Nawal El Saadawi was born in the Egyptian village of Kafr Tahla in 1931. Her father was a civil servant, and her mother came from an upper-class Egyptian family. At the age of six, and at the insistence of her mother, El Saadawi underwent a clitoridectomy (also known as female genital mutilation), a procedure in which a young girl’s clitoris is removed. El Saadawi was one of nine children, and her parents made the unusual decision to send all of their children—boys and girls—to school. El Saadawi excelled in school, and in 1949 she entered medical school at the University of Cairo. There, El Saadawi met and eventually married Ahmed Helmi, a fellow medical student and an Egyptian freedom fighter who opposed Britain’s presence in Egypt. They were soon divorced. Despite the limitations placed on women by governmental and religious rule at the time, El Saadawi became a doctor in 1955.
After her divorce from her first husband, El Saadawi was pressured by her family into marrying Dr. Rashad Bey, who disapproved of El Saadawi’s writing and her feminist viewpoints. El Saadawi in turn disliked Bey, and they, too, divorced. She then moved to New York to attend Columbia University, where she obtained her master’s degree in public health in 1966. By this time, El Saadawi had married her third husband, Sherif Hetata. Like El Saadawi, Hetata is both a doctor and a novelist, and so was supportive of both of El Saadawi’s passions. Hetata has since translated several of El Saadawi’s works into English. Upon their return to Egypt, El Saadawi rose to become Egypt’s Director of Public Health. She also worked as the editor-in-chief of Health magazine and assistant general secretary for Egypt’s Medical Association.
In 1972, El Saadawi published her first nonfiction work, Women and Sex, which dealt with religion, sex, and clitoridectomy. Infuriated, the Egyptian government and religious establishment pressured the Ministry of Health into dismissing El Saadawi. She simultaneously lost her jobs as editor-in-chief of Health and as assistant general secretary in the Medical Association in Egypt.
From 1973 to 1976, El Saadawi researched women and neuroses at the Medical School of Ain Shams University. During this time, she did extensive research on women in prisons, traveling often to Qanatir Women’s Prison. It was there that she met the woman who inspired the character of Firdaus in Woman at Point Zero—a prostitute condemned to death for killing the man who would have been her pimp.
From 1979 to 1980, El Saadawi worked for the United Nations as the advisor for the Women’s Program in Africa and the Middle East. By this time, she had established a formidable bibliography and had published numerous works of fiction and non-fiction, including Memoirs of a Woman Doctor (1958), Two Women in One (1968), She Has No Place in Paradise (1972), God Dies by the Nile (1976), The Circling Song (1977), and The Hidden Face of Eve: Women in the Arab World (1977). All of her works have a feminist point of view, and El Saadawi was threatened by various Islamic fundamentalist groups throughout her life.
In 1981, El Saadawi was imprisoned by the regime of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat for criticizing his one-party rule. She spent two months in Qanatir Women’s Prison—the same prison in which she visited Firdaus, the protagonist of Woman at Point Zero—under the Egyptian “Law for the Protection of Values from Shame.” She was released one month after President Sadat’s assassination in 1981. In 1982, El Saadawi founded the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association, a feminist organization that was subsequently banned in 1991. Not long after, El Saadawi’s name began to appear on “death lists” issued by Islamic fundamentalist groups who objected to her outspoken feminism and her unapologetic criticism of some aspects of Islam. El Saadawi and Hetata fled to the United States, where she taught at Duke University in North Carolina and Washington State University in Seattle. Finally, in 1996, she returned to Egypt.
But her troubles weren’t over. In 2001, the seventy-three-year-old El Saadawi suggested in an interview that the pilgrimage that Muslims make to Mecca has its roots in a pagan tradition. In the same interview, she suggested that Islamic laws of inheritance were discriminatory toward women. Consequently, El Saadawi was accused of “straying from the circle of Islam.” A famous Egyptian lawyer invoked an old and out-of-use law that allows one Muslim to accuse another of “apostasy,” or renunciation of the Islamic faith. Because under Sharia, or Islamic law, a non-Muslim is not allowed to be married to a Muslim, the lawyer, Nabih al-Wahsh, tried to force El Saadawi to divorce Hetata, her husband of 40 years. The case was overturned in July of 2001, and El Saadawi and Hetata remain married. El Saadawi continues to be a provocateur.