Egyptian feminist faces stiff penalty for statements deemed anti-Islamic
Preliminary hearings begin today against Nawal Al-Saadawi, who faces forced divorce.
A prominent Egyptian feminist and novelist goes to court today in a case that will determine whether or not she will stay married to her husband of many years.Skip to next paragraph
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But this is no ordinary divorce court. Nawal Al-Saadawi is accused of breaking Islamic law, and if found guilty, she would be required to divorce her husband. Her crime: making statements construed as a renouncement of Islam.
Ms. Saadawi's dilemma began when a weekly independent newspaper published some of her controversial opinions. In the article, she said the Islamic-based inheritance law that gives women half of what men get should be abolished, that the Koran doesn't require women to wear the veil, and that the annual pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia is in fact a pre-Islamic ritual. Egypt's Mufti later deemed her comments anti-Islamic.
A hearing for opening arguments begins today in the case, which was filed by civil lawyer Nabih Al-Wahsh.
The case against Saadawi has provoked outrage among intellectuals, writers, and human and women's rights groups worldwide, many of which have started support campaigns and written letters urging the Egyptian government to block the case.
That one person could bring charges so easily against someone for expressing controversial opinions raises serious questions about freedom of speech here, many say.
And for a legal provision that is rarely used in this society, this case also shows the increased power of Egypt's Islamic conservatives and the growth of religion in the society at large.
"This is a very inhibitive atmosphere," says Walid Kazziha, political professor at the American University in Cairo.
"The danger is that it's not an inhibition imposed by a political Islamic group only, but it is imposed by the new cultural twist of society itself," which is growing more religious. "It is very operative and it could lead to the stifling of innovation in literature, art, politics, even in religion."
Founder of the Arab Women's Solidarity Association - which was dissolved by the Egyptian government in 1991 - Saadawi is known worldwide for her progressive viewpoints on women's rights issues.
She has written 30 books - 28 of them later translated into other languages - and recently finished a stint as a scholar at Duke University in Durham, N.C.
"This punishment [of divorce] is not reasonable, ... it is used as a discouragement of freedom of expression, which is the right of everyone and the special duty of the writer," the International PEN Women Writers Committee said in a letter to Egypt's general prosecutor.
Nonetheless, with her signature white mane of hair and broad smile, Saadawi is as feisty as ever and doesn't seem at all cowed by her present ordeal.
"We're not separating," says Al Saadawi, "and we'll not leave the country."
Her husband, novelist Sherif Hetata, agrees: "If they say we're separated and then we come home and live in our flat, what are they going to do?"