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Nawal Al Saadawi: “War Against Women, Women Against War — Waging War on the Mind”

Nawal Al Saadawi

Above is the amazing writer and revolutionary woman, Nawal El Saadawi, who is 78.  She is one of my sheroes.  On my old website, The Margins, I included a quote of Saadawi’s which I have often remembered and felt so encouraged by:

They say, “You are a savage and dangerous woman.”  I said, “I am speaking the truth.   And the truth is savage and dangerous.”

Saadawi knows whereof she speaks.   Saawadi is a medical doctor.  After having set up the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association in 1981, the first legal, independent feminist organisation in Egypt, she was jailed under then-president Anwar Sadat.  She was released only after Sadat’s assassination.   In 1991  Sawadi’s name appeared on a fundamentalist death list and she was forced into exile for four years.  During the year 2002 a campaign was launched against her by fundamentalists who accused her of apostasy and who brought suit in Egyptian Personal Law Courts demanding that she be divorced from  her husband, the novelist, medical doctor and activist Sherif Hetata.

Always controversial, she most recently caused an uproar when she endorsed the view of her daughter, journalist Mona Helmi,  that children should be named after their mothers, not their fathers.  Her books  have been routinely banned in Arab countries.

She’s in the news today because an Egyptian publisher has removed her recently published book, God Resigns in the Summit Meeting, from the shelves because it “offends religion.”

In response to withdrawing her book from the shelves and book fair, Sawaadi said,  “My book contains nothing offensive to religion. This confiscation is a violation of the reader’s right to choose and judge the worth of a book for themselves. These people want to stifle our imagination. If my ideas are questioned and suspected, they should be debated, not suppressed. A work of art should be judged by the critics, not religious clerics or government bureaucrats…

“I feel worried about the future of Egypt whose young people are denied a real chance to be educated and exercise their minds. Confiscation provides a breeding ground for extremism.”

Following are excerpts from a speech Saadawi gave in 2004 at the World Social Forum entitled War Against Women, Women Against War — A War Against the Mind, which is a classic, so far as I’m concerned, and right on time for the situation Saadawi is facing now and for the situation of all of us as women, throughout the world.   I have bolded the portions that are most striking to me but it is all so well worth your time to read. 

[The public call to prayer I heard] as a girl was beautiful to hear. It wafted over the city in soft and sometimes musical tones.Now it has become a cacophony of strident vengeful voices, a threatening call shot through with violence. It strikes fear into the hearts of people, tears them from the depths of sleep in the dark hours of early dawn, is repeated throughout the day until at night exhausted they lie down on a floor, or in a bed to be awakened the following dawn in the name of godly worship. The call to prayer, the sermons and religious teachings pouring out in an incessant stream of loud and angry voices from ninety thousand microphones spread over the country encroaching on peoples’ right to rest and to silence are a form of war.

This is one of the many wars unleashed on millions of peaceful people since Sadat came to power in 1971 and reopened the doors to American neo-imperialism. It was Sadat in agreement with the United States administration of Nixon and Kissinger who encouraged and supported the political movement of Islamic fundamentalism, helped it to flourish and grow. It was Sadat who … paved the way for the World Bank, for foreign multi-national capital, and for Islamic fundamentalism. He needed an internal ally, the support of a political, economic, and cultural Islamic movement to fight against the democratic and more socially oriented parties and movements which opposed his policies. It was in this way that during his regime, international capital, spearheaded by the United States in alliance with the ruling class reimposed its domination on women, men and children and paved its way under the guise of restoring the values and practices of Islam, of Islamic traditions and of the family unit as basic to the health and prosperity of society.

The multinationals and their intermediaries hid behind the cloak of Islam, of a revived religious fundamentalism.  This was a war on the mind of people, a campaign launched to control and domesticate their thinking, a religious brainwashing required to facilitate and hide what capital was planning to do with their land, with their life. This war on the mind is a global phenomenon. The growing influence exercised by political fundamentalist movements is a development which has taken place in many countries in both the East and the West, even though it is particularly visible in the Arab region as a result of the close cooperation which exists between local dictatorial and corrupt regimes on the one hand and United States neo-imperialists allied to the aggressive Zionist rulers of Israel on the other. The neo-conservative, neo-colonial forms have dealt severe blows to the more progressive, more socially oriented movements and political parties in the Arab countries.

The most furious attacks during the past thirty years have been directed against women considered as the main target by political fundamentalist movements. Control of women, domestication of their bodies and especially of their minds has always been considered by them as one of their most important, if not their most important aims. This is manifest in the banning of many women’s groups and associations during the past years.   In 1991 for example the Egyptian branch of the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association was shut down by a government decree because it denounced the war waged on Iraq by a coalition of more than thirty countries led by the United States. The invasion of Iraq in 1991 led to more than 150,000 deaths most of them women and children.

