Nawal El Saadawi and her peasant grandmother
Egyptian feminist, author and activist Nawal El Saadawi was on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour earlier this week, ostensibly to promote her new book but really to give a genial, general five-minute interview across various topics. She’s in her eighties now and has a long history of, among other things, campaigning extensively against female genital mutilation. She is a medical doctor, a novelist, and someone who people have spent decades trying to silence by means of intimidation and imprisonment.
You can hear the full interview by WH’s Jenni Murray on iPlayer, or download it as a podcast here, for a few more days. Although it’s not by any means the focus of the piece, my ears pricked up at this brief exchange:
Jenni Murray: No matter how often the authorities have tried to ban your books, you keep on and on writing. Where do you find that energy and courage to do that?
Nawal El Saadawi: Well, it came from childhood. It is something we acquire in childhood, and also part of it’s genetic. I inherited the very strong genes of my peasant grandmother. She was the leader of the village. She was a strange woman, even relative to the village. So it’s a combination, and also experience in life.
I listened a few times, and she definitely does say “strange”, in case anyone wonders – a slightly unexpected choice of words which is interesting in itself, and makes you want to know more about her grandmother.
It can be a little irksome when people claim they have inherited their ancestors’ qualities. I am prone to wincing at this, but it didn’t bother me this time; I have a lot of respect for Dr Saadawi to begin with, and she was saying it in a way that sounded like a compliment to her grandmother, not in a spirit of self-congratulation. (By contrast, the Jane Horrocks Who Do You Think You Are? episode from several years back kind of grated, mainly because Horrocks seemed unable to stop saying at each revelation of her forebears’ difficult lives: “Well, that must be why I am such a strong woman” in a self-satisfied manner. I found this immensely trying. I’m sure Horrocks is a strong woman, whatever that means (the concept of the Strong Woman is in itself kind of a pain in the ass) and I would like to be happy for her and leave it at that, but it seemed like she couldn’t resist pulling the focus back onto herself and away from the ancestors whose “strength” she was so keen to lay claim to. From my personal couch-potato perspective it’s much better when the WDYTYA slebs at least pretend to understand that it’s not, in the end, really all about them.)
I don’t have much more to add really; just wanted to bash together a post on this before the interview disappears, and to encourage people to have a listen. The statistics relating to abandoned babies in Egypt, and those relating to the ongoing practice of FGM, are pretty shocking, and it’s worth hearing Dr Saadawi discuss them even briefly.
For anyone coming to this after the interview disappears, here is another very recent clip (video interview this time) in which she discusses the revolution in Egypt: Guardian link. Hopefully this will stay up for longer.