Nawal El Saadawi – a creative and dissident life

Nawal el Saadawi. Photographed by Matilde LHour and reproduced here under a Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) licence. Sourced from Flickr clepsydre/5338954187/

Nawal El Saadawi – a creative and dissident life. Brian Belton and Clare Dowding explore Nawal El Saadawi’s argument that dissidence is a path to creativity – through which inequalities can be challenged and social and political change can occur.

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The title of this piece, Dissidence and Creativity, relates to El Saadawi’s argument that dissidence is a clear path to creativity. Indeed, for her, conformity too often involves the stifling of the creative powers that she contests are part of our make-up as human beings. For her, relating to the Arabic interpretation of the word, dissidence means struggle, that is the, connection with the effort to create, to bring something new or novel into the world. For Nawal, one cannot be dissident without being creative. She asks:

Can I have the passion and knowledge required to change the powerful oppressive system of family and government without being creative? (1997; 158)


Born into a well educated family in 1931 in the small village of Kafr Tahal, Egypt and sometimes described as ‘the Simone de Beauvoir of the Arab world,’ writer, psychiatrist, self-described feminist and militant Nawal El Saadawi has had a major influence on the lives of women of colour all over the world. She has witnessed humiliating and unfair practices, both in her profession as a doctor and later as a writer. This has led her to speak out in support of political and sexual rights for women and constantly reiterate women’s power in resistance. As a result she has been imprisoned (this is detailed in her book My Travels Around the World) and arrested on more than one occasion – as such she is a person that is set in the process of history, making it and challenging its legacy. I think it would be fair to say that she has, as much as any writer can, changed the world, through the liberation of the mind and expression of millions of women… and men, particularly in those parts of the world called ‘the third’, the ‘non-industrialised’ or ‘the south’.

Refusing to accept the limitations imposed by both religious and colonial oppression on most women of rural origin, she qualified as a doctor in 1955 and rose to become Egypt’s Director of Public Health. Since she began to write over 30 years ago, her books have concentrated on women. In 1972, her first work of non-fiction, Women and Sex, evoked the antagonism of highly placed political and theological authorities, and the Ministry of Health was pressurized into dismissing her. Under similar pressures she lost her post as Chief Editor of a health journal and as Assistant General Secretary in the Medical Association in Egypt. From 1973 to 1976 she worked in researching women and neurosis in the Ain Shams University’s Faculty of Medicine; and from 1979 to 1980 she was the United Nations Advisor for the Women’s Programme in Africa (ECA) and Middle East (ECWA).

Later in 1980, as a culmination of the long war she had fought for Egyptian women’s social and intellectual freedom, an activity that had closed all avenues of official jobs to her, she was imprisoned under the Sadat regime. She has since founded the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association and devoted her time to being a writer, journalist and worldwide speaker on women’s issues. Author of many books, both fiction and non-fiction, which challenge our thinking about the politics of sex, Third World development, the Arab world and writing itself, she has been a constant thorn in the side of the class and patriarchal systems. Despite her imprisonment and subsequent release following Sadat’s assassination, she has continued undeterred to fight for equality – of gender, nation and race – in spite of the banning of her books and the rise of a variety of fundamentalists all over the world.

Her writing presents the full range of her extraordinary work. She explores a host of topics from women’s oppression at the hands of recent interpretations of Islam to the role of women in African literature, from sexual politics of development initiatives to tourism in a ‘post-colonial’ age. She looks at the nature of cultural identity to the subversive potential of creativity, from the fight against female genital mutilation to problems facing the internationalization of the women’s movement. Throughout her writing she sheds new light on the power of women in resistance – against poverty, racism, fundamentalism, and inequality of all kinds. Nawal El Saadawi has received three literary awards.

El Saadawi’s response to the Egyptian Human Rights Organization’s estimate that at least 90 percent of girls in Egyptian villages had been victims of female genital ‘circumcision’ was to state that this is part of the punishment for being born a woman, This conviction led to her dismissal from her position as director of Education in Egypt’s Ministry of Health, and as editor of Health magazine. She was also prevented from practicing as a doctor. Much of her writing, which includes works of fiction, has been published in Lebanon as most of her work has been banned in Egypt. She recently returned to Egypt following a five-year exile.

She has written prolifically, including The Nawal El Saadawi Reader, within which she explores a range of topics including women’s oppression under Islam, women in African literature, the sexual politics of development initiatives, the nature of cultural identity and problems facing the internationalization of the women’s movement.


