a Christian church was burned. No churches and no women had been hurt up until then, so it was pretty clear that the burning was done by Mubarak’s “thugs” to divide the revolutionaries by religion. Mubarak must have gotten the U.S.’ OK to suppress the revolution during that meeting.

For the past 50 years, I have fought for feminist issues, including fighting against female genital mutilation (FGM). FGM increased under President Anwar Sadat [1970-81], as did veiling. Today, 97% of Egyptian women have undergone FGM. I lost my job in the Health Ministry because of what I wrote and said about FGM and President George Bush.

My books were banned and my character assassinated as a result the political stances I took. I was called pro-U.S., although all my books link colonialism and feminism. If you work with the working class, you are called a communist by the ruling class. I was arrested for “crimes against the state” and sent to prison in 1980. When I got out, my life was in constant danger from religious fundamentalists. What I could say and do in Egypt was restricted from then until now.  I had to go abroad to teach.

I belong to the “historical socialist-feminists,” women who were inspired by our mothers and grandmothers, and by the goddess Isis. When I was a child, my illiterate peasant grandmother led a women’s rebellion against the British and the men who ran her village. They were selling the villagers’ cotton crop to the king and Manchester [British textile industry] for too little money. I remember visiting my grandparents; they were so poor that they never ate meat or eggs––even though they raised chickens to sell their meat and eggs to rich people in town. So we “historical socialist-feminists” have feminist ancestors. We are against all forms of male domination, including the traditional family and including imperialism.

During the audience discussion, this editor asked El Sadaawi about the different version of the IWD march that was given by Adef Soueif the week before, and Soueif’s implication that the women should not have made feminist demands so soon after the revolution. See “International Women’s Day 2011.” I expressed my fear that the revolution could repeat the course of the 1979 Iranian revolution, which also started as a mass movement of workers, women, and youth, but which was hijacked by fundamentalism. The Iranian women sounded a warning on International Women’s Day 1980, marching and shouting that “in the dawn of freedom, there is no freedom.” But the male revolutionaries did not listen and thought that they could make alliances with Islamist clerics. Before long, the clerics took over, killing and jailing the revolutionaries, and they have controlled Iran ever since.

El Sadaawi responded:

Some writers received prizes from Mubarak, like Soueif did, and were corrupted. The legal women’s NGOs were those women’s organizations that worked with Mubarak. The Egyptian Women’s Union, by contrast, was banned three times, under Pres. Mubarak and Pres. Sadat before him. Now we have re-established the Egyptian Women’s Union and the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association, which had also been banned.

About Iran: I visited it right before the 1979 revolution and can verify that the revolutionary movement was secular. The U.S. and European powers are more afraid of a secular, socialist revolution than a religious one. After all, the fundamentalists are capitalists too. Most of the Muslim Brotherhood’s money is invested in New York, London, and Paris.

Right after Mubarak resigned, we held a mass meeting in the square. A religious leader was flown in from outside the country to try to take over the meeting, but he was rejected. Religion is often used by the counter-revolution to try to abort the revolution.

When I’m in the U.S., I’m always asked about religious fundamentalism, but when I connect it to neo-colonialism, then what I say is censored. I am told to leave it out of my talks, and in a recent TV interview by Christiane Amanpour, what I said about neo-colonialism was cut out.  But the two things are opposite sides of the same coin. Why is there this revival of fundamentalism in the 21st century? Because religion survives and flourishes under repression. Islam, Judaism, and Christianity are similar in treating women as inferior, in fearing outsiders, and in their racism and classism. In spite of religion’s defects, however, I believe in protecting religious freedom.

I met a lot of youth from the Muslim Brotherhood in the square. The Brotherhood had opposed my work before then, but the youth in the square told me that they had read my books and they respected me. They said that they thought women and men should be equal and the constitution should be secular. But the struggle against fundamentalist religion continues.

I am confident that the young people who led the revolution will win. Among communists, socialists, secular, and religious groups, all discrimination dissolved during the revolution, and the coalition process is continuing. Every day brings a new achievement.

The revolution inspired me; I am reborn. I had dreamed about it since I was 10 years old—for 70 years! As a child, I was always furious about the condition of women and the poor. I demonstrated against British colonialism. I demonstrated against King Farouk in the 1930s and 40s. In 1950-51, my first husband was in the guerilla movement and went to the Suez Canal to fight, but his group was betrayed by Gamal Abdel Nasser and had to flee to the hills. Some were killed.

Egyptian governments have a bad history of cooperating with colonial countries. Our 1952 revolution was aborted after the “Free Officers Movement” deposed the king. As President, Nasser started off well, but he went the way of all dictators: power corrupts. At that time, two percent of the population owned everything—and they still do!

Nasser tried to diminish the gap between rich and poor, and to advance the rights of women, but the U.S., Britain, and France made sure he did not succeed. When he wanted to nationalize the country’s oil in 1967, they worked to get rid of him. I demonstrated against the U.S.  I demonstrated for 70 years, and I’m happy I lived long enough to see this revolution.

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