This week on Refinery29, we’re filling your screens and consciousness with inspiring women over 50. Why? Because living in a culture obsessed with youth is exhausting for everyone. Aging is a privilege, not something to dread. Welcome to Life Begins At...
I walked home from my interview with the Arab world’s leading feminist, 86-year-old Nawal El Saadawi clutching my bag containing the recording tightly to my chest, terrified a thief on a motorbike would snatch it. I couldn’t imagine anything worse in that moment than losing her words.
Nawal spoke at London's Southbank Centre on the day of the royal wedding to mark the reissue of her joint memoirs, A Daughter of Isis and Walking Through Fire. She strode onto the stage to a standing ovation, raising her fists in the air with 86 years’ worth of defiance. She told the audience that day that every year on her birthday, fundamentalists spread a rumour on Facebook that she’s dead – "But I live!"
The day before our meeting at her hotel in Waterloo, Nawal was interviewed on Channel 4 News by Krishnan Guru-Murthy and on the BBC's Hard Talk, "quarrelling" with the presenter Zeinab Badawi who suggested that Nawal might consider toning it down and being "less outspoken" about the issues she has tirelessly campaigned against throughout her life, such as FGM, which she experienced as a child, and (in its many, many guises) patriarchal oppression. Nawal answered firmly: "No. I should be more outspoken, I should be more aggressive, because the world is becoming more aggressive, and we need people to speak loudly against injustices. I speak loudly because I am angry."
With thick white hair and fierce eyes which have seen so much of life and death but which regularly break into a joyful smile, Nawal radiates strength and wisdom. Life has been hard on her, she tells me: "Exile, prison, death threats, three divorces, and all that, it was difficult, but it was rich, and I would live it exactly the same again," she laughs.
The author of over 50 books published in more than 20 languages across the world, Nawal was born in a village in Egypt in 1931. Top of her class at school, she narrowly avoided child marriage at the age of 10 by smearing aubergine on her teeth to make them black just before her suitors arrived. Nawal doesn’t see a difference between fiction and autobiography in her writing, presumably because her life has, at every stage, been stranger than fiction. She wrote her first book – Diary of a Child Called Souad – at 13, but didn’t consider writing a viable career choice then, so she trained as a doctor, going on to become a chest surgeon. After years working as a doctor in poor villages in Egypt, Nawal changed tack and became a psychiatrist. Her first nonfiction book Women and Sex, published in 1972, was banned and she lost her job as Director of Public Health at the Ministry of Health in Egypt due to its content. The book criticised female genital mutilation and other offences on women’s bodies, such as the women (dayas) in villages who do ‘virginity’ testing on brides on their wedding night by breaking the hymen. Still, today, Nawal tells me, there is an MP in Egypt who is calling for virginity testing on girls as an entrance exam to university.
Nawal was one of the first people to publicly stand up to the oppression of women in the Arab world, hence her title as its leading feminist. "Many Egyptian men – fathers and husbands – they don’t like me because I make their daughters and their wives rebel against them!" she tells me, surprised when I tell her my Egyptian father is a fan.
In '75 she published one of her best known books, Woman at Point Zero, the real-life story of a woman she met while working as a psychiatrist. This woman, Firdaus, was a sex worker in prison, waiting to be hanged for killing one of the many men who abused her. In '77 she published The Hidden Face of Eve, documenting her experiences as a village doctor witnessing honour killings, sexual abuse and FGM.
As Nawal gained notoriety as the author of these rousing texts being read by women of all religions and cultures but particularly by Muslim women in the Arab world, she started to receive death threats from fundamentalists and was put on a "death list" published in a Saudi newspaper. In '81 she was arrested in her home and sent to prison. There, she wrote her memoirs on toilet paper using eyeliner belonging to a sex worker who lived in the cell next to her. "It was very difficult!" she says with a laugh, demonstrating just how difficult by writing her name on a piece of tissue on the table we’re sat at. But Nawal’s eyes light up when she talks about her time in prison, which she says was "a good experience" overall. "When I went to prison I was already 50 years old – quite mature – so I was strong enough to survive. It’s a battle, but you go on. You are conquered and then you conquer. You are not broken. In prison, you face real life. Prison is like death, like exile, you face something horrible that you were so afraid of all your life – I was so afraid of prison and of death and of exile and of loneliness, of everything, but when I was in it, I lost my fear. You have to face these things to lose your fear."
Nawal is constantly encouraging women to let go of their fear. "The braver you are, the more nobody can touch you," she tells me. When I ask if she was always this confident and strong spirited, she says no – it happened gradually. She asks me, "Are you not strong and confident too?" And I say, "No! I don’t feel that strong or confident" and she says, "Ah, maybe this is because you didn’t need a battle. You didn’t fight for your rights, you found them, that is why you are easy-going and relaxed. It is okay! It is good! But when you are in fire, walking through fire, when you feel that everywhere you go you meet obstacles and you want to break through, you develop strong bones to go on."
Nawal’s feminism is so strong because it is imperative. She’s right, I didn’t fight for my rights, they were handed to me. Her words make me think about the layers and waves of feminism, and about the handful of really fierce, strong women I know, and what they might have had to go through to become like that. "I divorced three husbands, you know," she says, bemused, "I threatened to kill my second husband – yes – I was afraid that he wouldn’t divorce me, because in Egypt you cannot divorce your husband. But I succeeded in frightening him!" In her memoirs, you find out that the husband Nawal threatened to kill threw her novel – which she’d been writing for months – out of the window, tore up her childhood photos, her identity card and her Medical Association card, and "[...] he turned on me, took me by the throat, and started to throttle me."
