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Profile : Speaking Her Mind on Women's Rights : Nawal Saadawi is everything a good Arab woman isn't supposed to be. And now Cairo is trying to muzzle her.

August 27, 1991|KIM MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CAIRO — In a country where large numbers of little girls are still circumcised with a grandmother's knife blade, she talks about the right of women to enjoy sex. In a city where many women incline either toward a demure head scarf or spike heels, she sports a shock of lawless white hair and baggy trousers. Her husband does the laundry while she writes articles about how husbands shouldn't be allowed to take a second wife without the first wife's permission.

Much of this verges on the heretical in Egypt, where decades of Westernization have brought discotheques, hamburger stands, video shops and women doctors but where centuries of tradition still hold that it's not nice to have sex with a man unless you're married to him.

Nawal Saadawi, brash, frank, liberal, bossy, fond of public attention--everything a good Arab woman isn't supposed to be--is both Egypt's best-known feminist and the one it's most embarrassed about. Islamic fundamentalists despise her, and many other feminists say she espouses the right issues in the wrong way.

"She upsets a lot of decent folks with her way of bringing up, you know, sex in every discussion," Cairo Today wrote recently.

But Saadawi, well-known novelist and controversial head of the Arab Women's Solidarity Assn., didn't go too far--until she went to Baghdad last January to protest the impending Gulf War and the use of non-Arab troops to solve what Arab leaders insisted was an Arab problem.

Her well-known voice, protesting the presence of American soldiers in the region, was broadcast by the BBC back to Egypt, which had dispatched thousands of its own troops to fight alongside the Americans.

Last month, the Egyptian government suddenly notified Saadawi that the national chapter of her international women's organization, with branches in seven Arab countries, was being dissolved. The government ordered its assets, which it estimated at about $2 million, turned over to a league of "Islamic women."

Publication of the group's monthly Al Noon magazine, which printed articles against the Gulf War and criticized allied Arab governments for their policies toward women, was halted.

And Saadawi, jailed for her outspokenness during the reign of former President Anwar Sadat, finds herself in the hot seat once again.

"If you don't defend ideas and attitudes and policies which are the official ones, and if you are outspoken also, then immediately you are dangerous," she said.

The issue has focused attention on Egypt's 27-year-old law on associations, which in this seemingly most democratic country of the Arab world still prohibits political or religious discussions by "any institution."

The order dissolving the AWSA "represents a new assault on the freedom of association which is already severely restricted in Egypt," said the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights.

"The dissolution order is very much connected to Dr. Saadawi's positions, particularly her opposition to the Gulf War," added organization attorney Niguad Barari, who is representing her. "Also, the mood of the government is very much now one of appeasement to Islamic fundamentalism, which is another reason to clamp down on Nawal Saadawi and her feminist positions."

Saadawi has been criticized by other feminists in Egypt for being domineering--young office women have been seen cowering at her commands--for arguing the unfairness of punishing women much more harshly than men for adultery in what is still a strictly Islamic country and for dominating, along with her writer-husband, pages of the AWSA's publications.

But at the same time, her novels, articles and seminars have pinpointed many of the issues with which mainstream feminists have long been concerned.

Saadawi has argued, for example, for changes in Egypt's family law, which was made more conservative as a concession to fundamentalists in 1985. Before then, a woman who objected to her husband's taking a second wife was entitled to an automatic divorce. (Islamic law allows a man up to four wives.) Now, a woman must go to court and prove that she would be substantially damaged by her husband's second marriage.

The problem, said Saadawi, who is trained as a psychiatrist, is that judges too often consider only economic harm to the first wife. "They know nothing about the psychological harm, the emotional harm of having another woman in the house."

Saadawi complained that an Egyptian woman cannot work if her husband is opposed and cannot renew her passport without her husband's permission. "This marriage law is a slave law," she said.

"Women's issues are very, very sensitive issues in Middle Eastern countries because they're related to traditional values and because you can't deal with women's issues unless you question the whole structure of society," said Saadawi's husband of 27 years, Sherif Hetata, a medical doctor and novelist.

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