“If society remains overwhelmingly oppressive, women cannot gain more rights”, says Nawal Al-Saadawi. The 78-year-old Egyptian author and self-proclaimed feminist is known worldwide for her keen political beliefs. On 8 March, she visited Copenhagen to participate in the 100th anniversary celebrations of International Women’s Day.
“I’m here to celebrate International Women’s Day because, when it comes to the fight for women’s rights, I don’t differentiate between the fight at national and international level.” So explained the gray-haired Nawal Al-Saadawi determinedly to Women Dialogue when I met her in Copenhagen during the 100th anniversary International Women’s Day celebrations. 
 
The feminist author Nawal Al-Saadawi is particularly concerned with the overall improvement of basic political rights. She believes that this issue is key in the fight to improve equality and women’s rights, both in the Arab world and internationally. 
 
Originally educated as a medical doctor, Nawal Al-Saadawi is particularly well known for her prolific work as an author, her political activity in Egypt, and as a political commentator in the field of improved women’s rights within the Middle East. 
 

Ecomomic factors play a key role

“The economic downturn means that the gap between the wealthy and the poor is widening, and racism and oppression of ethnic and religious minorities is spreading”, stresses Al-Saadawi. Al-Saadawi believes that women are particularly hard hit, and she points out that there is a growing “feminisation of poverty”. “When the economic situation starts to deteriorate,” she adds, “women are the first in the firing line when employees start cutting back.” 
 
However, Al-Saadawi highlights the fact that Arab women in the Middle East are facing far greater challenges and it is her impression that poverty, political oppression and lack of reform constitute the most significant obstacles. 
 
“Women make up half of society, but women can’t achieve more rights if society remains overwhelmingly oppressive towards them. That’s why I link the oppression of women together with the general structure of society in my books and articles.” Al-Saadawi strongly believes that in Arab countries, there is unfortunately a large gap between the fight for women’s rights and the wider political struggle. 
 
“We’re facing huge challenges, but the root of all these problems is colonialism”, explains Al-Saadawi, who can see the reason for today’s gender issues based in the colonial past. 
 
She believes that Egyptian women’s organisations themselves must shoulder some of the blame for the fact that women’s rights have remained largely unchanged. 
 
“The majority of Egyptian women’s organisations are weak. Many receive donations from the West on condition that they tackle issues such as female circumcision”, she explains. 
 
According to Al-Saadawi, the work of these NGOs has become a means by which to control the women’s rights battle by pinning the focus on issues which serve the interests of western and domestic governments. By doing so, they hinder women from achieving concrete political rights as the NGOs keep civil rights – including women’s rights – detached from political rights. 
 
“NGOs work with superficial issues when they believe that the fight for women’s rights is about sex and personal problems. This shows great ignorance about how a society can be developed. There’s a need for greater political rights before women can attain civil rights.”
 
 “I believe that the majority of these NGOs have had a negative influence on the fight for greater rights for women. There are thousands of NGOs, but where are the results and what effect have they had? Women still hold little influence and their situation has deteriorated since these organisations have entered the scene.” Al-Saadawi points out the fact that the education of women, for example, is still lagging behind, and adds that the consequences of this are “the veiling and covering up of women, circumcision of small girls and a return towards polygamy.” 
 

“My pen is free”

As a direct result of the political situation and the overriding culture, Egyptian women are still without political influence, according to Al-Saadawi. She herself tried to create her own political career and stood as a candidate in the presidential elections of 2005. However, she was forced to withdraw her candidacy, as Egyptian law requires that presidential candidates be affiliated to an authorised political party – a law that Al-Saadawi believes ruined her political career.
 

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“I chose to stand in the 2005 presidential election, but once it became clear to me that in fact I wouldn’t be able to stand as a candidate, I chose to fight in other ways. I no longer have faith in the political parties in Egypt. Neither the opposition nor the ruling party wants to have more people becoming involved in political life and are quite happy with the status quo.” 
 
Al-Saadawi believes that the way forward is more information and a better organisation of the Arab community. She for one is determined to do her utmost to achieve these two goals. 
 
I am the voice of the silent majority and my dream is that this majority will begin talking. I speak the language of common sense, I belong to no political party or group, my thoughts and my pen remain free – they have not been bought by anyone”, she concludes.