A Passion for Solitude

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A Passion for Solitude

Nawal El Saadawi's Memories of an Egyptian Prison

Book except

By: Nawal El Saadawi

Date: 2002

Source: El Saadawi, Nawal. "A Passion for Solitude" in Scheffler, Judith A., ed. Wall Tappings: Women's Prison Writings. New York: Feminist Press, 2002.

About the Author: The writer and feminist Nawal El Saadawi (b. 1931) had a distinguished career in public health in Egypt until 1973 when she was dismissed from her post as Director of Health Education in the Ministry of Health in Cairo. Eight years later, she was imprisoned for crimes against the state for advocating for women's liberation.


Nawal El Saadawi, a physician and writer, went to prison in Egypt in 1981 for challenging the subordinate role of women in Middle Eastern society and within Islam. Born in 1931 in Kafr Tahla, a small village outside of Cairo to a large family, El Saadawi suffered female genital mutilation at the age of six. Her family was traditional in many ways, yet her father also accepted the importance of educating girls. El Saadawi attended the University of Cairo and graduated in 1955 with a degree in psychiatry. After completing her education, she practiced psychiatry and eventually rose to become Egypt's Director of Public Health. In the 1960s, she instituted a divorce against her first husband, a near impossibility in the Arab world. She subsequently married Sherif Hatata, a leftist physician who also suffered imprisonment for his political views.

The major theme of El Saadawi's work is Arab women's sexuality, which she views as part of the wider problem of women's subordinate social and legal status within the Arab world. Women's sexuality is a taboo subject in many Islamic countries, including Egypt in the 1970s. El Saadawi's writings were controversial and considered by many in authority to be dangerous. Her writings were banned in her native country. As a result, El Saadawi was forced to publish her works in Beirut, Lebanon. In 1972, she published her first work of non-fiction, Women and Sex. The book angered highly placed political and theological authorities to the extent that the Ministry of Health fired El Saadawi. 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.

El Saadawi had been warned by her husband about the "visitors of the dawn," the Egyptian secret police, yet she refused to be cowed. As a member of the Ain Shams University's Faculty of Medicine, she conducted research on women and neurosis. The results inspired her novel Woman at Point Zero, which was based on a female death row inmate convicted of murdering her husband that she met while conducting interviews. In 1977, El Saadawi published her most famous work, The Hidden Face of Eve. This book covered a host of topics relative to Arab women, such as aggression against female children and female genital mutilation, prostitution, sexual relationships, marriage and divorce, and Islamic fundamentalism. On September 6, 1981, El Saadawi sat at home alone reading a novel. The doorbell rang. The "visitors of the dawn" collected El Saadwi's books and papers and then took her to jail. She was released in 1982, after the assassination of President Anwar Sadat. In 1983, she published Memoirs from the Women's Prison, in which she continued her attacks on the repressive Egyptian government.


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[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]


El Saadawi's influence on Arab feminism has been profound. She is currently one of the most widely read of contemporary Egyptian authors. Her twenty-seven books have been translated into no fewer than twelve languages. In 1983, she founded the Arab Women's Solidarity Association (AWSA), an international organization dedicated to "lifting the veil from the mind" of Arab women. In 1985, AWSA was granted consultant status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations as an Arab non-governmental association. Under pressure from Islamic fundamentalists, the Egyptian government closed AWSA down in 1991 and diverted its funds to a religious women's association. El Saadawi took the Egyptian government to court, but she did not win the case.

When Hosni Mubarak succeeded Anwar Sadat as President of Egypt on October 6, 1981, Mubarak promised to address Egypt's social problems. He released many of the political and religious leaders imprisoned by Sadat, including El Saadawi. Political parties created under Sadat were permitted to grow, publish newspapers, and promote candidates for legislative elections. Since 1992, however, the Mubarak government has limited the proliferation of parties, restricted freedom of the press, and curbed movements that it regards as subversive. For her writing and activism on behalf of women, El Saadawi discovered in June 1992 that she had been placed on a death list. On January 8, 1993, she fled Egypt for the United States. She subsequently returned home and unsuccessfully ran for president in 2004. In 2006, she continued to promote feminist issues from her home in Cairo.

The Mubarak government initially supported the resurgence of Islamist movements in Egypt, notably al-Jihad and the Muslim Brotherhood. In recent years, in the wake of an attempt on Mubarak's life, the government has attempted to crack down on Islamic fundamentalism. However, the movement has proven too deeply entrenched, especially in the professional associations. It is unlikely that an improvement in the situation of women, a goal long held by El Saadawi, will occur as long as Islamic fundamentalism remains strong in Egypt.



El-Saadawi, Nawal. The Hidden Face of Eve: Women in the Arab World. London: Zed Books, 1980.

―――――― The Nawal El Saadawi Reader. London: Zed Books, 1997.

―――――― Walking Through Fire: A Life of Nawal El Saadawi. London: Zed Books, 2002.

Howland, Courtney W. Religious Fundamentalism and the Rights of Women. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999.

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