She is founder and president of the Arab Women's Solidarity Association and co-founder of the Arab Association for Human Rights. She has been awarded honorary degrees on three continents. In 2004, she won the North–South Prize from the Council of Europe. In 2005, she won the Inana International Prize in Belgium, and in 2012, the International Peace Bureau awarded her the 2012 Seán MacBride Peace Prize.
Nawal el Saadawi has held the positions of Author for the Supreme Council for Arts and Social Sciences, Cairo; Director General of the Health Education Department, Ministry of Health, Cairo, Secretary General of the Medical Association, Cairo, Egypt, and medical doctor at the University Hospital and Ministry of Health. She is the founder of the Health Education Association and the Egyptian Women Writers' Association; she was Chief Editor of Health Magazine in Cairo, and Editor of Medical Association Magazine.
The second-eldest of nine children, Saadawi was born in 1931 in the small village of Kafr Tahla. Her family was at once traditional and progressive: El Saadawi was "circumcised" (her clitoris cut off) at the age of six, yet her father insisted that all his children be educated.
Her father was a government official in the Ministry of Education, who had campaigned against the rule of the British occupation of Egypt and Sudan during the Egyptian Revolution of 1919. As a result, he was exiled to a small town in the Nile Delta, and the government punished him by not promoting him for 10 years. He was relatively progressive and taught his daughter self-respect and to speak her mind. He also encouraged her to study the Arabic language. Both her parents died at a young age, leaving Saadawi with the sole burden of providing for a large family.
Saadawi graduated as a medical doctor in 1955 from Cairo University. That year she married Ahmed Helmi, whom she met as a fellow student in medical school. The marriage ended two years later. Through her medical practice, she observed women's physical and psychological problems and connected them with oppressive cultural practices, patriarchal oppression, class oppression and imperialist oppression.
While working as a doctor in her birthplace of Kafr Tahla, she observed the hardships and inequalities faced by rural women. After attempting to protect one of her patients from domestic violence, Saadawi was summoned back to Cairo. She eventually became the Director of the Ministry of Public Health and met her third husband, Sherif Hatata, while sharing an office in the Ministry of Health. Hetata, also a medical doctor and writer, had been a political prisoner for 13 years. They married in 1964 and have a son and a daughter. Saadawi divorced Hetata after 43 years of marriage.
In 1972, she published Woman and Sex (المرأة والجنس), confronting and contextualising various aggressions perpetrated against women's bodies, including female circumcision. The book became a foundational text of second-wave feminism. As a consequence of the book and her political activities, Saadawi was dismissed from her position at the Ministry of Health. She also lost her positions as chief editor of a health journal, and as Assistant General Secretary in the Medical Association in Egypt. From 1973 to 1976, Saadawi worked on researching women and neurosis in Ain Shams University's Faculty of Medicine. From 1979 to 1980, she was the United Nations Advisor for the Women's Programme in Africa (ECA) and the Middle East (ECWA).
Long viewed as controversial and dangerous by the Egyptian government, Saadawi helped publish a feminist magazine in 1981 called Confrontation. She was imprisoned in September by President of Egypt Anwar Sadat. She was released later that year, one month after the President's assassination. Of her experience she wrote: "Danger has been a part of my life ever since I picked up a pen and wrote. Nothing is more perilous than truth in a world that lies."
Saadawi was one of the women held at Qanatir Women's Prison. Her incarceration formed the basis for her memoir, Memoirs from the Women's Prison (Arabic: مذكرات في سجن النساء , 1983). Her contact with a prisoner at Qanatir, nine years before she was imprisoned there, served as inspiration for an earlier work, a novel titled Woman at Point Zero (Arabic: امرأة عند نقطة الصفر, 1975).
In 1988, when her life was threatened by Islamists and political persecution, Saadawi was forced to flee Egypt. She accepted an offer to teach at Duke University's Asian and African Languages Department in North Carolina, as well as at the University of Washington. She has since held positions at a number of prestigious colleges and universities including Cairo University, Harvard, Yale, Columbia, the Sorbonne, Georgetown, Florida State University, and the University of California, Berkeley. In 1996, she moved back to Egypt. Saadawi thus speaks fluent English in addition to her native Egyptian Arabic.
