Scripps visiting professor Nawal El Saadawi has been an agent of change since she was a child. In her quest for reform, she’s been a doctor, a psychiatrist, a novelist, and a professor. Now she’s running for president of Egypt. Although she does not expect to be elected, she hopes this action will encourage the Egyptian people to enact change in the political system.
At age 13, she wrote her first story. “I wanted to say my opinion,” she said. Since then, she’s written 41 fiction and non-fiction books in Arabic, some of which have been translated into 30 different languages. Her books focus primarily on gender and class injustices globally and locally, integrating politics, religions, economics, sexuality, law, and history. Her stories speak to the power of creativity, which she believes is essential for reform. “Without creativity, we can’t make change,” she said. “We must have creative ideas to challenge the status quo.”
Challenging the status quo is never easy. Many of her books have been banned in her country and her activism has made her the target of condemnation. After she spoke out against the government, El Saadawi was sent to prison by former President Anwar Sadat in 1980, charged with “crimes against the state.” She was not released until one month after Sadat was assassinated. In 1991, the Egyptian government shut down her grass roots political organization, the Arab Women Solidarity Association, because the group stood up against the gulf war. El Saadawi took the Egyptian government to court over the closing of her organization, but the case is still awaiting trial. In the mid-1990s, after numerous death threats, she was forced out of Egypt and had to continue her work abroad. In 2002, the government attempted to forcibly divorce El Saadawi and her husband, Sherif Hatata, using an old fundamentalist law as grounds. Fortunately, she and her husband prevailed.
While she has accomplished much in her lifetime, her work is not finished. This semester at Scripps, El Saadawi is teaching a class comparing the three holy books (the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Quran) with regards to gender, class and race. “After 9/11, many people [in America], think Islam is undemocratic,” she said. “We are comparing Islam to Judaism and Christianity to find out which of these religions is really the most undemocratic-which is worse to women and to lower economic classes. We are trying to go deeper into the three holy books and see how they differ and how they are similar.” Professor El Saadawi’s goal is to have her students always think critically about the world around them.