Nawal El-Saadawi, a Heroine in Prison

15 October, 2022


Ibrahim Fawzy


“I opened my eyes that first morn­ing in gaol and found no water in the tap, no tooth­brush or tooth­paste or soap or tow­el or show­er. The toi­let was a hole in the ground, minus door and flush, over­flow­ing with sewage, water and cock­roach­es.” This is how Naw­al El Saadawi (1931–2021) delin­eates the very first day of her impris­on­ment in the famous Cairo prison, Qanatir, in 1981. El Saadawi soon began writ­ing her book Mudhkirātī fī sijn al-nisāʾ (Mem­oirs from the Women’s Prison, trans­lat­ed by Mar­i­lyn Booth), describ­ing her night­mar­ish expe­ri­ence in a tomb-like women’s cell along with oth­er female polit­i­cal pris­on­ers and intel­lec­tu­als, includ­ing Lat­i­fa al-Zayy­at, Ami­na Rachid, and Awatif Abdul­Rah­man. In her prison mem­oirs, she doc­u­ment­ed the incar­cer­a­tion of a large num­ber of female pris­on­ers and their chil­dren in a ward with a space equal to that of the ward where 14 women were impris­oned. Stripped of her agency, El Saadawi chal­lenged a pow­er­ful despot­ic regime, such that to resist and sur­vive was an hero­ic act. The regime couldn’t be eas­i­ly defeat­ed or changed; with­draw­al and pas­sive resis­tance were the avail­able meth­ods of resistance.

El Saadawi was a hero­ine behind bars because she man­aged to resist all types of tor­ture, despite being a woman with a weak con­sti­tu­tion. In Mem­oirs, hero­ic actions are total­ly absent, yet the great­est hero­ism behind high prison walls is to sur­vive, and not to sur­ren­der to the jail­ers’ humil­i­a­tion. In prison, El Saadawi tried valiant­ly to con­tin­ue her polit­i­cal strug­gle as well as women’s rights activism, and to keep in touch with the world outside.

El Saadawi is a renowned Egypt­ian writer, physi­cian and fem­i­nist whose dozens of pub­li­ca­tions on Egypt­ian and Arab women have been wide­ly trans­lat­ed into many lan­guages, and have inspired count­less women in the fem­i­nist move­ment, both in the Arab world and in west­ern coun­tries. She prac­ticed med­i­cine in Egypt and served as a direc­tor gen­er­al of the Health Edu­ca­tion Depart­ment of the Min­istry of Health in Cairo till her dis­charge in 1972 because of her out­spo­ken opin­ions, espe­cial­ly when her first non-fic­tion book, Al-Mar’ a wa al-Jins  (Women and Sex) reap­peared after being banned in Egypt for almost two decades because of the fem­i­nist argu­ments it advanced. She estab­lished the Arab Women Sol­i­dar­i­ty Asso­ci­a­tion as well as Noon Mag­a­zine, which were forced to close by the Egypt­ian gov­ern­ment in 1991.

Among many oth­er Egypt­ian intel­lec­tu­als, El Saadawi was arbi­trar­i­ly sent to prison for pub­licly oppos­ing then-Pres­i­dent Anwar Sadat’s eco­nom­ic and social poli­cies. She was held in Qanatir until her sen­tence was for­tu­nate­ly cut short after Sadat’s assas­si­na­tion on Octo­ber 6, 1981. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, her release didn’t bring her safe­ty. In the 1990s, fear­ing for her life in Cairo, El Saadawi spent three years in exile at Duke Uni­ver­si­ty in North Car­oli­na. And in the ear­ly 21st cen­tu­ry, she faced fre­quent chal­lenges from the Islam­ic author­i­ties, who accused her of apos­ta­sy. She was a speak­er and a vis­it­ing pro­fes­sor at var­i­ous uni­ver­si­ties in the Unit­ed States for over two decades, engag­ing in many pub­lic talks about oppres­sion at home. In 2005, she declared that she would stand for the pres­i­den­tial elec­tions against then-Pres­i­dent Hos­ni Mubarak, who had been in pow­er for 24 years at that point. Despite her ear­ly with­draw­al from elec­tions, her declared inten­tion was to moti­vate the Egyp­tians to call for con­sti­tu­tion­al amend­ments that allowed for sev­er­al can­di­da­cies for the pres­i­den­cy.  In 2011, at the age of 79, she joined demon­stra­tors in Tahrir Square in Cairo, in protests that led to the over­throw of Hos­ni Mubarak, the lat­est of her many con­fronta­tions with the author­i­ties, both sec­u­lar and religious.