What you are about to read is something of this woman’s dissidence, but also the potential for this as a creative form of activity. Nawal does not believe we are really free. She has said that she ‘discovered that democracy is an illusion’ in the West, and even more an illusion in the non-industrialized world. But she does want people to be free, and to be ‘independent and to govern themselves

She has said that she hates all governments, as there is little to choose between them, whether in the West, the East, the North, or the South. For El Saadawi there is something wrong with the conception of governing others. She writes, ‘I govern myself I don ‘t need somebody to govern me, either in the state or at home’

El Saadawi has a vision of society within which people can govern themselves. For her, people are capable, and are able to govern themselves, but they are prevented from that all the time. This idea looks to the potential that people have rather than their deficit. As such it is anti-professional, as it is the role of the professional to meet the needs of others. It is the role of the professional to address people’s ‘deficit’ or lack. To this extent it can be seen that for Nawal El Saadawi professional activity would be seen as essentially colonizing in character.

Nawal believes that society is abandoning traditional forms of government, very slowly. She argues that non-governmental groups and societies are growing. She points out that in non-industrialized regions these groups are semi-governmental, the governments of these areas having attempted to dominate the non-governmental and the civil groups, but they are, in her words, coming up. For El Saadawi, ‘There is a process that’s going on to unveil the minds of people. For her, governments ‘work in a very subtle ways to control the brains of people, and to brainwash through the media

But Nawal questions this very concept, how can a government maintain power. She says, ‘people in the government are few. How can the few dominate the majority?

What El Saadawi is pointing to here is that there is potential for us to express ourselves and critique the nature of the state or society, but this it cannot be done through the agencies of the state or mediated by state sponsored employees whose interests lie in the propagation or support of state ideals and values. How the few dominate the majority is by the majority being ready to be guided or educated by the minority. For Saadawi this situation is reminiscent of the colonial situation.

For example, one often comes across the idea in our professional field that we should help others ‘celebrate difference’. In the colonial situation the colonial government needs to make sure that people do not unite against them, As such, it is imperative to make sure that groups are played off one against the other in competition for what resources are available for ‘the natives’. In order to do this, difference has to be constantly reiterated and demarcation lines of difference need to be made clear.

However, as is evident from one of the central principals of the National Blood Transfusion Service, the kind of semi-governmental organization of the type Nawal writes about, our aim should be to ‘provide services on the basis of common human needs’ … ‘there must be no allocation of resources which could create a sense of separateness between people’. For the National Blood Transfusion Service it is the ‘explicit or implicit institutionalization of separateness, whether categorized in terms of income, class, race, colour or religion, rather than the recognition of the similarities between people and their needs which causes much of the world’s suffering’.

Colonialism and slavery

This problem of the many controlling the few, is, for El Saadawi, historically connected with slavery. For her slavery meant that a few people, maybe one lord, governed hundreds or thousands of people. This history has left a kind of psychic heritage that is re-energized in education and the media. Domination is not essentially economic, or military, it’s a subtle form of mental domination. As such, the central question for Nawal is; ‘How people can get rid of this invasion to their brains by the media and by education in universities?’

‘I have to know politics in order to challenge politics’

There seems to be some contradiction here. As is evident from her life story, Nawal El Saadawi herself moved from village life to university then into a profession as a doctor. The very process, that she claims to be so damaging, has helped her to see the world as she does; it has enabled her to express her ideas, in more than language. Nawal recognizes this ambiguity but states that, ‘I had to study medicine to get rid of it. I have to know politics in order to challenge politics’.

So, for Nawal, we start by knowing. She had to go to school and to university. When she graduated as a medical doctor and as a physician, it was at that point that she started to challenge the medical profession, and to see that ‘the profession (like all professions) is commercial. For El Saadawi, ‘Professions exploit people’, but, she says, ‘I could not have known that if I hadn‘t studied medicine’.

Do not mistake this statement for the rather trite idea that one is best placed within a profession in order to change it. The clear message here is that professions change those who move into them. When you know about a profession, for Nawal El Saadawi, it is at this point you can change it, but it cannot be changed from within. As Nawal’s life illustrates, the ‘dissenting voice’ speaking out within a profession, is soon rejected by that profession. She herself is an example of this.

According to El Saadawi, ‘Ordinary people do not encroach on others, its people who have power who encroach on the others’. The powerful encroach on others through their social agents, the army, the family, the police, the professions, medical, social and legal. El Saadawi has experience such encroachments in a very physical way. She was circumcised as a child. As a physician she condemns this practice as well as the practice of male circumcisionand, what she calls, ‘psychological circumcision’.

She argues that there is a lot of silence about these abuses. But, for her, the covert psychological interventions are just as damaging as more overt physical abuses. She argues that ‘the physical is visible, and sometimes the visible is less dangerous than the invisible oppression’. The psychological assaults of the educational and welfare professional, for Saadawi, are forms of invisible oppression or psychological circumcision.

