By Najate Zouggari
The renowned Egyptian writer, doctor and activist Nawal El Saadawi is currently promoting the English translations of her most famous writings, reissued by Zed Books publisher. As a consequence, she is meeting her readers in diverse places – libraries, universities, etc. - engaging with them a very stimulating dialogue that takes an Arab perspective on political issues related to cultural, social and sexual prejudices. Born in 1931, El Saadawi is just as you could imagine her: radical, impressive but still very nice, attentive to her readers’ feedback and willing to understand different views from hers – at least, to a certain extent. Despite her stubbornness, the 78 year-old lady missed neither eloquence nor sense of humor. I met her at Housman’s, a radical bookshop in London.
Nawal El Saadawi started her presentation by bringing her audience into line. She simply refused to be defined exclusively as an activist. She said: “Everywhere I go, they call me an activist. It’s only a part of what I am. I’m a writer, I’m a novelist.” She then deconstructed in a very witty, simple and efficient way the heavy prejudiced category of “Middle-East” by asking “Middle of what? Middle to whom?”. First highlight : Nawal El Saadawi is not an activist from the Middle-East.
As a significant fact, the preliminary question she actually had to answer was about an Afghan regime’s law that aimed to punish married women who would refuse a sexual intercourse with their husband. Obviously, the simple fact of having to answer such a question is problematic – and hopefully it got on Nawal’s nerves: “Of course, I’m against that! I’m against that in Afghanistan, in England, in America, in Egypt, under Christian law, under Jewish law, under Islamic law, under Buddhist and Hindi law...”. But now, she added with irony, “Islam became the only religion which allows women’s rape, women’s repression, women’s circumcision, the only religion which is undemocratic.” Indeed Muslim people always are expected to strongly condemn so called “Islamist terrorists” and, as soon as they dare qualifying themselves as Muslims, they are immediately suspected to be a threat to modernity by complying to “violent politicized ideologies” – which is an interpretation as absurd (and dishonest) as trying to find in Ku Klux Klan disciples practices of the truth of Roman Catholicism.
Nawal El Saadawi demonstrated how the term “Middle-East” was not an objective term of geography but the historical product of a domination. At that point, it might be useful to remember Yves Lacoste’s dictum in 1976: ‘Geography’s first use is for waging war’. Saadawi brilliantly proved to her audience how the most simple terminology was deeply rooted in a colonial history that gives to “the West” rights and legitimacy to define the others’ religion and practices. There is no innocent word in politics. Nawal Saadawi’s intelligence of the struggles for power, as well as her radical comments - “there is no postcolonialism, because it would mean there is no more colonialism” - resonate with the marxist tradition she belongs to.
Unfortunately, she precisely fell herself in the West-centered trap she mentioned - by criticizing in a very hasty and rough way religions in general, Islam in particular. Very often, people who prefer not to bother reading Karl Marx, still enjoy quoting his famous expression “opiate of masses” to disqualify religious beliefs. But what they - deliberately or not - forgot to mention is the rest of the sentence, for Marx himself being much more subtle than the self-declared Marxists. He actually wrote, in addition to his famous reference to drug, that religion also was: “the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions”.
It is not my point here to make the apology of any religion, I am just stressing on the fact it is unfair, even from a Marxist point of view, to reduce believers - especially when they are dominated in the context Nawal Saadawi clearly explained - to a zillion of irrational morons. This despising attitude only echoes the prejudices of a heavily intolerant and biased French secularism that Saadawi precisely praised as a model.
At that point, by saying how great and fair was the French government that banished “religious signs” in French public schools (Loi n° 2004-228 15 mars 2004), she simply switched off her critical sense. I also attribute her lack of lucidity on this part to the fact she is neither French, nor living in France. It is important to remember that the only students banished from schools were actually women and Muslim. It is important to remember François Baroin’s words when he was the spokesman of UMP - the party affiliated to President Nicolas Sarkozy. He said on France Television: “We can’t compare the veil to the kippa, because the veil is a political tool to conquest the spirits while the kippa is a reference to God”. I don’t know if one should just cry or laugh in front of such a deep stupidity. This incredibly ridiculous statement - and double standard - is actually both an insult to Islam and Judaism. And to intelligence, as well.
Being myself a feminist and a - non veiled - Muslim, I felt during the vote of this law followed by the very obscene media blitz that showed exclusions of veiled girls from schools, something which deeply echoed with... Theodor Herzl’s experience. I know this statement might sound eccentric but let me explain it. Theodor Herzl was a Paris correspondent for the Neue Freie Presse in 1895 where he witnessed the Dreyfus affair, a notorious antisemitic case in which a French Jewish captain was humiliated and falsely convicted for spying for the Germans - at that time designed as the enemies of France. Herzl’s idea of zionism was at the beginning a reaction to this injustice. My point here is not to discuss the legitimacy of zionism but simply to point out a continuity in French history: these Muslim girls - all under eighteen year-old, some of them only twelve - were exactly in the same position as Alfred Dreyfus, but the Emile Zola defending her were very few.
Accused of hiding behind their veils a threat from abroad, exactly like Alfred Dreyfus, I think though their position was even harder because they were powerless - women, teenagers, students.
On this point I’m afraid, Nawal El Saadawi was simply wrong. She thought the law is good because every citizen in principle has to comply and the legislators wanted all the religions to be equally treated - which is obviously not the case as Baroin pathetically pointed out in the historical quote mentioned in a previous paragraph. You cannot judge the fairness of a law on the perfection of its ideal. You cannot judge the fairness of a law on the good intentions of its legislators. You judge a law on its concrete, practical, ethical consequences for the citizens of the society in which this law has been promulgated. The stubborn idealism of Nawal El Saadawi - disgracefully shared by a large majority of French feminists - reminds me of this beautiful sentence by Charles Péguy about the German philosopher Immanuel Kant: “he has clean hands, but he has no hands.” They speak about women’s rights but they support a law that, in last instance, prevents girls from the basic rights of education.
Still, I was glad to meet Nawal El Saadawi - and honored to speak with her. I enjoyed her witty retorts and her deep, frank critical sense. “You don’t need a PhD to rebel against any type of injustice.” Those are some of her words you can hardly forget.
Nawal El Saadawi, Searching, Zed Books, 2009
Nawal El Saadawi, The Circling Song, Zed Books, 2009
Nawal El Saadawi, A Daughter of Isis, Zed Books, 2009
Nawal El Saadawi, Walking Through Fire, Zed Books, 2009
Nawal El Saadawi, The Hidden Face of Eve, Zed Books, 2009
Nawal El Saadawi, Woman at Point Zero, Zed Books, 2009
Ismahane Chouder, Malika Latreche, Pierre Tevanian, Les filles voilées parlent, Editions La Fabrique, 2008 - http://lmsi.net/spip.php?article732
Christine Delphy, Classer, Dominer. Qui sont les “autres”?, Editions La Fabrique, 2008
Jerome Host, Un racisme à peine voilé, DVD H Production, 2004 - http://bougnoulosophe.blogspot.com/2009/04/un-racisme-peine-voile-jerome-host.html