Naw­al El-Sadaawi in her 20s.

“In prison, I learned what I had not learned in the Col­lege of Med­i­cine. The gecko had crawled over my body and noth­ing had hap­pened to me. Cock­roach­es had run over me and noth­ing had hap­pened,” says El Saadawi. Prison is one of the hard­est human expe­ri­ences; pris­on­ers are pri­mar­i­ly pun­ished by los­ing their free­dom. Prison leaves its marks not only on the pris­on­ers’ body but also on their psy­che because the author­i­ties and the guards humil­i­ate pris­on­ers, crush their will and dev­as­tate their sense of self. How­ev­er, despite its cru­el­ty, the expe­ri­ence of incar­cer­a­tion changes the pris­on­ers’ vision of life, and gives them the oppor­tu­ni­ty to devel­op their abil­i­ties of expres­sion, increase their aware­ness, and his­tori­cize their per­son­al expe­ri­ence against polit­i­cal con­text. Some polit­i­cal pris­on­ers are able to recon­struct their dev­as­tat­ed iden­ti­ties through the act of writ­ing, enabling them to regain con­trol over their life after the vio­la­tions of their human rights in the blind­ing absence of light — to bor­row the title of Taher Ben Jelloun’s fic­tion­al­ized mem­oir (tr. Lin­da Coverdale) — set behind prison walls. 

Men have a cen­tral posi­tion in the his­to­ry of polit­i­cal prison mem­oirs, because the tra­di­tion of male prison writ­ers has been deeply and wide­ly intro­duced in lit­er­a­ture as well as prison antholo­gies. Being exu­ber­ant and influ­en­tial, men’s prison mem­oirs gen­er­al­ly con­cen­trate on rebel­lious images. On the oth­er hand, rebel­lious images in women’s polit­i­cal prison mem­oirs are scarce, and rela­tions inside and out­side prison walls are highlighted.

Trans­la­tor Mar­cia Lynx Qua­ley pos­tu­lates that “in the genre of Arab prison writ­ing ـــــ from Egypt, Syr­ia, Iraq, and Moroc­co ــــــ it is men’s words that are bet­ter known.” The rea­son for the mar­gin­al­iza­tion of women’s polit­i­cal prison mem­oirs, one assumes, is par­tial­ly the mea­ger­ness of such nar­ra­tives, the result of the his­tor­i­cal­ly small num­ber of female prisoners.

El Saadawi got involved in pol­i­tics, a sup­pos­ed­ly male dom­i­nat­ed field. In Mem­oirs, she wrote, in evoca­tive lan­guage and metic­u­lous details, her Kafkaesque first-hand account of her incar­cer­a­tion and resis­tance to state vio­lence, pub­lished four months after her release, in the form of mem­oir, a male dom­i­nat­ed genre as well, to high­light her friend­ships, men­tal tri­umphs, ecsta­sy, tac­tics of sur­vival, and the var­i­ous forces of oppres­sion endured by Arab female pris­on­ers in par­tic­u­lar. In the book, El Saadawi man­i­fests the pow­er of con­trol exert­ed by the gov­ern­ment over the cit­i­zens, and the con­se­quent con­fis­ca­tion of cit­i­zens’ lib­er­ties and rights espe­cial­ly their right to express their views. She and her cell­mates were deprived of their sim­plest right as they were sent to prison because they just expressed their views. El Saadawi con­demns such an author­i­tar­i­an regime that puts the fates of thou­sands of cit­i­zens in the hands of one per­son; peo­ple are incar­cer­at­ed, and released on his orders. The mas­sive arrests, on charges rang­ing from spy­ing for the Sovi­et Union to sec­tar­i­an sedi­tion, car­ried out by Sadat’s secret ser­vice, did not dis­tin­guish between right and left, Mus­lim and Chris­t­ian, sec­tar­i­an and sec­u­lar, or even male and female.

Women’s incar­cer­a­tion expe­ri­ence is some­how dif­fer­ent from that of men because of women’s bio­log­i­cal fea­tures, and gen­der-based needs. Women are sex­u­al­ly humil­i­at­ed whether phys­i­cal­ly or ver­bal­ly behind high prison walls. Rape, forc­ing women to use the toi­lets while being watched by male guards, and forc­ing preg­nant women, on occa­sion threat­ened with the destruc­tion of their unborn babies, to give birth, and bring up their babies in the aus­tere envi­ron­ment of prison are destruc­tive weapons used by prison author­i­ties to crush female pris­on­ers’ identities.