The thirteen years of economic embargo enforced on that country mainly under American and British pressure led to two million deaths most of which were among children and women, always the first victims of scarcity and hunger in patriarchal societies. To prevent women from fighting back against war and increased exploitation their organizations must be dissolved when they arise as has happened so often.  More effective is to prevent them from arising by draconian laws such as the law on associations promulgated two years ago in Egypt. But perhaps best of all is to prevent them from thinking of change, of organizing for change, of seeking ways to resist. Whence the repeated banning of books and articles, T.V. programs discussing the situation of women, criticizing religious fundamentalist thought, exposing patriarchal values and practices, extolling democracy, real democracy and not the electoral farce of capitalist pluralism, or defending the rights of women, whence also the vicious attacks, the accusations of apostasy, the threats of physical assassination and the campaigns of character assassination launched against public figures, writers, journalists or activists whether women or men who dare to defend the rights of women, unless they belong to the establishment, and come forward with demands which adapt women to corporate consumer values and norms of behaviour favourable to a “free market” catering for affluent or relatively affluent middle class and upper class women. It is a ferocious war waged against the minds of both women and men, but especially women because it is only women who can liberate women and in so doing constitute a tremendous force for the liberation of society as a whole.

In this war women are besieged by a double pincer assault that of “corporate consumerism” and a “free market” on the one hand and “religious political fundamentalism” on the other ostensibly at odds but actually combining to maintain the subjugation of women, to control their minds and their bodies by patriarchal imprisonment, veiling, domestication and subjugation where fear and obedience become prime movers, or by a pseudo freedom built on sexual commercialization of their bodies and various forms or degrees of prostitution, by transforming them into cheap labour in the informal or sweat sector or in free trade areas, or in services. However in our area the most dangerous and pervasive forces in the war on women’s minds are those of political religious fundamentalism at home in the traditionalist conservative social structure of our societies. For it serves to conceal, to perpetuate, to reinforce and to rationalize the economic, political, social and cultural exploitation of international corporate capital and United States imperialism made easier by the adaptability and versatility resulting from new technologies in the field of information and communication. Countries like ours are described as “poor” or “backward” or “Third World”. We are not poor. The Arab countries are amongst the richest countries of the world due to their immense natural and human resources. But their riches in labour, mineral, fossil or other resources continue to be poured into the pipe lines of foreign plunder by the capitalist, corporate World Bank, World Trade Organization “free market” mechanisms of unequal trade balances, foreign debt, speculation, currency devaluation and exchange, structural adjustment and investment policies. A military and economic war, a trade in arms, in human beings, an economic genocide continues to drain the life blood of our lands.

In Egypt poverty has increased at an alarming rate as a result of “open door” free market policies, and privatization of industry as well as of many services. Over 40% of the population mainly women and children live under the poverty line of two dollars a day. The feminization of poverty is visible everywhere. Five million women are occupied as small producers in workshops, in services, trade etc.. or as female labour. Their monthly income often does not exceed 40 US dollars per month for a working day of 10 hours. Their lot is almost always worse than that of men because they are unorganized and have little political power or representation.They constitute only 2% of the members in the Peoples Assembly (Parliament) and only 1% of the members in local assemblies (district and village councils) and these women representatives are not interested in women’s rights. Our region has lived through many wars mainly due to its rich oil resources which made it the prey of the colonialists and the neo-colonialists serving the interests of international and multi-national capital. …

Women and children are the weakest section of our populations, the first and the worst victims of these massacres. In my village Kafr Tahla many women continue to wear mourning for fathers, brothers, husbands or other relatives killed in war. Many of them find it hard to feed themselves after the loss of a bread winner. Wars have become terribly destructive due to the development of sophisticated technologically advanced weapons. The worst are called weapons of mass destruction but there are so called conventional weapons which are almost as bad (two ton bombs, laser directed one ton rockets, cluster bombs, bombs that suck up the oxygen around them where they explode, rockets coated with depleted uranium etc.) …Nuclear, biological and chemical weapons threaten the lives of millions of people and above all unprotected women and children. Yet perhaps the most lethal and the most dangerous weapons of all are those that brain wash, or anaesthetize, or paralyse the mind, namely the media, the educational systems and above all the religious fundamentalist teachings which create a “false consciousness” among men and among women who constitute more than half the population of my country and more than half the populations of the world. False consciousness makes women obedient instruments of their own oppression, and transmitters of this false consciousness to future generations of children, of girls and boys. It is lethal because what it does to women’s minds is not visible. Unlike physical female genital mutilation it is an invisible gender mutilation which destroys the dynamism, the capacity to understand what is happening, to react and resist, to change, to participate in making changes. It destroys the essential creativity of the human mind. It instills fear, obedience, resignation, illusions, an inability to decide or it leads women to make decisions, to take positions, to defend values and ideas inimical to their own interests, to the health and development of their life. t makes women their own enemy, incapable of discerning friend from foe.  Arab women are being driven to enslave themselves.

