Postcard from Egypt
by Jenna Krajeski
March 14, 2011
Over eighteen days in Tahrir Square, millions of Egyptian women protested alongside the men; on Sunday, February 27th, fourteen of them (and four young men) gathered again, this time in the apartment of the eighty-year-old Egyptian dissident and writer Nawal El Saadawi. The post-revolution committee to revise the constitution is all male, and El Saadawi, who has been called the godmother of Egyptian feminism, was angry. “The blood of the women killed in the revolution was still wet, and we were being betrayed,” she said. It was time to form a union.
El Saadawi lives on the twenty-seventh floor of a drab building in Shubra, a few miles north of Tahrir Square. Cigarette butts litter the dim stairwell, and the rickety elevator takes fifteen seconds too long for comfort. Her narrow living room is dominated by a writing desk and bookshelves containing everything from Japanese translations of her work to novels like Nora Ephron’s “Heartburn.” El Saadawi has written more than forty books, including “Women and Sex,” which got her fired from the Ministry of Health in 1972, and “Memoirs from the Women’s Prison,” about her own political imprisonment, in 1981. When she talks about Egyptian Presidents, she tends to focus on their wives, whom she blames for fracturing the Egyptian Women’s Union in the first place. “Jehan Sadat, Suzanne Mubarak, they wanted to be the leader of the Egyptian feminist movement, but they did nothing,” she said. “Women have no rights because we are not united.”
Among those seated in the circle of mismatched chairs was Habiba Hassan Wassef, a medical-school classmate of El Saadawi’s more than fifty years ago, and now a nutrition expert. “I’ve been following Nawal’s career closely,” Hassan Wassef said.
“You’ve been following my naughtiness!” El Saadawi said.
“Not your naughtiness, your courage,” Hassan Wassef said.
“Ever since I was ten years old, I wanted to be free,” El Saadawi said, settling into an armchair near the balcony. “I divorced three husbands to be free.”
“I, too, am a woman who takes my rights with my own arms,” Hassan Wassef said.
“During the revolution, we shouted, ‘The people want the fall of the regime!’ Now we need to shout, ‘Men and women want the fall of the old constitution!’ ” El Saadawi said.
“The fall of the masculine regime!” Yasmine Khalifa, a student from the American University in Cairo, chimed in.
El Saadawi had met many of the participants in Tahrir Square; others, like Khalifa, found out about the meeting on Twitter. In addition to organizing a union, they had come to plan the Million Woman March, which will take place on March 8th, International Women’s Day, and is being advertised on Facebook. “I love the new social networking,” El Saadawi said. “Things happen so fast!”
One attendee, Reem Shaheen, said that her sister was still in Tahrir Square, as part of a volunteer all-female police corps. “Are the women being molested or harassed?” Hassan Wassef asked.
“Harassed,” Shaheen said, adding, “Very badly.”
“So, molested,” Hassan Wassef said.
The discussion shifted to constitutional amendments. Wesam Hassan, a young mother and activist, said of the proposed changes, “I read it. There’s nothing about the President being a woman!”
“They assume it’s always a man,” Khalifa said.
“We have to pay attention to the language,” Hassan said.
Amina Shawky said, “There are people who see us. The problem is that we don’t have very much time.” Shawky was the only attendee wearing a niqab—a full-face covering, something that El Saadawi has strongly criticized. “My friends asked me, ‘How are you going to meet Nawal El Saadawi wearing the niqab? How are you talking about freedom wearing the niqab?’ ” Shawky said.
“I used not to look at women in the niqab. That changed in Tahrir,” El Saadawi said. “Tonight, I didn’t ask you why you are wearing it.”
Some of the younger feminists called into question the implication of an Egyptian Women’s Union. “The union pushes women into the margins,” Khalifa said.
“Maybe we should call it the Union for the Development of Egyptians,” Nada Doraid, a public-health specialist wearing combat boots, suggested.
“Why are you so scared of the word ‘women’?” El Saadawi asked.
“If we create an Egyptian Women’s Union, they will create an Egyptian Men’s Union,” Khalifa said.
“The Egyptian Men’s Union is the world,” Hassan Wassef said.
After reading from a draft of the union’s founding document (“Women need to be present on all levels of government; women must be represented on all committees to change the constitution”) and having a debate over slogans (“It should be ‘We’re Here,’ or maybe ‘Watch Out, We’re Here’ ”), the women broke for orange Fanta and 7Up. Standing, El Saadawi said, “This needs work and patience. We will start again tomorrow.” ♦