The Fate of Egyptian Feminist Writer

 "Off With Her Head"

Al Ahram Weekly

Prominent feminist writer Nawal El- Saadawi has become the latest intellectual to face the possibility of heresy charges after making controversial statements to a weekly newspaper, reports Khaled Dawoud A lawyer who became known for filing lawsuits against former US President Bill Clinton and top Israeli officials, claiming they were responsible for numerous atrocities committed against Arabs and Muslims, chose a different target this time.

Lawyer Nabih El-Wahsh filed a complaint against internationally renowned feminist writer Nawal El-Saadawi asking the prosecutor-general to put her on trial for allegedly "deriding Islam and ridiculing its fundamental principles." In an interview with an independent weekly, Al-Midan, in early March, El-Saadawi reiterated some of her controversial views, claiming that donning the veil by women was not obligatory, contrary to the insistence of the majority of Muslim scholars. She was quoted as saying that carrying out the Islamic pilgrimage -- one of the five pillars of Islam -- "is a vestige of pagan practices."

The interview went on to quote El-Saadawi as saying that Muslim scholars "were obsessed with sex". It also quotes her as saying that Islamic inheritance law, which gives males twice the share of females, should be abolished due to the fact that up to 35 per cent of families in Egypt are currently dependent on the income of a woman. Two weeks after publishing the interview, the Mufti of Egypt, Sheikh Nassr Farid Wassel, sent a long letter to Al-Midan characterising El-Saadawi's remarks as amounting to heresy "and ousting her from Islam." El-Wahsh told Al-Ahram Weekly that he was not an Islamist lawyer, "but I am a Muslim and I was extremely provoked by the statements made by El-Saadawi although she is a Muslim too."

In recent years, a number of Islamist lawyers, led by Youssef El-Badri, specialised in filing lawsuits against secular intellectuals and artists, either asking that their work be banned or that they should be treated as apostates. The most famous case in this respect concerned university professor Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid, who was ordered by a court to separate from his wife after an Islamist lawyer won a case against him, claiming his writings denied some of the basic teachings of Islam. Abu Zeid has been living in exile with his wife in the Netherlands since the court verdict was issued in 1995, but continues to fight a legal battle at home to annul the ruling.

After a series of such cases against intellectuals, the government in 1998 amended the law allowing individuals to file lawsuits accusing others of heresy, known as hisba, making this the prerogative of the prosecution office. "I presented my complaint to the prosecutor-general and he will be the one to decide whether to put El-Saadawi on trial or not," El-Wahsh said. El-Saadawi was not available for comment, but her husband, Sherif Hetata, confirmed that a case has been filed against her. "She is now in Europe, and I am sure she will know how to handle the matter upon her return." Hetata added that "El-Saadawi is accustomed to such battles," and denied that she would stay in Europe to avoid a possible trial at home. However, Hetata did concede that he was worried by the Mufti's statement that El-Saadawi's remarks "oust her from Islam." He added that after Al-Midan published the interview with his wife, readers wrote to the newspaper stating that "Sadawi's head must be chopped off with a sword" as a punishment for her controversial views on Islam. The same punishment was advocated by lawyer El-Wahsh in the memo he submitted to the prosecutor. El-Saadawi's views have never been welcomed by the conservative Muslim institutions in Egypt.

A strong supporter of women's' rights, El-Saadawi wrote several books and novels focusing on "women's' oppression" and their treatment as "sex objects" in conservative Islamic societies. Such views have for years forced El-Saadawi to publish her books in Beirut instead of Cairo. During Cairo's annual book fair last month, El-Saadawi complained that authorities "confiscated" some of her books and prevented publishers from putting them on display.