White-haired and feisty, the 80-year-old Egyptian feminist Nawal El Saadawi has been protesting against various Egyptian regimes for decades. A medical doctor by training and a prolific author by disposition, she has tackled difficult topics such as prostitution, female genital mutilation and discriminatory family laws in nearly fifty works of fiction and non-fiction. The Nation spoke to the “Simone de Beauvoir of Egypt” in advance of her appearances at New York University on March 22 and 24.
Were you involved in the planning or the social media activities leading up to the revolution?
There were many groups of young people, and I was communicating with some of them. There are some young people who have a forum; they come to my home regularly to discuss philosophy, literature, politics. So I knew there was going to be a revolution, but I was not following it very closely.
There were many demonstrations before January 25, but they were small. What motivated the millions to be in the streets was the killing of the innocent people. By killing people in Tahrir Square, Mubarak helped us win the revolution, because housewives, peasants, the working class, all came out into the street.
You camped out in Tahrir Square day and night. Did you see or hear anything that surprised you?
I didn’t expect 20 million people on the streets. This has been my dream since I was child, that one day the Egyptian people would wake up and revolt against slavery and colonization. I’ve participated in many demonstrations since I was a child. When I was at medical college, I was fighting King Farouk, then British colonization, against Nasser, against Sadat who pushed me into prison, Mubarak who pushed me into exile. I never stopped. It was like a dream; it was the accumulation of small revolutions.
A lot of your work and ideas focus on intersecting forms of oppression—class, patriarchy, colonialism. How do you overcome those oppressive forces? How can you convince someone to cede authority or resources?
[Laughs.] Well, it’s very difficult. This is everyone’s struggle—whether against men in the family, or against capitalism. It’s power. I don’t think that people in power can be convinced by words or articles. They will never give it up by choice. Even a husband in the house, no—power has to be taken with power. Mubarak resigned because the people showed their power. If it had been only a few hundred protesters, he would never go, but because it was 20 million, the whole country, he had no choice. You can’t eradicate power with weakness. Knowledge and unity—these were power in the hands of the people.
Within a household, the individual woman must have power. It’s not easy—it means political rights, economic independence, knowledge. A lot of women are afraid of loneliness, so when they see a woman who can live alone, then they think, “Hmm, I can do that.” But you need an example, and that is why I am proud to say I have divorced three husbands.
How will these protests and a new political order affect gender relations in Egypt?
Well, it’s also a process. First you need economic independence, so you can divorce your husband if he treats you badly. Then it becomes like a virus, infecting other women. And then women start to organize and talk about it. You need collective power, and that is why we always organize and network. But this is why [former Egyptian first ladies] Suzanne Mubarak and Jehane Sadat banned our union, the Egyptian Women’s Union. Because organizing is power.
What do you think of how the international media covered the protests?
Well, the big media is capitalist, so it serves the interests of big corporations, and that is why they lie. There were a lot of lies and rumors about the revolution in Egypt, and the role of women in our society. In the United States, it was very bad. I was censored in America, by Christiane Amanpour. She censored everything she didn’t like, which shows there is no real democracy here.
How did that manifest itself in the news coverage of the protests themselves?
It was all either sensational or lies. They can do whatever they like. They can say the opposite of what happened by cutting and montage. But there is also alternative media—I spoke with Amy Goodman from Democracy Now! and Ms. magazine and a feminist group yesterday, and they didn’t cut anything. You can’t generalize; you have to see how each institution is funded and whose interests it is serving.
Do you have a wish list for the revolution? What are the top three things you’d like to see happen going forward?
I have complete confidence in the young people. I lived with them in Tahrir Square, and we still have discussions in my home all the time, and I always learn from them. We older people must be modest enough to confess that we should not be advising the younger people all the time but should instead have an equal exchange of ideas.
How did women get sidelined so fast after Mubarak left?
We are furious. We participated in every part of the revolution, and then as soon as it ended we were completely isolated. The constitutional committees were all old men, so young people are also angry. But we re-established the Egyptian Women’s Union and we are organizing day and night. We are demanding at least 35 percent female participation in all committees to be formed to change the constitution, at every level, as well as a secular constitution, a secular family code and total equality before the law.
Do you have advice for women in the West on how to advocate for women’s rights elsewhere, without allowing that issue of women’s rights to be instrumentalized?
I always say we need global and local solidarity—what we call “glocal.” Women in the West can support us by fighting their own governments, because your governments are the ones that interfere in our life, by going and invading and colonizing other countries.
Nobody can help anybody. Nobody can help us in Egypt—we did our revolution alone, we liberated ourselves alone. I don’t believe in charity or “helping.” I believe in the equal exchange of ideas, and networking.
Are you ever fearful that when you condemn certain practices such as FGM as “barbaric,” these condemnations will be appropriated by people with an anti-Arab agenda?
Yes, they can use it against us, to say that we are barbaric and need to be colonized to be civilized. But they don’t look to themselves—in Europe and America, women are circumcised mentally. The feminists who are aware of the effects of patriarchy realize that we are all in the same boat from the dangers of patriarchy, and that the oppression of women is universal.