Feminist-in-exile decries growing oppression in Egypt

LAILA Said was the only Arab in the delegation of 20 feminists that traveled to Tehran, Iran, in 1979 to confront Ayatollah Khomeini. They were protesting the arrests of a number of young Iranian women who had demonstrated against having to wear a veil in their country. Word finally came that the ayatollah would grant an interview. On one condition: that they all wear chadors.

Ms. Said quietly refused.

``If you wear a chador to see Khomeini, it becomes a fancy-dress costume for you,'' she told startled Western friends. ``You can take it off when the party is over. But for Arab women, it is the condition of segregation.''

The following day, only four of the 20 women met with the ayatollah. Their ``interview'' lasted three minutes, and Khomeini said not a word.

When Said returned to her native Cairo and gave major newspapers an account of her visit to Tehran, however, the reaction was explosive: Infuriated readers demanded her public execution. A blistering attack in a government-backed magazine accused her of being a foreign agent and of challenging Islamic law. She lost her job.

For Said, who was Egypt's foremost woman theater and film director, the last blow was the most devastating. She not only had to give up her position at the Egyptian Institute for the Theater, but she also arrived at her own theater one day to find the windows tightly shuttered and the front doors locked.

``When I asked [the government officials] why they had closed my theater, they said they were doing it for my own good,'' she says with barely concealed disgust.

Her radical feminism was probably reason enough for the authorities to eye Said warily. Add to that the fact that her doctorate in theater is from an American university, and the fact that she is an upper-class member of the minority Christian Copts, who think of themselves as the true descendants of the ancient Egyptians, and her increasing popularity must have alarmed a government intent on reestablishing normal relations with other Arab Muslim nations in the area.

``It's become increasingly difficult to be a public person who is not Islamic,'' she explains. ``Within this growing fundamentalism today, it's bad enough to have a Muslim rock the boat. But if you have a Christian rocking the boat, that really makes it bad!''

Her theater was closed later that year, but for several more years Said continued to work and to survive artistically. While Anwar Sadat was still President, she staged provocative satires of Egyptian military and economic policies, couched in folkloric themes. After Hosni Mubarak succeeded Mr. Sadat and began to mend fences with the rest of the Arab world, she filmed documentaries that increasingly brought her into conflict with developing, strident nationalism.

In 1983, tired of fighting but still hopeful, Laila Said left Egypt to live and work in the United States. (Laila Said is her pen name; her real name is Laila Abou-Saif.)

``Today, like many other Arab women feminists from Morocco and Algeria and Egypt who live in the Western world because they cannot function in their own societies, I find myself in this predicament of being an outcast, an exile, without wanting it. I feel I could do so much more if [the authorities] would only let me. But what is better -- to stay quietly at home and remain silent, or to come to America and try to do something?''

It's a passionate plea, thrown like a defiant gauntlet in the face of centuries-old Mideast tradition and restrictions on the human spirit wherever they exist.

Her gaze is direct -- obsidian eyes held steady in a classically sculptured face that brings to mind the timeless beauty of Cleopatra and Nefertiti. Even her jewelry gleams with memories of her loved homeland: Complementing her fuchsia blouse is a stunning pin of azure lapis lazuli from the Sinai, and she wears several rings that used to belong to her young sister, a journalist who died in an automobile accident on a trip to investigate the status of women in Bedouin communities in Egypt.

When she talks about her country and the challenges facing women there today as a result of the revival of Islamic fundamentalism, the tug of emotions is understandably dramatic. The recent repeal of a liberal marriage and divorce law engineered by Anwar Sadat's widow, Jihan, means that Egyptian women are once again subject to a religiously inspired code that dates from 1929. Under its provisions, men may have several wives simultaneously, and can divorce a wife arbitrarily; husbands can ask for police help in forcing wives who leave them to return home; a woman cannot travel without her father's or husband's consent; women inherit half as much as men; women's testimony in court is given half the weight of a man's; and a woman can obtain a divorce only by proving that her husband is impotent, mentally ill, or in jail.

Said's self-described mission has always been the creation of a popular folk theater that could address these inequities and other contemporary issues in Egypt.

Says an Egyptian intellectual who now teaches at an American university: ``In Egyptian theater, Laila's always been a person of renown. She's known nationwide as a real thinker, a writer, and most importantly, a pioneer.''

Since coming to the US, Said has turned her creative energies to teaching and writing. Her recently published autobiographical memoir, ``A Bridge Through Time'' (Summit Books, $17.95), begins with her refusal as a young girl to go through with a marriage arranged by her parents. It ends as she leaves her Cairo apartment for the airport and her final flight to New York. In addition to her perceptive comments on Mideast politics and polemics, she describes with surprising candor several very personal cris es.

``Her courage is enormous,'' says feminist Gloria Steinem. ``She's been in a situation where speaking out has cost her her theater, which is her work and for which she cares very deeply, . . . and which has brought pressures from a government which doesn't seem to understand that she is indeed a loyal and patriotic citizen.''

Interestingly, some of the highest praise for Said's work comes from outspoken Zionist Bella Abzug.

``Laila has, I think, an enormous sensitivity to the problems that bind so many women,'' says Ms. Abzug, who headed the unofficial US delegation to the recent Nairobi conference ending the UN Decade on Women. ``She is an Arab woman who has been able to pierce through the tremendous yearnings and needs of women who have been so terribly disadvantaged by reason of tradition and custom . . . .''

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