According to Nawal, it is in the process of living together that we mature. We are not children. We will mature. A level of government action, that is mediated by its professional agents, that is intrusive, prevents this maturation. People do not, by nature, need Community Educators, Judges or Lawyers, or even Doctors.


El Saadawi has said that in her ideal world there would be no established religion and no books. She is very much against the idea of a ‘fixed text’. She sees Holy books as political books. The Old Testament, the New Testament or the Qu’ran, are, for her, political books. They speak about war, invasion of other people’s countries, of inheritance, of money, this, as a focus, for Nawal, has little to do justice, morality, or spirituality.

However, she argues that all texts that become ‘holy’, be they by Freire, Freud or Marx, are limiting. The words espoused and sanctified in contemporary texts, words like ‘unconscious’, ‘socialism’, or ‘post-modernism’, ‘dialogue’, ‘autonomy’ or ‘reflection’, should be most rigorously critiqued and held up to the scrutiny of their usefulness in everyday life. In Nawal’s utopia there are no Holy books or holy words. She wants ideas like justice, freedom and love — that have meaning and associated action in everyday life for the mass of people and not just a chosen professional or religious elite — to play a much greater part in our thinking and action. She believes that we worship the text, whether divine or human. But this enslaves us when we seek to ‘do’ the words — in effect we are just following instructions, as in a rite.


In her writing Nawal asks us to look again at words, concepts and expressions like ‘democracy’, ‘familyplanning’, ‘globalization’, ‘post-modernism’, ‘education’ and ‘human rights’ and the invention of the idea of a ‘self. For her they have been used to conceal modem forms of colonization. She says,

I think the conception of justice and freedom and love became complex and ambiguous and so complicated because we live in a very hypocritical society that tries to twist language and the language has double meaning. Peace means war, democracy means oppression. Language should be clear, so we understand each other. No monopoly, no playing no games, no political games, no linguistic games, because I am really fed up with the linguistic games of the so-called ‘post-modern ‘era.‘ Which itself is part of the linguist game, the very name is part of the linguistic games …We find ourselves lost in an avalanche of words which appear very dissident, and which multiply and reproduce themselves endlessly…. We drown in these words; we are suffocated by them. It is the zero-sum game of words in which you lose your power to understand.

This process of developing ‘professional words’ creates a reliance on academics and professionals to interpret the world, those with a direct stake in, often, oppressive systems. Understanding is mediated through them, a group of people with little experience of poverty or hard laborious work — they do not know what it means to work hard on machines. This process masks the character of reality that can only be realized through the experience of people in the process of loving and living.

Hence El Saadawi exhorts us to be critical of ideas such as ‘the self-generated’ as it has been within the type of commercial/educational complex she has referred to. For her, the notion of ‘self’ separates people up into an often artificial individuality, replacing the broad range of ‘real’ human relationships based on interdependence and mutuality with notions of personal independence and autonomy. Within this dialogue, for it is not critical, as in discourse, human dependence, one on another, becomes a sort of dirty word.

Once you get into this, many taken for granted concepts or seemingly benign polices can be seen to be no more than the wrapping on an effort to maintain power structures that are – although less formal, more covert, than they were maybe a hundred years ago – clear descendants of systems based on slavery and blatant colonialism.

One example might be the current campaign to ‘drop the dept’. The idea here is that the mass of ‘ordinary’ people in the industrialized world will pressurize the ‘evil bankers’ to cancel dept in the non-industrialized world. This campaign is supported by Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, the Church of England and Chelsea supporter and stand-up comedian David Baddiel.

Just say that this campaign is successful (which it will undoubtedly will be). The major banks and financial organizations, to which most of the money is owed, will not pass the loss onto shareholders. This would result in shareholders withdrawing their capital, placing it elsewhere and the eventual demise of these organizations — it would, in short, be financial suicide. The losses will be passed on, via interest rates and so on. This will make it harder for employers to invest to create employment or maintain existing jobs, particularly those involving unskilled labour. Housing will become more expensive as will any type of borrowing. Food, clothing anything manufactured, will become relatively more expensive. So, in the short term, those who will pay the most will be the poorest in industrialized societies.

However, this is not the end of the story. The same financial institutions will not be looking to borrow any more money to what will be the ‘bad debtor’ nations, no more than they would to individuals who have a record of not paying debts. Even if they did, the interest rates would be even more crippling than they are at present. This being the case, non-industrialized nations, if they are to continue to build their infrastructures, will be obliged to borrow directly from the governments currently supporting ‘drop the debt’. This will give these governments direct control over the national policies of non-industrialized states. As might be becoming clear, the result of this would be economic and political colonialism, a covert, less formal incarnation of former empires.

