Nawal El Saadawi: Biography, Books & Quotes

Instructor: Jacob Belknap

Jake has taught English in middle and high school, has a degree in Literature, and has a master's degree in teaching.

Egyptian feminist author Nawal El Saadawi is well known for her activism, and she is also a successful psychiatrist and medical doctor. Read further to learn more about this revolutionary woman, as well as for an overview of her most important books and quotes.

Biography and Education

Nawal El Saadawi is an Egyptian feminist writer who has been called the ''Simone de Beauvoir of the Arab world'' (Beauvoir was an important French writer and feminist) and ''Egypt's most fiery feminist.'' She is also a physician, activist, and psychiatrist.

El Saadawi was born in the small village of Kafr Tahla in Egypt in 1931. Her family was traditional, as evidenced by her circumcision at six, but also progressive, as evidenced by her father pushing his children to become educated. El Saadawi went to Cairo University, where she gained her MD in 1955. She attended Columbia University in New York to earn her Master of Public Health in 1966, and she also performed psychiatric research at Ain Shams University in Cairo from 1972-1974.

Medical Career and Activism

After medical school, El Saadawi returned to her home of Kafr Tahla to work as a doctor. In 1963 she was appointed Director of Public Health Education. However, her position would become unsteady after her book Women and Sex was published in 1972. Controversy around this work led to her losing her job, and her three-year-old magazine al-Sihha was shut down.

Nawal El Saadawi exhibiting her typical passion during a speaking engagement.

Despite these setbacks, she continued writing, publishing, and campaigning for women's rights. She was imprisoned by the Sadat regime for three months in 1981.

Writing Career

El Saadawi's writing and professional career has been dedicated to political and sexual rights for women. She is the author of around 50 works, including novels, short stories, and plays, often containing subject matter considered controversial by the government of her home country. Her books condemn how women were and continue to be treated in the Middle East. She constantly challenges the status quo of patriarchal, religious, and capitalist power structures.


El Saadawi has earned several awards and honors. She was awarded the Stig-Dagerman Prize in 2011 by the Stig Dagerman Society and Älvkarleby municipality. This Swedish prize is awarded to a person or organization supporting the significance and availability of free speech and promotes empathy and inter-cultural understanding.

Additionally, she won the North-South Prize in 2004 by the North-South Center of the Council of Europe for her contributions in the fields of human rights protection, defense of pluralist democracy, promotion of public awareness about issues concerning global solidarity and interdependence, and reinforcement of the North-South partnership.

El Saadawi has also received three honorary doctorates. These honorary doctorates came from the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium in 2007; the Université libre de Bruxelles, Belgium in 2007; and the National Autonomous University of Mexico, Mexico.

Important Books

In her first autobiographical book A Daughter of Isis, the author tells of her personal experience with female genital mutilation. She wrote that when she was six years old, four women held her down while a midwife pulled out her clitoris and cut it off. ''Since I was a child that deep wound left in my body has never healed,'' she writes. In this book, she writes of how the use of words became an act of rebellion against injustice.

Woman at Point Zero is a novel published in 1975. This story tells of a fictional character Firdaus who agrees to tell her life story before her execution for murder. It is based on El Saadawi's meeting with a female prisoner in Qanatir Prison. The novel explores the subjugation of women, female circumcision, and women's freedom in a patriarchal society.

El Saadawi at a protest in Tarir.

Memoirs from the Women's Prison, published in 1986, tells of her 1981 imprisonment for ''crimes against the state.'' She documents the women's resistance to state violence and the formation of women's communities. Crossing religious lines, several women worked together to demand better conditions in the prison.

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