In conversation with Dr Nawal El Saadawi

While for many in the West the revolution in Egypt came out of the blue, for some, like the Egyptian writer and feminist Dr Nawal El Saadawi, the events that took place are the culmination of decades of work and longing for change.

“I’ve been waiting for it since I was 10 years old,” says El Saadawi, who yesterday received the Women of the Year Outstanding Achievement award in London for a career that began with her challenging the practice of female genital mutilation and now sees her fighting against the exclusion of women from the ongoing revolution.

“Tahrir Square was marvellous, we were like a new family,” says the doctor and psychologist who was born in Egypt in 1931 and has been imprisoned, exiled and censored during the last fifty years. “We were millions living under tents, not knowing each other but we became one family, girls and boys, rich and poor, Muslims and Christians.”

That unity has begun to fragment – women have been excluded from the committee to change the constitution and most recently there has been fighting between Copts and Muslims. El Saadawi insists the divisions are the result of efforts by the ruling elite to hold onto power by means of “divide and rule” El Saadawi insists:

“We have a counter-revolution in Egypt,” she says. “We have removed the head but the remaining body of the regime is fighting against the revolution, collaborating with the US government, Israel and Saudi Arabia and some of the European governments, the reactionary capitalists, colonialist powers in the West and the region.”

Women are suffering in this backlash, says El Saadawi, who has written more than 40 books, including Women and Sex which led to her dismissal from the Ministry of Health in 1972, and Memoirs from the Women’s Prison about her own political imprisonment in 1981 for alleged “crimes against the state”.

But having fought and died in the protests that lead to the overthrow of President Mubarak, women in Egypt are determined that they are not going to be left out of the ongoing process of change:

“After the revolution, after women were killed and lost their eyes and slept in cold weather in Tahrir Square, we were astonished that the High Military Council excluded us from the committee to change the constitution,” she says. “We said we were in Tahrir Square, we should be on all committees, 50 per cent of all post-revolutionary committees should be women. But many women were silent, some of them said it wasn’t the time to push women’s rights.”

Undeterred, El Saadawi set about reforming the Egyptian Women’s Union when it began to become clear that women were being “excluded from everything”. Formed in 1923 by the prominent Egyptian feminist Huda al-Sha╩┐rawi in the wake of the 1919 Egyptian uprisings, the EWU was extremely active until it was banned by Suzanne Mubarak in the 1970s.

“People think that feminism is a western invention, but no, my mother was a feminist, my grandmother was a feminist, feminism is embedded in our country, it is embedded in every country,” says El Saadawi.

The aim of the reformed EWU is to unite women and men from all sectors and call for women to be represented in all activities of the temporary government, including new committees to change the constitution, public and personal laws.

Now is a time for women to unite says El Baadawi, who since last year has been working towards the formation of an Arab Women’s Union that will unite women across the region.
“History has shown us that women can lose their rights after a revolution. We have to unite across the country and across the Arab world and internationally,” she says.

“We were united during the early stage of the revolution but this does not mean when I am excluded as a working class woman or a working class man that I be silent, or when as a woman I am excluded from the post revolutionary committees then I become silent because it’s not time to speak about it, this is ignorance and hypocrisy.”

This article appeared on HuffingtonPostUK on 18 October, 2011.