Egypt's most controversial feminist shuns homeland

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CAIRO: With a mane of stark white hair and flashing dark eyes, not to mention opinions on society and women s issues that would be radical anywhere, Nawal Al-Al-Saadawi has long been a controversial figure in conservative Egypt. Now the 75-year-old writer, who has spent more than three decades bucking the traditional norms of this conservative country, is taking a break, pronouncing herself disgusted with Egypt even as conservative clerics file suit against her. I need to breathe, she told AFP by telephone from Brussels in an interview ahead of International Women s Day on Thursday. She is staying in the Belgian capital at the invitation of an organization working for equality between men and women. It was in Belgium that she learned that Al-Azhar University, Sunni Islam s premier institution, is filing suit against her for the play God Resigns at the Summit Meeting on the grounds that it insults Islam. Al-Saadawi vehemently denies that she fled Egypt because of such threats, preferring to say only that she was seeking peace of mind and plans to stay away for only six months to a year so she can attend conferences and teach at a US university. I have not fled – I will return to Egypt to confront them, she said. Corruption, the dangerous economic recession and an intellectual class that flatters the Muslim Brotherhood and the regime because they are scared are reasons to put distance between herself and Egypt right now, she added. Like many fiercely secular intellectuals, Al-Saadawi sees appeasement of the Muslim Brotherhood leading to increased religionism in society, despite the fact that the government is jailing large numbers of the group and freezing their assets. Egypt has become a backward country – politically, economically and culturally – under pressure from the security services, said the author of dozens of books, both fiction and non-fiction, some of which have been translated into 30 languages. Al-Saadawi, a psychiatrist by profession, became known for dealing with women s issues, especially sexuality, in a frank and open manner that was practically unheard of in Egypt. Two of her books, her autobiography and the play God Resigns at the Summit Meeting, were pulled from the shelves of the state-organised Cairo international book fair in January. Al-Azhar has always been under control of the regime, she said, denouncing the institution s attempts at revenge against her. Al-Saadawi has long been a thorn in the side of Egypt s political and religious establishment, campaigning against the Islamic veil, inequality in inheritance rights between men and women, polygamy and female circumcision – all condoned by Al-Azhar clerics. In 2005 she even ran for president in a short-lived campaign that included a proposal for the sheikh of Al-Azhar to be elected by popular vote rather than being appointed by the president. She eventually abandoned her presidential bid, citing interference from security forces who would not let her hold rallies. Al-Saadawi s writings and outspoken views have repeatedly landed her in hot water, including a short stay in jail in 1981 when then president Anwar Sadat rounded up all intellectuals and tossed them into prison. In the 1990s, it was the turn of Islamist militants to target her, putting her name on their infamous death lists that also included Nobel prize-winning writer Naguib Mahfouz who was later stabbed. In response to these threats, Al-Saadawi became a writer in residence at Duke University s Asian and African Languages department in the United States between 1993 and 1996. In 2001, not long after her return to Egypt, an Islamist lawyer filed a case to divorce her from her husband on the grounds that her beliefs made her an apostate so she could not be married to a Muslim. A similar tactic drove revisionist Islamic scholar Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid out of the country in the 1990s. But Al-Saadawi stayed and managed to defeat the measure in court. Her detractors in Egypt are saying that her supposed exile is little more than a media stunt for her massive ego so she can continue publicising her agenda of hatred for society and religion as well as anti-male racism, according to an article in Rose Al-Yussef magazine. While the pro-government magazine is as anti-Islamist as the author, it slammed Al-Saadawi for her anti-regime politics and feminist stances, and even accused her of having sexual issues. The independent daily Al-Masri Al-Youm defended her in an opinion piece that said to convict her would be a sign of a victory for Islamists in Egypt. I never thought that one day I would find myself defending Nawal Al-Saadawi, said the writer, but the first blow against her would mean an Islamic state has become reality. Al-Saadawi has no intention of being cowed by threats and the bad press she is accustomed to receiving. I ve always been threatened, she said. I live in fear – it has become a part of me.

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