By Ruth Hudson
Wednesday 18th March was a day to remember as Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) welcomed internationally renowned writer, medical doctor and feminist Nawal El-Saadawi. The event, ‘Solidarity between the masses – Perspectives on the Arab Spring’, featured Dr El Saadawi in conversation with Jacqueline Roy, Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at MMU.
In a passionate opening speech, Jacqueline Roy introduced Dr El Saadawi as one of her heroes saying, “Dr Nawal El Saadawi’s is a doctor who has practiced medicine and psychiatry. She is also a writer of great renown and her works – more than 40 books – have been received with international acclaim.” Jacqueline continued, “She has succeeded in enraging successive governments with regard to the oppression of women and the poor. She is a great fighter of injustice. Her commitment, courage and creativity are inspirational and I can’t tell you how excited I am to be listening to her and talking to her this evening.”
The 83-year-old author endured three months in prison in her native Egypt under then ruler Anwar Sadat, and later spent five years in exile after receiving numerous death threats. Jacqueline explained, “Many have tried to silence her and she has actively resisted that silencing process even at the cost of her imprisonment.”
Dr El Saadawi was met with a huge round of applause from the packed out lecture theatre. She thanked Jacqueline Roy and said, “I am so happy to be here in this University and I am happy to see you all.” She commented on the age of her audience, “Many of the people here are quite young – young in relation to me. My audience now, I am noticing, is the younger generation.” She welcomed this and said it was due to younger people starting to look for new ideas.
Dr El Saadawi engaged the audience in a lively discussion on education, human rights and politics. She raised many topics for debate, including The Arab Spring. Dr El Saadawi said, “It started in Tunis and then Egypt and then spread all over the world.” She added, “The revolution is because people are fed up with the system,” emphasising, “It is global, not local.”
Discussions moved on to the power of language as Dr El Saadawi revealed her strong opposition to “colonised language” and concluded, “We are living in one world, not three worlds.” She said she feels insulted, “When they tell you ‘you are Third World’”. Colonial terms such as ‘Middle East’ and ‘Far East’ are misleading, she believes. She playfully mocked the absurdity of using colonised language still to this day and said, “When I come to London I say I am coming to the Middle West.”
This led Dr El Saadawi on to a discus of the importance of solidarity: “We need solidarity between people, because how can we fight a system that is united and using power against us?” She added, “When we have unity between people then there is power.” Dr El Saadawi highlighted oppression within the education system, observing that “our minds are veiled by education and by religion.” She stated, “Education does not give you knowledge, it kills creativity” – adding, “If you start to be aware of your rights then the system cannot survive the revolution.”
Dr El Saadawi delved deeper into the topic of creativity and revealed its compelling nature: “I do not separate between the novel and the autobiography. I do not separate between science and art. We do not link which is why we might not be aware why we are oppressed… “Everything is political – literature is political.” All subjects are intertwined and we need to know this “in order to know what is happening in the world”. She went on to talk about how “The name of the father” allowed science to shift to patriarchy and so “the name of the mother was buried in history”. Jacqueline Roy added, “One of the things I think people need to learn is to think independently.”
In a brief conclusion on religion, Dr El Saadawi told us, “Isis was a female goddess in Egypt, the goddess of knowledge” and so, religious fundamentalist groups such as ‘Al-Qaeda’ and ‘IS’ act in combat to “divide us and to make us ignorant and use God to justify injustices.” She spoke about the relationship between religion and education and stressed that the two must remain separate adding, “We need a revolution to change the education system.”
Members of the audience were then invited to join Dr El Saadawi on stage and ask questions related to the lively discussion on education, human rights and politics. Humanity Hallows spoke to Iranian PhD student NT, the first student to share the stage with Dr El Saadawi, about what drew her to the talk. NT said, “It is my pleasure to see her. There are many similarities between Middle Eastern countries. I am doing a PhD in Women’s Studies and my case studies are on Iranian women. I have used Nawal’s articles in my Literature review.”
The event attracted an astonishing crowd and Dr Jess Edwards, Head of the Department of English, said, “It was a different kind of audience as this event brought people from all over Manchester.” Audience member Alan McDonald revealed, “I first read her books in the early 1980s, she is one of the greatest living feminists. I was amazed to read about her in The Guardian and I wanted to see what she in like in person. I specifically remember Woman at Point Zero – it is one of those life-changing books.” He added, “She seems like a truth-teller to me, even at great personal risk so I really admire her and I’m glad she is still alive and still being radical.”
Lucy Burke, Principal Lecturer in the English Department, hoped students would be inspired by Dr El Saadawi’s visit, “It was one of the things that changed how I thought, and I hope that she generates debate. The event is really in line with the kinds of other work that we have been doing. A lot of the Humanities in Public series of events is about bringing in people who have something to say about the way we live now into the University and to open up those dialogues.” When asked what had inspired her in Dr El Saadawi’s work she said, “I think that what is really impressive about her as a writer is her commitment to her ideas and politics and her bravery in terms of seeing that through. I think that’s an important thing for people to witness.”
Dr El Saadawi was invited to visit MMU by Dr Sharon Handley, Dean of the Faculty of Humanities, Languages and Social Science as part of a rare tour across the UK. Nawal summed up her visit saying, “I’m very happy to be here at this university.” Humanity Hallows spoke to Jacqueline Roy to enquire if there was a reason Dr El Saadawi chose to visit us here in Manchester in particular. “There’s always been huge links between Manchester and Egypt because of the cotton industry. Egyptian cotton was shipped into Manchester to be processed and made into garments.” She added, “There’s always been that historical link, so Nawal knew about Manchester.”
Jacqueline Roy wrapped up the hugely successful evening by thanking Jess Edwards, Paul Okojie, Senior Lecturer in Law at MMU, and James Draper, Manager of the Manchester Writing School, who had organised the event. The event opened the eyes of many audience members who left feeling inspired and mesmerised from her piercing truths. Jess Edwards concluded, “This evening was an extraordinary opportunity to host a really remarkable person.”
Ruth Hudson studies English and American literature at MMU. She also has blog that focuses on addressing mental health issues.