Vilified for Voicing Dissent

The rumors turned out to be true. Dr. Nawal al-Sadawi left Egypt and is now residing in Belgium. But she didn't just leave - she escaped. Around 10 days ago, al-Sadawi decided she was fed up with the phone threats, the campaign to discredit her and viscous insults posted on extremist Islamic groups' Web sites. She felt her life was in serious danger.

"Get out of the state of Islam," read one posting on a Web site; another stated, "kill them wherever you may find them," in reference to "enemies of the religion" or "enemies of the veil," as they are known. Al-Sadawi appeared on this blacklist.

The Egyptian government is not leaving the psychiatrist alone, even at the age of 76. A suit is still pending against her for insulting Islam, after she posted an article on her Web site supporting the position of her daughter, Muna Halmi, to name children according to the maternal, not only paternal, line. A previous suit filed against her is still pending. In the first round, the court did indeed decide not to hear the case, because it was not filed in accordance with standard legal procedures, but the person who filed the complaint against her, attorney Nabih al-Wahash, may resubmit the complaint at any time.

If that were not enough, the Madbuli Publishing House decided early this month to remove her book, "God Resigned at the Summit Conference," from the shelves, because it "offended religion." Despite this, the Egyptian ambassador to Belgium was asked to assist al-Sadawi as much as he could.

What angered the Islamicists this time? Everything - but her sarcasm and big mouth in particular. For example, in an article she wrote in 2004 for Al Hayat, after she announced she planned to run in the presidential elections in 2005, al-Sadawi attacked the Egyptian clerics who said a woman was unfit to serve as president of the state.

"The same clerics are completely opposed," she wrote, "to a woman serving as president of the state, because of her physiological qualities and because of the suffering she experiences during her period. Period? God of the universe, did menstruation stop Margaret Thatcher from being the prime minister? Does her period stop an Egyptian woman from toiling in the field just like the men from sunrise to sunset? After all, even pregnancy and giving birth do not stop the women who work in the fields and factories and offices and embassies. It's funny that these clerics mention the phrase 'menstruation,' because every woman active in politics here or in a presidential election campaign is over the age of 50, so where is the problem of menstruation?"

In the same article, al-Sadawi attacks religious women who "place the hijab [Islamic headscarf] over their brains" and allow themselves to be dragged along after the clerics who opposed her presidential candidacy. However, the presidential race is not what interests al-Sadawi, but rather making a political statement. Most of her fight focuses on the status of women in Egypt - especially the plight of young girls who fall victim to men.

In her book, "A Woman at Square One" (published in Israel by Gvanim), her heroine speaks with her aunt, who relates that her husband beats her: "I told her that my uncle is a respected sheikh who knows the religious laws thoroughly and it could not be that he beats his wife. And then she answered that men who know the religious laws well are specifically the ones who hit their wives, because after all, the religion permits a man to hit his wife."

Al-Sadawi has written over 40 books, and few of them have been translated into Hebrew. She is currently working on her biography, which will chronicle a feminist journey through Egyptian history.

Last month, al-Sadawi published another article in Al Hayat, blaming male society for the phenomenon of over two million street children in Egypt. She relates that a poor woman whose husband abandoned her and their two daughters, arrived at her Cairo clinic. Without any real income, the woman had to leave her home in the middle class Al-Maadi neighborhood and move to the impoverished Shubra area.

When she tried to transfer her daughters to a school in the Shubra neighborhood, she was told that she had to obtain her husband's approval to do so. She was unable to locate the deadbeat husband and her connections to the education minister were useless. In the end, she turned to her mother-in-law, who managed to persuade her son to submit the paperwork and permits needed to transfer the girls. However the husband set one condition: that his wife waive her monthly alimony payments in court.

"We must change the law," writes al-Sadawi, "so that a father will not be the exclusive custodian of the children. We must demand the removal of phrases such as 'the children of adultery,' 'children of the prohibited' or 'illegal children.' The law must be changed so that in a case where a husband leaves, the mother will have exclusive custody of the children, so that the education system will be changed and the Egyptian child can learn to respect his mother just as he respects his father, so that the mother's name will be given the same honor as the father's name and the children will be able to have their mother's name and not just their father's name."

In the face of harsh attacks, the popular religious authority, Youssef al-Kardawi, came to al-Sadawi's aid and said no Islamic ruling stipulated that a newborn had to be named after his father; he said this was simply a custom that existed "all over the world and not just in Islam."

However, al-Kardawi's remarks did not satisfy the extremist circles that determined that al-Sadawi's remarks were a form of heresy - and the punishment for heresy is execution.

Ironically, according to the testimony of Mahmoud Gama, a Muslim Brotherhood member and former president Anwar Sadat's physician, al-Sadawi was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood in the late 1940s and even wore a veil and organized women's prayer groups. This also came at a time when Sadat maintained close ties with the organization. Around 40 years later, it was Sadat who ordered al-Sadawi's arrest because she joined the vocal left-wing opposition.

Mubarak's Egypt is also giving al-Sadawi a hard time. This month, her book was banned. Meanwhile, she is trying to get a visa for a long-term stay in the U.S. where she spent five years in exile and of whose president, George W. Bush, she wrote: "What are the talents of the president of the United States, are there any thoughts in him? Am I now permitted to say: I think, therefore I'm not fit to be the president of the state?"