Being polit­i­cal, com­mu­nal, and rad­i­cal, female polit­i­cal prison mem­oirs reflect women’s posi­tion in patri­ar­chal soci­eties. In his book, Dis­ci­pline and Pun­ish (trans­lat­ed by Alan Sheri­dan, 1995), Michel Fou­cault describes the mod­ern trend toward objec­ti­fi­ca­tion of the insti­tu­tion­al­ized female pris­on­er treat­ed as a flawed object that must be repaired. As for female polit­i­cal pris­on­ers, objec­ti­fi­ca­tion is inten­si­fied because they are already objec­ti­fied out­side prison walls. They are mar­gin­al­ized not only for being pris­on­ers but also for being females. Con­se­quent­ly, in addi­tion to impris­on­ment and depri­va­tion faced by any polit­i­cal pris­on­er, women, who are dou­ble-mar­gin­al­ized, fight against their stereo­typ­i­cal image imposed by soci­ety, and shown clear­ly inside pris­ons. Female polit­i­cal pris­on­ers are incar­cer­at­ed in their stereo­typ­i­cal image imposed by patri­ar­chal soci­eties as well as pris­ons of the despot­ic regimes.

The Mid­dle East has wit­nessed many dic­ta­tor­ships, tyran­ny, coups, and upheavals. As a result, polit­i­cal prison nar­ra­tives enjoy a strong pres­ence in Ara­bic lit­er­a­ture as they are exu­ber­ant and reflect their authors’ vary­ing back­grounds. Start­ing with the 1970s, prison lit­er­a­ture gained an unprece­dent­ed local and inter­na­tion­al promi­nence in the Arab world, yet writ­ings about prison expe­ri­ence have grad­u­al­ly been esca­lat­ed long before that. Lit­er­ary crit­ic Sabry Hafez locates the gen­e­sis of Ara­bic prison lit­er­a­ture in the colo­nial prison nov­el, par­tic­u­lar­ly Ihsan Abdel Quddous’s 1957 pop­u­lar title Fi Bayt­inā Rağul (A Stranger in Our Home). The late Egypt­ian nov­el­ist and aca­d­e­m­ic, Rad­wa Ashour, con­sid­ers polit­i­cal prison nar­ra­tives “a rich sub­genre of mod­ern Ara­bic lit­er­a­ture,” and notes that they “have been pro­duced by both men and women; by lib­er­als, com­mu­nists and Islamists…who have record­ed their prison expe­ri­ence in inter­views, oral tes­ti­monies and fragments.”

Despite being banned and cen­sored by author­i­ties, numer­ous nar­ra­tives of polit­i­cal impris­on­ment have been pub­lished by intel­lec­tu­als, pro­fes­sion­al writ­ers and for­mer polit­i­cal pris­on­ers who defied author­i­ties’ attempts to par­a­lyze cre­ativ­i­ty and por­trayed the cri­sis of free­dom in the region in a seri­ous attempt to find a solu­tion to it, and to cre­ate a counter-dis­course to that of the regimes. In the Arab/Muslim world, polit­i­cal prison lit­er­a­ture has blos­somed at dif­fer­ent moments. Moroc­co saw this genre grow after two failed coups d’état in 1971 and 1972 respec­tive­ly, dur­ing King Has­san II’s reign, known as “the Lead Years.” Unlike Moroc­co, where intel­lec­tu­als and activists were defy­ing an inti­mate ene­my, the sit­u­a­tion in Pales­tine has its own speci­fici­ty as thou­sands of Pales­tini­ans have expe­ri­enced polit­i­cal incar­cer­a­tion in their colo­nial enemy’s jails from 1948 till the present moment. Syr­ia wit­nessed clash­es between the regime of Hafez al-Assad, the Islam­ic groups and the sec­u­lar oppo­si­tion that led to the incar­cer­a­tion of many polit­i­cal pris­on­ers. In a sim­i­lar vein, polit­i­cal prison nar­ra­tives in Egypt are ample because a large num­ber of oppo­si­tion­al intel­lec­tu­als have been sub­ject­ed to polit­i­cal impris­on­ment. After the Egypt­ian rev­o­lu­tion in 1952, the coun­try wit­nessed mass impris­on­ment of dis­si­dents with two suc­ces­sive mil­i­tary decrees by Gamal Abdel Nasser’s regime: the first decree, in Decem­ber 1958, ordered the arrest of 169 dis­si­dents, while the sec­ond decree, in March 1959, ordered the arrest of 436 dis­si­dents. A cou­ple of decades lat­er, short­ly before his assas­si­na­tion, Sadat ordered the biggest roundup of oppo­nents of every stripe. More than 1,600 politi­cians and writ­ers who opposed his social and eco­nom­ic poli­cies were impris­oned. Most of the detainees, whether dur­ing Nass­er or Sadat’s regime, were intel­lec­tu­als who would write accounts of their prison expe­ri­ence. Writ­ers who sur­vived polit­i­cal prison expe­ri­ence in the Arab world, in gen­er­al, pub­lished a con­sid­er­able num­ber of nar­ra­tives that unveil the hor­rif­ic atmos­phere inside prisons.