But like others of her generation, Nawal is not always popular in her feminism. For example, she is against Muslim women (or women of any religion) covering their hair or their faces. Brought up in a Muslim family, Nawal was religious up to a point, and then she rejected it strongly. When I ask her about her views on the veil, she says: "Everybody is very much interested in the physical veil – the religious Islamic veil. But what we don’t see is the veil of the mind. We are all exposed to the veil of the mind, by education, by religion, by patriarchy, by fear, by marriage, by the moral code. As women, we are always pushed to be hidden, to be veiled, even if we are not aware of that." As I find out, Nawal is just as against women wearing very heavy makeup and the sort of 'naked feminism' that has been popularised by American celebrities like Kim Kardashian, as she is women wearing veils. "In Egypt, you find contradictions, because there is the Islamisation of Egypt, and the Americanisation of Egypt. Nakedness and veiling go hand in hand. Some Egyptian women, like the Americans, show their breasts and wear mini skirts and a lot of makeup, and then other women are very veiled. In the middle you have women who accommodate Islamisation and Americanisation, so they cover their head and their hair, but they uncover their belly with jeans that are very low and the stomach is visible. So in fact women are really oppressed by both Islamisation and Americanisation."
In comparison to her mother, who was a typical Egyptian woman in that she wore makeup and always removed unwanted hair from parts of her body and face, Nawal writes in A Daughter of Isis: "I never hid it under makeup or powder, or pastes of any kind, did not believe in a femininity born with slave society and handed down to us with class and patriarchy. My mother rebelled against many things but still she held on to certain traits of femininity which I did not share with her." When I ask how she feels about makeup and hair removal, and all these things that women do today, she reasserts her position: "Women are pushed to be just bodies – either to be veiled under religion, or to be veiled by makeup. They are taught that they shouldn’t face the world with their real face – they have to hide their face somehow. Both are very significant of the oppression of women, that women are not really encouraged to be real, to be themselves, they are encouraged to hide, to be what society wants, what religion wants, what men want."
Speaking to Nawal, I finally, totally, get the term "intersectional feminist". None of her opinions – about the veil, about FGM, about child marriage, about monogamy – is treated as a single issue, she always relates them to imperialism, colonialism, history, politics, religion and class. "Women are deceived by the media, by the capitalist, patriarchal, racist media," she tells me. "They are brainwashed, so they have the impression that they are free, but they are not free. They think, 'If I uncover my breast and wear low jeans, then I am free', but completely the opposite, it means I am a sex object. And the veiled woman considers herself a stigma, so she covers herself. Feminism is not just one thing, there are many types of feminism: liberal feminists, socialist feminists, Islamic feminists, Jewish feminists, Christian feminists – there are many types. Real feminism is the woman who is liberated from both patriarchy and capitalism. Patriarchal oppression and class oppression and religious oppression are one."
Confidence, she thinks, is what makes a woman beautiful. "It is the character, it is how a woman speaks, how she moves. Beauty is related to intelligence; you say, 'This is a beautiful woman because she is intelligent'." When I ask if the great feminist Nawal El Saadawi has ever succumbed to jealousy or social comparison with other women, she replies: "Well, when you envy, it means you have time to envy – and I’m very busy! I am absorbed in my ideas, so when I walk, sometimes I don’t see anybody! Maybe I would envy the people who are more creative than me… I don’t know… I haven’t found them yet!" she laughs.
For 20 years, Nawal lived in exile in America, teaching a course at Duke University called 'Creativity and Dissidence', two words which sum her up. Creativity is the thing she holds dearest, believing it to be the answer to many of modern life’s conundrums, like envy and loneliness. "When your mind is really occupied by creative thinking, you fill the space," she says. "There is a big space in our head and it must be occupied with a cause – you must have a cause in life. Women are often occupied with men and with marriage. Then when they marry, they want children, and then grandchildren, it goes like that, they are occupied biologically, but not creatively."
"People, especially women, are afraid of loneliness," she continues, "but loneliness is an illusion, like death. In Egypt, you find a woman who is educated, a professor maybe, and her husband beats her and oppresses her, but she is afraid to divorce him because she will be alone. In my life, I discovered that loneliness is paradise! I need loneliness, I need silence, to write. When you do not have something to do – in your head – you feel lonely. But if you put me in a room, in a prison even, I have something to do, something to say, something to write, I am occupied, therefore I don’t feel lonely."
Writing has been Nawal’s creative medium, but she sees creativity as very broad. Even in medicine, you can be creative, she tells me. Nawal no longer believes in a God, and she has contempt for religion because of the oppression of religion, but she believes absolutely in creativity. "When people say, 'You are a non-believer', I say, 'No, I believe in many things'. I believe in myself – that's number one. I believe in creativity. I believe in justice, I believe in love, I believe in freedom. How can I call myself a non-believer?"Her parting words to me are words of encouragement for my own creativity. "You should be brave," she tells me. "Write what you want, even if you go to death – that’s my idea. Don’t be afraid."
A Daughter of Isis and Walking Through Fire, published by Zed books, are available here.