Nawal Saadawi, a Beacon of Feminism in the Arab World, Dies at 89

A renowned Egyptian feminist, psychiatrist and novelist, Saadawi's writings have stirred controversy for decades in an overwhelming conservative society

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Nawal Saadawi at a meeting called by the Union of Egyptian Writers in Cairo to express solidarity with her after lawsuit for 'insulting' Islam, in 2001.
Nawal Saadawi at a meeting called by the Union of Egyptian Writers in Cairo to express solidarity with her after lawsuit for 'insulting' Islam, in 2001.Credit: MARWAN NAAMANI / AFP

Nawal Saadawi, a renowned Egyptian feminist, psychiatrist and novelist, whose writings have stirred controversy for decades in an overwhelming conservative society, died of age-related health problems in Cairo on Sunday, officials said. She was 89.

Egypt’s Culture Minister Inas Abdel-Dayem mourned Saadawi’s passing, saying her writings had created a great intellectual movement.

Born in October 1931 in a Nile Delta village, just north of Cairo, Saadawi studied medicine in Cairo University and the Columbia University in New York. She worked as a psychiatrist and university lecturer and authored dozens of books. She was also a regular writer in Egyptian newspapers.

As a fierce advocate of women rights in Egypt and the Arab world, her writings focused mainly on feminism, domestic violence against women and religious extremism. She was a vocal opponent of female genital mutilation in Egypt and worldwide.

When she published her famous book, “Women and Sex” in 1972, she faced a storm of criticism and condemnation from Egypt's political and religious establishment. She also lost her job at the Health Ministry.

She was detained and jailed for two months in 1981 as part of a wide political crackdown waged by then-President Anwar Sadat. While in jail, Saadawi wrote down her experience in a book entitled: Memoirs from the Women’s Prison, using a roll of toilet paper and a cosmetic pencil.

Saadawi was the founder and head of the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association and co-founder of the Arab Association for Human Rights.

Nawal Saadawi during a demonstration in central Cairo, in 2004.Credit: Mona Sharaf/Reuters

In 2005, She was awarded the Inana International Prize in Belgium, a year after she received the North-South prize from the Council of Europe. In 2020, Time Magazine named her on their 100 Women of the Year list.

Because of her views, Saadawi faced several legal challenges, including accusations of apostasy from Islamists.

Saadawi was married three times, and is survived by a daughter and a son.

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