God and woman in Egypt
A feminist writer accused of insult to Islam religion
Amr Eman, Chronicle Staff Writer
Sunday, May 6, 2007
Nawal al Saadawi, one of Egypt's most renowned feminists, is shocked at the latest controversy surrounding her work.
"It is a mere work of fiction that has nothing to do with reality," said the 75-year-old writer in a telephone interview.
Her play "God Resigns in the Summit Meeting" revolves around the question of whether a just God exists. The script portrays two deities -- a god of justice and a god of injustice -- each trying to win over prophets such as Muhammad, Abraham and Moses. In the end, the god of justice wins out.
Many Muslims are against any portrayal of God.
"I have always believed that God is just; my grandmother kept telling me that," al-Saadawi said from West Virginia, where she is staying with a friend. "If I am really wrong, these people should challenge my ideas with opposite ideas."
These people are members of the Islamic Research Academy, which was established in the early 1930s at Cairo's al-Ahzar University to decide what the public should not be allowed to read. It has called al-Saadawi an apostate and has filed a lawsuit asking a state prosecutor to investigate on the grounds that her play insults Islam. The Islamic university is the Arab world's oldest and Egypt's most important religious institution.
"The play is obscene and offends God," said Sheikh Mustafa al-Shaka'a, one of the Academy's 25 members, who conceded he has not read the script.
"Humans are not supposed to criticize the creator," al-Shaka'a said. "Islam comes from God, and God's work cannot be questioned or criticized. That is why Islam does not accept criticism."
This is not the first time that religious officials have attacked al-Saadawi. Dozens of her books have been banned in Egypt and other Arab countries.
Several years ago, she challenged the importance of the Hajj, the annual journey Muslims make to Mecca as an expression of unity. She argued that the tawaf, the ritual of walking counter-clockwise around the Kaaba, is a pre-Islamic practice that has nothing to do with Islam. She has also campaigned against the Islamic veil and female circumcision, and has continually railed against male domination. In 1981, she created the Arab Women's Solidarity Association, the nation's first independent women's organization.
A psychiatrist by trade, al-Saadawi lost her job in the Ministry of Health in Egypt in 1965 because of her political views. Her magazine, Health, was closed by the government after it focused on issues relating to women's sexual health that had been practically unheard of in Egypt.
In 2001, an Islamic lawyer filed divorce proceedings to break up her marriage, arguing that "an infidel should not be married to a Muslim man." But her husband, 83-year-old Sherif Hetata, is one of her biggest supporters.
"Those who oppose al-Saadawi's ideas would never allow a logical discussion of them," said Hetata, a Cairo physician. "They know that enlightened thoughts would win the day and that is why they are afraid."
In 2005, al-Saadawi ran for president. It was a short-lived campaign since independent candidates were eventually banned from running against President Hosni Mubarak in what many had hoped would be Egypt's first competitive presidential election.
Her name has also figured on several death lists of Islamic extremist organizations, according to her Web site (www.nawalsaadawi.net).
Now, some Egyptian writers fear the latest pronouncement by the al-Ahzar watchdog group will give extremists carte blanche to kill her. In 1994, Egypt's late Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz was stabbed in the neck by a religious fanatic after a prominent sheikh said his novel "The Children of Gabalawi" offended God.
"They should judge religious matters only," said Ahmed el-Shahawi, a poet who has also provoked the religious establishment with his writings. "Art cannot be judged by religious standards."
In February, Mahmoud Madbouli, who has published more than 40 books written by al-Saadawi, recalled and later burned the play's script from the annual, state-organized Cairo International Book Fair, the largest book event in the Arab world.
"After we printed the book, we were alerted to its offensive nature," said Madbouli, who conceded that he has also not read the script. "I learned that the book slurs God and Prophet Muhammad."
After the book fair, al-Saadawi traveled to Belgium. Egyptian newspaper headlines said she fled for fear of being attacked by Islamic fundamentalists. Al-Saadawi denies that she left Egypt because of possible threats.
"I was delivering a number of lectures on women and politics there," she said. "I did not flee Egypt as the newspapers claimed."
Meanwhile, al-Saadawi says she will not return to Egypt "until the fuss over my play calms down, " and she is hard at work on a new novel that resembles her life story.
"The heroine in the novel can't live peacefully in her country -- simply because she cannot embrace the generally held beliefs," she said.