Suffragette Chronicals

Historical Suffragettes: Nawal El Saadawi

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I haven’t ever discussed, let alone thought about the practice of female genital mutilation (FMG). Simply because I had never heard of it. We’ve heard of the practice of male circumcision, and the pros and cons of undergoing this for religious or practical reasons. But go figure that we wouldn’t ever hear about female mutilation – especially because it’s most commonly forced upon girls at a prepubescent age, and actually carries more health risks and long-term suffering for the victim.

Which makes sense as to why so many people don’t appreciate the feminism movement. They just don’t hear about what happens to women. They only believe that what they see, or what they experience. For me at least, feminism is not about the equality I can gain, but what can be gained for women who need it the most.

So when I came across this 84-year-old Egyptian feminist and radical activist, whose experience of FGM shaped her values and initiated her story, I was spellbound. As an Islamic girl, she was forced to undergo genital mutilation because of the obsolete beliefs of her religion. It left her with deep physical pain and torment, and a determination to rid the world of this illogical, and cruel practice. Her non-hesitation to criticise religion – where many fear it – is what I really find admirable. Religion may preach peace and love, but man does not. They say that religious fundamentalism is on the rise, and this is never a good thing for women. If men aren’t held accountable, which is often the case under religion, that is when practices of cruelty, or bigotry, or messages of hate spiral out of control.

“If the power of religious groups increases, so does the oppression of women. Women are oppressed in all religions”

FGM has existed since 2,000BC, but in the last ten years, FGM has only just been banned in Egypt. In the UK, it now carries a 14 year imprisonment sentence for anyone who practices it on a permanent UK citizen, but it is apparently still widely performed. Dr El Saadawi believes that you can’t eradicate historical and rooted habits by law only. Education is necessary to combat the spread of lies through misinformation.

Nawal El Saadawi has been published over 50 times, and she may have been nominated for Woman of the Year, but she has sacrificed so much in the name of feminism. In one case, it even lost her the prestigious Minister of Health post in her home country. In another, she was jailed for three months for ‘crimes against the state’. What crimes were these, to fight for the human rights of half a country’s population? And protest the brutality of an outdated religious practice? When feminist are compared with Nazis for standing up for what is right – you know that men have successfully oppressed an entire gender, and brainwashed the other half – all of which will take generations to fix.

“I’m fighting against the patriarchal, military, capitalist, racist post-modern slave system. I am going to fight for this for ever.”

***

What we can learn from Nawal El Saadawi’s story is not just the acknowledgement of cruelty in religious practice, but the importance of standing up for others and for what you believe in no matter what. Gender, age, persecution and imprisonment, and most difficulty: religious and governmental restrictions… if El Saadawi can do all this for the advancement of society – surely we in more privileged positions shouldn’t be afraid to do the same?

If you don’t stick to your values when they’re being tested, they’re not values: they’re hobbies.” – Jon Stewart

The way people roll their eyes and say “that’s just the way it is,” or “it’s none of my business,” or “perhaps it’s for the best,” when they are dead sure it’s not, makes me so angry. Resignation is not an escape route. My challenge to you for tomorrow, or today, is this: if ever you find yourself in a position where you feel obliged to stay quiet to avoid confrontation, or look the other way to avoid involvement,  I challenge you to do the opposite. Even if it’s calling someone out for everyday sexism. Even if it’s taking a stand against social and racial stereotyping. Even if it’s giving a few coins to a homeless person. We aren’t all called to be revolutionary leaders for change like El Saadawi, but every one of us has a duty to lend a hand when we have two. Small steps can change fixed mindsets.

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