Biography of Nawal El Saadawi

Nawal El Saadawi was born on October 27, 1931, in Kafr Tahla, a small village in northern Egypt. A self-professed “rebel,” Saadawi is also an author, public health physician, psychiatrist, and women’s rights activist. She has dedicated much of her life and career to advocating for women’s political and sexual rights both in Egypt and around the world. This dedication has earned her the moniker “the Simone de Beauvoir of the Arab World.”

From an early age, Saadawi experienced firsthand Egypt’s stifling of female freedom and sexuality. Her clitoris was removed at age 6, and she was also expected to become a child bride at age 10. The Egyptian government has denounced both female circumcision and child marriages, and female circumcision was officially banned in 2008, but recent rises in poverty and religious fundamentalism are causing a resurgence of these practices. Curiously, while Saadawi’s family was strictly traditional in some ways, they were progressive in others. Saadawi was educated with her brothers, and her father encouraged her to have self-respect, be vocally opinionated, and study the Arab language.

Saadawi’s somewhat contradictory upbringing served as an initial motivation for her professional career. She attended Cairo University’s medical school and graduated with her M.D. in 1955. After graduating, she worked as a doctor in her hometown and at Cairo University. She became the Director of the Egyptian Ministry of Public Health in 1966. That same year, she also received her Masters in Public Health (M.P.H.) from Columbia University in New York. In 1968, she founded Health Magazine and became its chief editor.

While working as a doctor, Saadawi observed and took notes on women’s physical and psychological issues and linked them back to oppressive cultural and patriarchal practices. Many of these observations formed the backbone of her first work of nonfiction, Women and Sex, published in 1972. A book that sheds light on various aggressions perpetrated against women’s bodies, including female circumcision, Women and Sex is considered a foundational text of the second-wave feminist movement. Women and Sex angered many of Egypt’s religious and political authorities, and as a result, Saadawi lost her job at the Ministry of Health and at the health journal.

From 1973 - 1976, Saadawi conducted research on women and neurosis at Ain Sham’s University’s Faculty of Medicine in Cairo. During this time, she met a doctor at Qanatir Prison who told her about the inmates, including a female prisoner who would become the inspiration for Woman at Point Zero, Saadawi’s novel published in 1975. As punishment for publishing a feminist magazine in 1981, Saadawi herself was imprisoned at Qanatir Prison at the order of President Anwar Sadat, Egypt’s president from 1970 to 1981. While incarcerated, Saadawi wrote Memoirs from the Women’s Prison on a roll of toilet paper using a smuggled makeup pencil.

Following Sadat’s assassination, Saadawi was released from prison. In 1982, she founded the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association and served as the editor of the organization’s publication. The Egyptian government shut down both the association and its publication in 1991. By this time, Saadawi had already fled the religious and political persecution she faced in Egypt and was living in the United States. She initially taught at Duke University and would later have positions at several prestigious universities in the United States.

In 1996, Saadawi returned to Egypt, despite frequent legal challenges from political and religious opponents. She tried running in the 2005 Egyptian presidential race, but she withdrew her candidacy because of ongoing governmental prosecution. As of 2011, Saadawi was still engaged in political and feminist activism in Egypt and abroad.

Despite the backlash and criticism that she has received in her own country, Saadawi is widely celebrated and decorated around the world. Among her many awards and accolades are the Council of Europe North-South Prize, the UK Woman of the Year Award, the Inana International Prize, and the Sean MacBride Peace Prize. Furthermore, her numerous writings have been translated into more than 40 languages and are taught in classrooms across the globe.

Study Guides on Works by Nawal El Saadawi