The oppres­sion against women in the Mid­dle East­ern coun­tries has been doc­u­ment­ed by inter­na­tion­al human rights orga­ni­za­tions, in addi­tion to the tex­tu­al accounts, nar­ra­tives, mem­oirs and auto­bi­ogra­phies which ــــ out­side of El Saadawi’s Mem­oirs from the Women’s Prison — are less­er-known. Arab female polit­i­cal pris­on­ers, there­fore, man­aged to con­struct a new image of coura­geous women in a patri­ar­chal soci­ety, and defied the stereo­typ­i­cal image through get­ting involved in polit­i­cal activism. Addi­tion­al­ly, the act of writ­ing, per se, and the active role of Arab women have con­tributed to an artic­u­la­tion of a polit­i­cal ide­ol­o­gy, tran­scend­ing the bound­aries of gen­der, race, and eth­nic­i­ty. The act of writ­ing has also proved that women are capa­ble of being active agents of progress and change. Writ­ing, for El Saadawi, was a means of resis­tance that helped her doc­u­ment her strug­gle for sur­vival and main­tain­ing san­i­ty, gain her agency, and prove her­self as an active agent in soci­ety through a con­tri­bu­tion to the field of polit­i­cal prison lit­er­a­ture. El Saadawi’s voice meant life while silence meant death, and her pow­er­ful writ­ing enabled her to con­tin­ue her strug­gle. She wrote to give voice to oppressed and silenced women impris­oned in the wider prison of soci­ety. Gen­er­al­ly, El Saadawi’s views con­demn women’s posi­tion in soci­ety, and her prison mem­oir presents Arab female pris­on­ers as oppressed yet resistant.

Writ­ing about prison expe­ri­ence is regard­ed as the great­est men­ace to the sta­bil­i­ty of despot­ic regimes. El Saadawi nar­rates that the prison author­i­ties reject­ed the request for pen and paper, claim­ing that “it was eas­i­er to give a pis­tol than pen and paper.” Shocked by this line from a farce, El Saadawi writes, “I had not imag­ined that pen and paper could be more dan­ger­ous than pis­tols in the world of real­i­ty and fact.” El Saadawi did not sur­ren­der and clan­des­tine­ly man­aged to write her diaries on toi­let rolls and cig­a­rette papers at mid­night while she was sit­ting on top of the over­turned bot­tom of the jer­ry can.

Inter­est­ing­ly, El Saadawi exploit­ed the advan­tages relat­ed to her gen­der as a female pris­on­er as well as the quite lax sur­veil­lance of Qanatir prison. She hid her diaries inside her rollers, packed them in her suit­case, and smug­gled them out safe­ly upon her release. El Saadawi undoubt­ed­ly was filled with ecsta­sy and mer­ri­ment when she hid in a cor­ner to write her secret diaries while oth­ers were sleep­ing. El Saadawi’s feel­ing of hap­pi­ness was derived from a tem­po­rary sense that her mind was free even if her body was not. Addi­tion­al­ly, it might have been derived from over­com­ing obsta­cles and cre­at­ing aes­thet­ic plea­sure through accom­plish­ing some­thing meaningful.

From her very first day in prison, El Saadawi decid­ed to live as if she was not going to leave again. Inside pris­ons, time expands, and space shrinks. El Saadawi nar­rates the effect of this psy­cho­log­i­cal dimen­sion of time on her:

Time is no longer time. Time and the wall have merged into one. The air is motion­less. Noth­ing moves around me except the cock­roach­es and rats, as I lie on a thin rub­ber mat­tress which gives off the odor of old urine, my emp­ty hand­bag placed under my head.

Wait­ing annoyed her and turned mean­ing into mean­ing­less­ness, and time into time­less­ness. El Saadawi, there­fore, attempt­ed to short­en her time through men­tal jour­neys, and labor. She got the chance to plant veg­eta­bles, and enjoyed dig­ging as well as gar­den­ing. Iron­i­cal­ly, she found her­self free under duress. “I don’t know the secret of that repose or the hap­pi­ness which came over me all of a sud­den,” she writes, “per­haps it was the hap­pi­ness of self-dis­cov­ery, when there appears before one’s eyes a new courage or self-con­fi­dence of which one was pre­vi­ous­ly unaware, or when one dis­pers­es a fear or a phan­tom with which one has been living.”