…The spread of war in the Arab region, the daily massacres directed against civilian populations in Palestine and Iraq, the threat of other imperialist wars against Syria and Iran with which the Bush and Sharon administrations are closely linked, the terror exercised by corporate militarization and by local police states seeking to keep their peoples in check, the military bases dotted over the area, the atmosphere of growing violence leads to more and more patriarchal violence outside and in the home. With violence fear grows in the hearts and minds of women, makes them more and more obedient, prone to yield to the slightest pressure and accept their fate without resistance, to change. It affects women more than men because they are ruled over by men, by the violence exercised within the family, at the work place, in public life, in the religious institutions. Fear is the midwife of slavery. Poverty combines with violence to instill even greater fear in women. Economic insecurity, the struggle for survival not only instills fear, it preoccupies the mind, exhausts the energy, the vitality leaves no time, no driving force to do anything else, to fight, to resist, to organize.

In Egypt 81% of female university and technical school graduates are unemployed. The Egyptian government faced with a public debt of 156 milliard pounds equivalent to 137% of gross national income has borrowed 146 milliard pounds from the national social security fund in an attempt to redress the balance of payments and continues to seek different subterfuges in order not to pay them back. Most of this money serves to keep women, widows, single women and female children who have no independent income alive. Their dependence on male members of the family tends to grow making them more vulnerable to patriarchal oppression and violence, more prone to resignation and fear.

The neo–imperialist alliance with political religious fundamentalism. Why during the last three decades and until quite recently have the neo–imperialists cooperated with Islamic (as well as Jewish) and other religious fundamentalists all over the world? Why did the Texan oil interests, the Bush family, the CIA cooperate for so long with the most radical Islamic wing of the ruling Wahabite dynasty in Seoudi Arabia and engender Ben Laden, his coterie of cadres and his 35,000 strong army of guerrillas in Afghanistan? Why did they encourage and nurture the Islamic fundamentalist movement in the Arab countries, in Africa and Asia. It is the age old use of religion in power politics by ruling classes needed by them especially in an age where wealth is concentrated in the hands of a shrinking minority. An integral part of this political utilization of religion is the war on women to decapitate them, to make them bodies without a mind. The capitalist corporations make them bodies for commerce, for consumption, for sexual pleasure. The Islamic fundamentalist mercantile capitalists imprison them as bodies for the use of men at home, in the family in reproduction, in caring and nurturing the males. The neo–corporate rulers of the world use military force violence, police, prisons and economic servitude to protect and reinforce the class patriarchal neo-colonial system but they know that force alone is not enough. They fear the human mind and they fear the minds of women above all. Women are the rock bottom of society, of the family unit, of the home, the connective tissue of society, the mainstay of economic life, the producers and reproducers. They shoulder 90% of all the work but own only 10% of what is owned. Women on the move will change the world, will give birth to another world. Four hundred and thirty one men own as much as more than half the population of the world, the gap between the rich and the poor grows deeper and wider every year. The Bushs, the Blairs, the Chiracs, the Sharons, the Mosharafs, the Vajpayees and the kings and rulers of the Arab world, the five hundred multinationals controlling 80% of trade and investment in the world, the military industrial complex, the neo-conservative, neo-imperialists of the United States with their control of the media, with their laser and atomic weapons, their permanent military bases in 36 countries and their military presence in 120 of the 189 countries of our globe, with their global outreach and global market enmeshing our lives everywhere constitute a super force more rich, more powerful, more aggressive than history has even known before. Nevertheless women in the Arab region, in Iraq, in Palestine, in Egypt, in Syria, in Lebanon, in Morocco, in Bahrain, in Seoudi Arabia have never stopped struggling side by side with women in the United States, in Latin America, in Iran, in Afghanistan, in India, in
Asia against gender oppression, for peace, democracy and social justice. They have never stopped struggling in different ways against the brain washing of the media, against economic servitude and genocide, against militarization carried on at the expense of health, education, environmental protection, economic security, and employment. They have never stopped struggling to protect themselves and their children against prostitution and slave labour.

