News / Middle East

Egypt Protests Level Playing Field for Women

Egyptian writer Nawal el Saadawi during an interview with Reuters in Cairo, May 2001 (file photo)
Egyptian writer Nawal el Saadawi during an interview with Reuters in Cairo, May 2001 (file photo)

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The anti-government protesters who have been occupying Cairo's Tahrir Square for more than two weeks now want to turn Egypt into a modern, progressive nation, including equal rights for men and women. One of their heroes is the renowned secular feminist Nawal el Saadawi.

Since January 25 protests have been calling for the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak in Tahrir Square. It's called Midan Tahrir - which means Liberation Square. And for this protester, it's also about Women's Liberation: "[Before] we had nothing, now I guess we will take everything."

Many of the women say here on the square they are treated as equals. They may be outnumbered by men. But when el Saadawi shows up, young males shower her with admiration.

El Saadawi comes to Midan Tahrir every day, but in the evening returns home to the relatively poor neighborhood of Shobra. She said the uprising is a lifelong dream come true. "So these days for me are like, I'm breathing! I'm happy! I'm becoming young again!"

Her campaigns against genital mutilation of girls and her dissident political views have infuriated conservatives and Egypt's rulers. She was barred from teaching and lived in exile. Although she has a medical doctor's degree and her writings have been translated into many languages, she voices the same frustrations as many older Egyptian woman who have been held back.

"I never, never really was able to live my dream," said el Saadawi. "Because I have a lot of potential. I have a good brain, strong body, I am 80, but I am strong. I could have done a lot [for] this country!”

But she didn't, she said, because in Egypt women legally have fewer rights than men. "The family code in Egypt is one of the worst family codes in the Arab world," said El Saadawi. "Polygamy. The husband is having absolute power over the family.”

But she never submitted. "I had to divorce three husbands! To write, just to continue to write! Because for a woman, to be a strong wife, this is not accepted. You know my husband should dominate me. I should not be equal to him. I should not be more successful than him. I should not be more famous than him."

El Saadawi not only criticizes the situation in Egypt. She believes women everywhere are at a disadvantage, and her political views are still stridently anti-Western and anti-capitalist.
But she said the men who have ruled Egypt are like the ancient “Pharoahs,” including Hosni Mubarak.

"He will be the last one," said el Saadawi.

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Jerome Socolovsky

Jerome Socolovsky is the award-winning religion correspondent for the Voice of America, based in Washington. He reports on the rapidly changing faith landscape of the United States, including interfaith issues, secularization and non-affiliation trends and the growth of immigrant congregations.

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