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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
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
Ace your assignments with our guide to Woman at Point Zero!