As such, for El Saadawi, we need to place a great deal more reliance on our own experience in interaction with the experience of others. This being the case, books should be secondary. She says, ‘we need to use our senses, images, feelings, music, we learn from music and dancing. We have also to use our bodies.

She is not thinking of organized events, a practice she loathes. She has called such situations a form of madness, heightened in competition. This, for her, is a surrogate form of war, symbolized in all forms of competition, from the exam result to the football field, from the tests for five-year-olds, to Railtrack’s quest to win investors by minimalizing safety costs, and carries social and historical symbolism. She argues,

It is an artificial need; this artificial need was created by the class patriarchal system, the slave system. To convince us that war is inevitable. That it‘s hormonal, it‘s natural. No, I think war is unnatural and people can live without war, without this competition. So, all these needs are really created artificially by the system.

For Nawal, the style of playing is more important than say the number of goals scored. Teamwork and an atmosphere of friendship should be fostered. This requires our conception of success to change, but also the individual/group relationship. This can only happen in a society that sees the achievement of justice and equality as the basic criteria of success.

Nawal the person – conclusion

This short piece can only give you a taste of Nawal’s thinking and I hope it interests you enough to take a longer look at her work. I think you will find her to be a person of soul and deeply committed to humanity. She has been denigrated many times, but she is not a person to create enemies figures. She may stand out against particular views or policies but she does not see herself being against individual human beings. She has said:

People can change, people make mistakes, people are sometimes evil, and they do evil things because they are pushed to that. I believe in the benign nature of human beings. I don ‘t believe that people are inheriting this malignant, un-divine nature. I think we are born in a very benign good nature, a human nature, but we loose our humanity because of political systems.

According to Nawal, we are brought up to think that dreams are not part of our reality we despise our dreams. But she asks us to ‘remember our dreams’ they will give light to our life. She recalls,

When I was in prison I was living on my dreams. It gave me a lot of power. Prison taught me that freedom is very important, but it taught me also that I ‘m ready to lose my freedom … for a different society. Because, I am not ready to live in a very unjust, oppressive society, and just be free like that. I felt the linkage between our freedom as individuals and the freedom of others. So, though I was in prison I was ready to continue in prison in a way it gave me a lot of insight that what I am doing is right, and I am not ready to sign something to the president so he will free me. No, I will never do that. I will continue to criticize… even if it keeps me in prison. Before I went to prison I had the illusion that prison is like death. But when you know prison, you lose your fear.

I will finish this piece by echoing the dedication Nawal El Saadawi makes at the start of her reader … ‘To the women and men who choose to pay the price an d be free rather than continue to pay the price of slavery’.


El Saadawi, N (1972) Women and Sex

El Saadawi, N (1980) The Hidden Face of Eve – Women in the Arab World London, Zed Books Ltd

El Saadawi, N (1983) Women at Point Zero London, Zed Books Ltd

El Saadawi, N (1985) God Dies by the Nile London, Zed Books Ltd

El Saadawi, N (1989) The Circling Song London, Zed Books Ltd

El Saadawi, N (1991) Searching London, Zed Books Ltd

El Saadawi, N (1997) The Nawal El Saadawi Reader London, Zed Books Ltd

Biographical material:

El Saadawi, N (1999) A Daughter of Isis : The Autobiography of Nawal El Saadawi, London: Zed Books. 320 pages.


There are not many useful sites dealing with Saadawi’s work. For brief introductions try:

Nawal el Saadawi by Jennifer McBride, and


Brian Belton: Brian is the director of the MA in Management Studies Programme at the YMCA George Williams College. He is also responsible for the Professional Studies and Community Studies elements of the Undergraduate Programme. Brian is the author of Bubbles, Hammers and Dreams (1997) a novel looking at the support of West Ham United throughout the club’s history. He has also written two other book on West Ham United The First and Last Englishmen (1998) and Days of Iron (1999) oral histories of the club as related by former players. He is currently writing, The Black Hammers, this documents the history of West Ham’s Black players, from their perspective. Brian, an English Gypsy, is involved in ongoing research into the British Traveller Community.

Clare Dowding: Clare is a freelance lecturer and writer, currently teaching part-time at the YMCA George Williams College and Havering College of Further and Higher Education. Clare is currently working on a number of oral history projects documenting the life-story of people now living in the East End of London.

Acknowledgement: Nawal el Saadawi. Photographed by Matilde LHour and reproduced here under a Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) licence. Sourced from Flickr clepsydre/5338954187/

Prepared by Brian Belton and Clare Dowding © 2000

First published March 2000.