“Women Will Benefit From Secularism” – Nawal El-Saadawi
Controversy stalks dissident writer Nawal El-Saadawi, whose views on women and religion have put her at odds with Egyptian conservatives.
Recently she returned to Cairo after nearly three years in exile, and has already created a stir with the launch of a local chapter of her global campaign for the separation of religion and state.
“God has no place in politics,” El-Saadawi told IPS. “Religion is a powerful weapon to divide people. You are Christian and I am Muslim, and so we kill each other.”
Clerics have described her secularism campaign as blasphemous and opponents are now seeking to have her imprisoned. It’s nothing new for the outspoken 77-year-old civil activist, who has paid a price for outspokenness. Over the years she’s been removed from her post as a public health official, put in jail for criticising the regime, hounded by lawsuits, and marked for death by Islamists.
Yet she persists.
From her home in Cairo, El-Saadawi spoke to IPS about her efforts to counter the rising tide of religious fundamentalism and free women from all forms of oppression. Excerpts from the interview.
IPS: You spent much of the past 15 years in exile. Why did you decide to return to Egypt now?
NAWAL EL-SAADAWI: I came back to Cairo, in September, for the first time in three years. I decided to come back because, for one, I feel at home here with my daughter, my son, my husband and my friends. And two, I feel a responsibility towards my people, and I should do what I can as a writer. The threat of political religious fundamentalism in Egypt is growing. And people are timid; writers are afraid of the religious groups, because they are afraid of being taken to court and accused of apostasy. And the country is going backwards like that.
So I decided to come, and I will fight, even if they [gun me down] in the street. I prefer to be shot in the street and die fighting this conservative backlash against the mind, than stay in the U.S. and Europe and die, for instance, of breast cancer there. We’re all going to die, but if I’m shot in the street in Cairo at least it would have meaning.
IPS: While you were in the U.S. you founded a civil organisation to promote the separation of religion and state.
NS: I started Global Solidarity for Secular Society (GSSS), because we are all in the same boat. I haven’t seen a secular country. France is not a secular country, the United States is not a secular country. Norway – I was in Norway just last month. The king and the prime minister in Norway should be Lutheran Christian; 50 percent of the ministers should be affiliated to the state church; children are obliged to study in schools [where they are taught] that Lutheran Christianity is the absolute truth. And that’s Norway.
So there is no secular country. From this, the idea of a global solidarity movement came, that we should separate god from politics.
IPS: How do you believe countries could benefit from secularism?
NS: We need to separate religion from the constitution, state and legislation. Because whenever you have a religious law, it’s a racist law, and women are inferior.
In the family code here in Egypt, for instance, my husband can have four wives. My husband… can you imagine? He can go today and marry three other women. But if we separate religion from the legal system, if we have a civil law, he will be equal to me.
Women will benefit from secularism, because women are inferior in all religions. They suffer from religions. So when we separate religion from the legal system, the family code, culture, and the media – women will benefit, because you’re going more towards an egalitarian society.
IPS: You are not just critical of organised religion, but of spirituality as well, which you say is a deceptive term. Can you explain?
I am against feminists in the West who speak about spirituality. They don’t realise that we as women are oppressed by this division between the spirit and the body. Because in religion, god became the symbol of the spirit and mind, and man was created in the image of god, so man represented spirit and mind. As for women, they were degraded to be the symbol of the body, of the devil and of bad manners.
IPS: You object to the Islamic veil, but also to women who wear revealing clothes or apply makeup. What are your reasons for this?
NS: Nakedness and veiling are two faces of the same coin. If a woman is naked in public, she’s a sex object in the capital market; and if she is veiled, she’s a sex object in the religious sense, because men should not look at her. But if I’m neither naked nor veiled, then I’m a human being.
The mentality of patriarchy is that women are an object just to be covered, or decorated, or naked.
IPS: Your writing has always been controversial, and not without cost. So why do you continue to write?
NS: I cannot stop. There is no way back. And why should I stop? I feel that my country is going backwards. People are afraid. Intellectuals are afraid to face the challenge of religious fundamentalism because they are scared of losing their jobs, or they have interests. Because, you know, religion has become a business – there’s a lot of money to be made speaking about religion.
I’ll be 80 in two years. My mother died when she was 45, so I’ve lived nearly double my mother’s lifetime. I’ve also lived longer than the average Egyptian, and have written 47 books. What more do I need? Nothing, except to liberate the mind. And how to do that? By [freeing it from] religion.