Hundreds of thousands of women have marched in demonstrations all over the world for peace against war, for democracy against violence, for women’s right to own their bodies and their minds against patriarchal enslavement. Women in the Arab countries have succeeded in changing laws, have imposed themselves on many sectors of economic and social activity, have changed values considered as eternal, have drawn increasing numbers of young men into the struggle against gender discrimination. The movement against corporate militaristic capitalism is a growing superpower of the people, is a movement with a potential, a richness, a democratic content, a versatility, a promise for real participative democracy, for peace and real justice which the world has never known before. …we must all remember that for many years, for much too long women have been banished, have been exiled by the most progressive, the most democratic, the most socialistic movements, and even to varying extents by the local and global social forums of the world. …the road to making gender an integral part of the struggles for another better world is still long. A better world is not possible, without freeing the minds and bodies of women, from the class patriarchal control exercised by corporate capitalism on the one hand and religious fundamentalism on the other. There will be no better world without organizing women everywhere, there will be no peace, no justice, no real democracy. But it is only women, women themselves, who can free themselves from all forms of gender oppression and so become a vital dynamic force capable of creating another world.

Nawal Al Saadawi’s Website 

Link to article about the banning of her latest book




7 thoughts on “Nawal Al Saadawi: “War Against Women, Women Against War — Waging War on the Mind”

  1. Thank you so much for linking Nawal El Saadawi’s website and posting her words here. What an amazing woman! I read every word you posted, and I also find the message timely, especially her take on the neo–imperialist alliance with political religious fundamentalism. As she points out, this isn’t just an Islamic phenomenon; can I just say “family values”? In the U.S. we saw the growth of the Christian right in the 1970’s in direct opposition to the feminist movement here. Now much of the left has caved in too, selling out women first in order to find so-called common ground.

    Many patriarchs in many camps would have us believe that there is no such thing as Arab or “Third-world” feminists, that Western women have just stirred up trouble among the contented women of the world. Whether these are cultural relativists on the left or social conservatives on the right, such attitudes are patronizing, racist and misogynist. As Nawal said,

    “Nevertheless women in the Arab region, in Iraq, in Palestine, in Egypt, in Syria, in Lebanon, in Morocco, in Bahrain, in Saudi Arabia have never stopped struggling side by side with women in the United States, in Latin America, in Iran, in Afghanistan, in India, in Asia against gender oppression, for peace, democracy and social justice.”

    Very inspiring.

    Posted by roamaround | February 9, 2007, 2:00 am
  2. Oh good, love it that you enjoyed this as much as did, roamaround. This is an amazing woman– I can’t get enough of her writings.


    Posted by womensspace | February 9, 2007, 4:47 am
  3. It is no surprise fundamentalists feel too threatened by the power of her words to let her express herself freely. She is not afraid to speak truth to power, which heresy fundamentalists can never tolerate, especially coming from a woman. There is nothing more challenging to the powers that be than organizing women. As she says, there will be no better world without organizing women everywhere, there will be no peace, no justice, no real democracy. Men in power do not want peace, justice, or real democracy; they have too much at stake in preserving the status quo which keeps them in power.

    Posted by Aletha | February 10, 2007, 7:29 am
  4. OK, so how do we get the book or have it published by another publisher? How can this campaign be stopped? We can’t leave it at this, can we? J. Beck

    Posted by Joyce L. S. Beck | February 24, 2007, 3:47 am
  5. Joyce, I’ve been following this and found this today:

    All copies of Egyptian feminist writer, activist and medical doctor Nawal Al Saadawi’s latest book, God Resigns in the Summit Meeting, were removed from circulation and destroyed last week by her publisher Mahmoud Madbouli, according to German news service Deutsche Press Agenter. Madbouli said he withdrew the book once he learned it “offended readers’ religious sensitivities.” Claiming his decision to remove and shred all copies of the text was not political, Madbouli admitted to Deutsche Press Agenter that security police witnessed the destruction.

    Media Resources: Gulf News 2/7/07; Deutsche Press Agenter (dpa) 2/16/07; “Female Genital mutilation” Nawal El Saadawi, February 2007

    I don’t know whether it can be published elsewhere or what the legalities might be. Presumably she signed a contract with the company that destroyed her books. Who knows what rights she gave them?

    Very frightening. 😦


    Posted by Heart | February 24, 2007, 4:46 am
  6. It saddens me that someone who is so sweet and is only fighting for Human Rights is being persecuted. I have always believed that religion causes misery and I see it quite clearly in this woman’s life. She is right though, religion is used to control and oppress, which is very sad.

    Posted by Mriana | April 20, 2007, 12:28 pm


  1. Pingback: Friendly Atheist » Nawal El Saadawi - April 19, 2007

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