The following article was published in the May 2022 special issue of the International Review of Contemporary Law, the journal of the IADL, focusing on the 75-76 anniversary of the United Nations Charter.
I am very happy to be given the opportunity to honor Nawal El Saadawi, who has been such an inspiration in my life.
When I left Beirut in the sixties to study in the United States at the age of 19, I didn’t know she would have such an impact on my life. I had left Lebanon, my country of birth, in order to escape the plight of my Arab sisters and to find out who I was, away from the imprisonment I had experienced as an adolescent.
It was in the US that I discovered Simone de Beauvoir through a friend who compelled me to read her. She opened my eyes to the plight women face all over the world and provided many answers to the reasons I had left Lebanon to cross the ocean. It led me to commit my research and writing to women’s issues and more specifically to Arab women’s problems.
But it was Nawal el Saadawi in whom I found the strongest resonance with my dilemmas and concerns. She was analyzing and writing about the deep problems women in my part of the world were facing. She was the outspoken, eloquent voice of resistance I needed. It helped me to address and analyze what had troubled me so much that I had had to run away in order to discover other places where I felt I might gain freedom and a better understanding of myself.
I didn’t know it at the time, but when I started writing my first novel L’Excisée Nawal was publishing her work Al Mar’ah wal Gins in which she denounced all the barbaric practices women suffered. They included genital mutilation (to which she was subjected), polygamy, beating, and lack of freedom of all types. She was dismissed from her job at the Ministry of Health because of her revolutionary ideas and her books were banned. She left Egypt for a while to come to Lebanon where she worked at UNRWA and had her books reprinted. They became best sellers throughout the Arab world.
I started my career as a young professor at the University of Illinois and I included her books in my teaching. I discovered we had written about genital mutilation around the same time before knowing each other.
When I organized a conference on Gender and Third World Women at the University of Illinois as a young professor in the early eighties, I invited Naawal el Saadawi to deliver the keynote address. She had just been released from prison and had a great deal of back pain, but she gladly accepted my invitation. Her presence and her speech were central to this outstanding event. Her amazing presence uplifted us all. Women coming from various horizons to hear about women’s struggles and how to overcome the insidiousness of patriarchy felt uplifted by a woman like Nawal who was overcoming so many odds and nevertheless stood up with courage, resistance and resiliency.
The event was our first encounter; it was the beginning of a long friendship and moments of support sometimes from far and at other times in meetings through conferences or visits in Paris, Beirut, Cairo or the US. I remember a special time at La Fête de l’Humanité in Paris on a rainy day when we laughed a lot and shared our activism with a sense of deep sisterhood. She would always ask me to sing and whenever she knew I was coming to a conference she would ask me to bring my guitar and sing. I composed a song with her in mind. I would like to dedicate it to her as I conclude my remembrance of this remarkable woman and a friend without whom I feel a great loss now that she has left us.
Resist, Nawal, Resist
Resist, resist, resist
For all of us resist
For the rest of the world, resist
Kawmi, Nawal Kawmi
Lil alam kuluhu, kawmi
Diren (Turkish) Lawan (Malaysian, Indonesian)
Makibaka (Philippino) Jaago (Urdu, Pakistani)
Résiste, résiste, résiste
Pour tous les peuples, résiste
Pour transformer le monde, résiste
We are all women, we are all women
Last summer we were all Lebanese
Seventy years for Palestine
One day in January, all Turks were Armenians
All Turks were Armenians
We are with the suffering
The wounded of the world, the wounded of the earth
Sexuality is the order of the world
Bring down the walls, give hope to all
Bring down the walls, give hope to all
Resist, Nawal, resist
You taught us to resist
We are so thankful to you Nawal