El Saadawi nar­rates how she kept her body and mind sound by doing dai­ly exer­cise. She could sing a song while tak­ing a show­er for the first time since her deten­tion. She depicts expe­ri­ences that bear resem­blance to self-heal­ing. Poet­i­cal­ly, she recalls the moments of aes­thet­ic plea­sure and reflec­tion includ­ing the force­ful beat of her heart when she heard the attrac­tive war­ble of the curlew. She tried to see the curlew, so she jammed her head between two steel bars. Metaphor­i­cal­ly, she com­pares the curlew to “a mother’s voice, like offer­ing a prayer of sup­pli­ca­tion, like weep­ing, like a child’s abrupt, long laugh, or like a sin­gle scream in the night. Or an uneven sob­bing which goes on and on.”

Lyri­cal­ly, these impres­sion­is­tic metaphors do not only reflect her yearn­ing for free­dom but also mir­ror her ecsta­sy.  Cer­tain­ly, prison author­i­ty is pow­er­less against the nat­ur­al desire to have fun. El Saadawi nar­rates that she expe­ri­enced the para­dox­i­cal feel­ings of grief and joy behind prison high walls:

In prison I came to know both extremes togeth­er. I expe­ri­enced the height of grief and joy, the peaks of pain and plea­sure, the great­est beau­ty and the most intense ugli­ness. At cer­tain moments I imag­ined that I was liv­ing a new love sto­ry. In prison I found my heart opened to love — how, I don’t know — as if I were back in ear­ly adolescence.

She also nar­rates poet­i­cal­ly her emo­tion­al response to befriend­ing a young girl: “Hap­pi­ness, like infec­tion, spreads rapid­ly. I felt that I, too, had become a child, my heart filled with plea­sure. The pains in my back dis­ap­peared, and my body felt strong and ener­getic. I went to the steel-barred door: the dawn breeze mas­saged my face with invig­o­rat­ing mois­ture. The sky was still black, but the ear­ly light was creep­ing in slowly.”

In the cramped cell, El Saadawi and her cell­mates could carve their small space where they expressed var­i­ous forms of resis­tance. Budour (one of the female pris­on­ers), for instance, combed the hair of the Shāwīshah (female guard) so as to know what was hap­pen­ing in prison. More­over, female pris­on­ers formed an alliance to demand bet­ter con­di­tions, and to main­tain their san­i­ty in the con­fines of their nar­row cells. El Saadawi also nar­rates the sto­ries of crim­i­nal female pris­on­ers to unveil the socio-eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal struc­ture of Egypt dur­ing Sadat’s era. Fathiyya’s crime, for instance, was mur­der­ing her hus­band who had raped her daugh­ter; Fathiyya and many oth­ers were the vic­tims of Egypt­ian patri­ar­chal society.

An impris­oned polit­i­cal hero­ine, El Saadawi used her incar­cer­a­tion as a chance to pur­sue fem­i­nist lead­er­ship, so she proud­ly demon­strat­ed sol­i­dar­i­ty and iden­ti­fied with her out­cast com­pan­ions as much as she did with her fel­low polit­i­cal pris­on­ers. Through her sur­vival tac­tics, El Saadawi tri­umphed, and doc­u­ment­ed her expe­ri­ence behind prison walls, reveal­ing that every cit­i­zen is a poten­tial pris­on­er in a police state that com­pris­es walls with­in walls, cre­at­ing pris­ons to guar­an­tee that only the appro­pri­ate amount of free­dom should seep in. Thus, she ded­i­cates her Mem­oirs from the Women’s Prison to “all who have hat­ed oppres­sion to the point of death, who have loved free­dom to the point of impris­on­ment, and have reject­ed false­hood to the point of revolution.”



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1 month ago

This is the most pow­er­ful essay I’ve read in ages. It moved me so much. What an incred­i­bly coura­geous woman she was, and her way with lan­guage too, in cap­tur­ing the deep­est and most profound. 

You have analysed her work beau­ti­ful­ly. I real­ly appre­ci­at­ed the quotes you select­ed and your sen­si­tiv­i­ty to women’s bod­ies. I felt like mem­o­ris­ing her words. 

Your essay made me cry, and inspired me. Thank you so much for this beau­ti­ful piece of work. A real and prop­er trib­ute to this El Sadaawi.