She has continued her activism and considered running in the 2005 Egyptian presidential election, before stepping out because of stringent requirements for first-time candidates.
She was awarded the 2004 North–South Prize by the Council of Europe.
She was among the protesters in Tahrir Square in 2011. She has called for the abolition of religious instruction in the Egyptian schools.
Saadawi began writing early in her career. Her earliest writings include a selection of short stories entitled I Learned Love (1957) and her first novel, Memoirs of a Woman Doctor (1958). She has since written numerous novels and short stories and a personal memoir, Memoir from the Women's Prison (1986). Saadawi has been published in a number of anthologies, and her work has been translated from the original Arabic into more than 30 languages, including English, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Italian, Dutch, Finnish, Indonesian, Japanese, Persian, Turkish, Urdu and others.
In 1972, she published her first work of non-fiction, Women and Sex, which evoked the antagonism of highly placed political and theological authorities. It also led to her dismissal at the Ministry of Health. Other works include The Hidden Face of Eve, God Dies by the Nile, The Circling Song, Searching, The Fall of the Imam and Woman at Point Zero.
She contributed the piece "When a woman rebels" to the 1984 anthology Sisterhood Is Global, edited by Robin Morgan.
Saadawi's novel Zeina was published in Lebanon in 2009. The French translation was published under the pseudonym Nawal Zeinab el Sayed, using her mother's maiden name.
She sees the question of translation into English or French as "a big problem" linked to the fact that
"the colonial capitalist powers are mainly English- or French-speaking.... I am still ignored by big literary powers in the world, because I write in Arabic, and also because I am critical of the colonial, capitalist, racist, patriarchal mind set of the super-powers."
At a young age, Saadawi underwent the process of female genital mutilation. As an adult she has written about and criticized this practice. She responded to the death of a 12-year-old girl, Bedour Shaker, during a genital circumcision operation in 2007 by writing: "Bedour, did you have to die for some light to shine in the dark minds? Did you have to pay with your dear life a price ... for doctors and clerics to learn that the right religion doesn't cut children's organs." As a doctor and human rights activist, Saadawi is also opposed to male circumcision. She believes that both male and female children deserve protection from genital mutilation.
In a 2014 interview Saadawi said that "the root of the oppression of women lies in the global post-modern capitalist system, which is supported by religious fundamentalism".
When hundreds of people were killed in what has been called a "stampede" during the 2015 pilgrimage (Hajj) of Muslims to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, she said:
"They talk about changing the way [the hajj] is administered, about making people travel in smaller groups. What they don’t say is that the crush happened because these people were fighting to stone the devil. Why do they need to stone the devil? Why do they need to kiss that black stone? But no one will say this. The media will not print it. What is it about, this reluctance to criticize religion? ... This refusal to criticize religion ... is not liberalism. This is censorship."
She has said that elements of the Hajj, such as kissing the Black Stone, had pre-Islamic pagan roots.
Because el Saadawi is an atheist is and not a Muslim, but her husband is, she had to fight in court for five months to have her marriage recognised.
Saadawi describes the Islamic veil as "a tool of oppression of women". She is also critical about the objectification of women and female bodies without male bodies in patriarchal social structures common in Europe and the US.
In a 2002 lecture at the University of California, Saadawi described the US-led war on Afghanistan as "a war to exploit the oil in the region", and US foreign policy and its support of Israel as "real terrorism". Saadawi has opined that Egyptians are forced into poverty by US aid.
Saadawi is the subject of the film She Spoke the Unspeakable, directed by Jill Nicholls, broadcast in February 2017 in the BBC One series Imagine.2007 Honorary Doctorate, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium
2007 Honorary Doctorate, Université libre de Bruxelles, Belgium
2010 Honorary Doctorate, National Autonomous University of Mexico, Mexico
2011 Stig Dagerman Prize