Nawal El Saadawi, Egyptian feminist, doctor, author, activist, psychiatrist, university lecturer and so much more, died on Sunday 21st March 2021, at the age of 89. She gained international recognition for her innumerous contributions to feminist battles, her brave honesty and her unwavering conviction, which even saw her imprisoned for two months in 1981, for “attacking the ruling system”.

Our Executive Director, Esohe Aghatise shares her thoughts on this incredible feminist and women’s rights campaigner.

I met Nawal El Saadawi in London in 2015 at Housemans Bookshop in Caledonian Road, where we were both billed as speakers on female genital mutilation. I was struck at how she expressed herself so freely, without censorship and shared positions that were quite unconventional and, when considered within her own context, quite revolutionary. During the evening’s exchange, the question of male circumcision arose. She was quite firm and clear on the position that both male and female circumcision are genital mutilation of otherwise healthy body parts. She went further to express her views on regional and global political economic relations and their impact on women and girls. She held strong views on gender relations and was not at all afraid to express them. 

I especially admired her fearlessness, energy and determination and would have loved to spend more time learning from her. She invited me to visit her in Cairo, and though I called her a couple of times, I never did get round to visiting. That is a huge loss I will live with forever. Her passing is a huge loss to women’s rights and to the world in general.

Much of El Saadawi’s work stemmed from her own experiences, which included undergoing female genital mutilation (FGM) at the age of six. “Since I was a child that deep wound left in my body has never healed,” she wrote in an autobiography. Just seven years later she wrote her first novel, one of over 55 books written throughout her career. In 2011 The New Yorker wrote about some of them.

Speaking to the Guardian in 2009, she said: “I regret none of my 47 books. If I started my life again I would write the same books. They are all very relevant even today: the issues of gender, class, colonialism (although of course that was British and is now American), female genital mutilation, male genital mutilation, capitalism, sexual rape and economic rape.”

Her activism for women’s rights and bodily autonomy was one of the main driving forces behind many reforms in Egypt, including the criminalization of FGM. She also fought for gender equality and was outspoken about women’s role in society and in Islam. 

When asked in 2018, during this interview for Channel 4, how she would describe herself, El Saadawi responded:

“A human being, a writer. Yes, a dissident. A woman, a person who is trying to express herself truly and pay her life to say what she believes in.”