‘About Me in Africa—Politics and Religion in my Childhood’ by Nawal El Saadawi

s part of our post-publication celebrations of the ‘New Daughters of Africa’ anthology, we teamed up with Myriad Editions to bring you three extracts from the landmark anthology – one essay, one poem, and one short story. We started things off, with Zukiswa Wanner’s short story ‘This is not Au Revoir’ and followed that up with Lebogang Mashile’s poem titled ‘Invocation’. Today, to round things off, we bring you Nawal El Saadawi’s essay ‘About Me in Africa—Politics and Religion in my Childhood’.


Born in Egypt,  Nawal El Saadawi is a medical doctor, a leading feminist activist and an internationally renowned writer of non-fiction and fiction. Once banned from public speaking and imprisoned under President Sadat, she is founder and president of the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association, co-founder of the Arab Association for Human Rights, and is an outspoken campaigner against Female Genital Mutilation. Her extensive body of writing— including plays, memoirs, novels and short stories—is studied in universities across the world. She has received three honorary degrees, the North-South Prize from the Council of Europe, the Inana International Prize in Belgium, and the Seán MacBride Peace Prize. She lives in Cairo and continues to write in Arabic. Her numerous works in translation include Woman at Point Zero (1982), God Dies by the Nile (1984), Memoirs of a Woman Doctor (1994) and Love in the Kingdom of Oil (2001).

And now, without further ado, Happy Reading!

‘About Me in Africa—Politics and Religion in my Childhood’ – An Essay


n my childhood I did not know that Egypt is in Africa. The Egyptian government under King Farouk did not consider Egypt as part of Africa. They followed the British colonizers, who divided Africa into Black and White. Divide and Rule has been the main plan of any colonizers throughout history.

To exploit people, you must veil their minds, and create conflicts and wars between them. This is happening today in our life as happened in earlier societies.

Religion is the best tool to veil the minds of people and divide them. The Egyptian educational system followed that of the British colonizers and contained many racist, patriarchal, religious, and capitalist ideas.

I was brainwashed by my official education as a Muslim, Egyptian girl from the working class. In primary school the British and Egyptian teachers praised the upper-class girls, with fair white skin. My maternal Turkish grandmother despised my dark skin, which I inherited from the poor peasant family of my father.

My maternal aunt used to hide my dark skin with white powder, and would straighten my hair with a hot iron. I liberated my mind from this slavery by educating myself. Also, my enlightened mother and father helped me to undo what teachers did to me.

To weaken the human mind you need an absolute power in Heaven and on Earth. Obedience must be the rule, to God, the King or the President. In Ancient Egypt, God was the King. In fact, “God’s power” was created by the statesmen or the politicians to conceal the King’s domination and exploitation. Throughout human history, political economic power was the origin of all religions. Obedience to God is inseparable from obedience to the ruler. The idea of secularism, or of separating religion from state, is misleading. No state can control its peoples without their submission to God’s Will, which hides their submission to the government or ruler.

Democracy and secularism are deceptive words, among others, masking the politics behind religion. The post-modern, so-called, Daesh, El Quaida, Taliban, Boko Haram, Muslim, Christian, Jewish state, and all other religious fundamentalist states or groups, are political imperialist capitalist powers, created by global-local colonizers under the name of God.

When I was a primary school student during the 1940s, I noticed that King Farouk, who was head of the state and the army in Egypt, had more power over the Egyptian people than God and his Prophet Mohamed. However, the British general of the invading army in Egypt had more power over King Farouk and the Egyptian army and government. My father told me one day that the British army had surrounded the palace of King Farouk and threatened to kick him off the throne if he did not obey the British order to appoint El Nahhas Pasha as prime minister of the Egyptian government.

Al Azhar, the highest Islamic power in Egypt, could not defend the King, though its top Islamic sheikhs declared every Friday, in all the country’s mosques, that His Majesty the King was protected by His Majesty God and His Prophet from all evils, and that he, the King, would rule Egypt for ever, never to be de-throned unless by God’s Will.

I asked my father this question: “How can the British Will be above God’s Will?” My father replied that no human will can be above the Will of God, but God can use the British colonizer or any human being as a tool to punish our king Farouk, who was corrupt and unjust.

In July 1952, while I was a student in the medical faculty, King Farouk was overthrown by the Free Officers Movement led by Nasser. My father said that God used Nasser and his group as a tool to realize God’s Will. It became clear to my mind that, in reality, the only Will working is that of the state and the army.

In fact, religion is needed today, as in all times and places, to transform the human being into a tool in the hands of the dominating global-local powers. Today we use the new word “glocal” to show that the global and local are inseparable.

My father died in February 1959; he did not live to witness the big defeat of Nasser in June 1967, but the top Islamic sheikh declared that the defeat was God’s Will, not the Will of the British-French-Israeli-American powers. He considered Nasser a communist atheist secular dictator and that God had punished him.

Nasser died in September 1970 and the new ruler, Sadat, opened the doors of Egypt to American-Israeli goods, he signed a peace treaty with Israel, changed the constitution to declare Egypt an Islamic state, and named himself The Believer, The Father. Sadat would start his speeches with God’s name—Allah—and end with the Prophet Mohamed’s name.

The leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood were released from Nasser’s prison and were encouraged to hold political and religious posts. Women and even female children started to wear the veil. In September 1981 Sadat imprisoned all opposition leaders, men and women, who criticized his policies, including myself. I was accused of being against Sadat and God.

I used to see God in my dreams when I was a child. He was inseparable from Satan the Devil. When I started my childhood diary, both of them, God and Satan, were always together. I could not separate them in my imagination or in reality. Imagination was inseparable from reality. When God resigned in any of my novels, Satan had to resign. And when Satan resigned, God had to resign.

It was not my fault. Since I started reading the three monotheistic holy books — The Qur’an, the New and Old Testaments—I have found God and Satan together all the time. I was severely punished by political-religious powers because I did not separate between God and the local-global President.

Anyway, I stopped hiding my dark skin very early in my life, since I discovered that Egypt is in Africa, not in the so-called Middle East. In fact, I never use the term Middle East.

December 2017
Cairo, Egypt