Activist, author, psychiatrist, and playwright Nawal El Saadawi delivered the Harvard Committee on African Studies’ annual Distinguished African Studies Lecture on Oct. 9 in the Tsai Auditorium at the Center for Government and International Studies.
The aim of the yearly addresses is to examine and discuss with the Harvard community critical African issues. Past lecturers have included the king of the Asante people in Ghana and the Senegalese minister of foreign affairs.
In her introduction, Leila Ahmed, Victor S. Thomas Professor of Divinity at the Harvard Divinity School, called El Saadawi someone who “steadfastly and tirelessly dared to take on the most thorny of issues including the issue of women in the Arab world, and women in Islam … [and] dared repeatedly to speak truth to power.”
The Egyptian native was well-qualified to speak on the subject of suppression. In 1972, she lost her job as the director general of the Egyptian government’s public health education program as a result of political pressure; she was briefly jailed in 1981 for her criticism of Anwar Sadat’s one-party rule; and some of her writings have been banned in her native country as heresy. In 1988, her name even appeared on a fundamentalist death list.
In her lecture, “Creativity, Women and Politics,” El Saadawi touched on the importance of creativity, pointing out the various institutions that she feels hamper creativity not only in women, but in society as a whole, and suggested ways to encourage and foster its development.
For the visiting scholar, the concept of creativity is about looking at the world and at life with a broad, inclusive perspective, with a mind that challenges the powerful and is able to acquire knowledge independently.
“Creativity means to fight for life, to fight against hunger, against death, against injustice … [to] fight also for freedom, for love, for justice, for peace, for sisterhood, for brotherhood, for equality,” she said.
But it’s a mindset, she averred, that is challenged by many institutions.
Institutions of higher learning veil our creative minds, El Saadawi claimed, by teaching in a fragmented way, simply imparting facts without connecting them to a broader worldview. Religions, she said, crush the creative spirit by imparting fear and intimidation.
“The idea of men and women, males and females created equal [is] in the Bible and in the Quran … and then you turn the page and you find men should dominate women,” she said.
Political institutions use weapons, money, and power to control and dominate the creative mind, El Saadawi asserted, and gender to keep women from powerful roles.
“As human beings we should be judged by our minds, by our creativity, not by our biology.”
To fight against such creative oppression, said El Saadawi, people must question and challenge. They must compare religions, philosophies, and politics to develop their knowledge and creative understanding. And, she added, this must be a collective undertaking.
“What we need is collective creativity through the power of people and this comes through organization,” she said. “When we are not organized — well, we are defeated.”
In addition, El Saadawi argued for the separation of church and state and for children to be brought to religion in an open-minded way, as a means of nurturing creativity. Children, she said, should be given the chance to know many religions, not just the one they inherit from their family as the absolute truth.
“We should encourage our children to be creative, because this is the future for a better world for justice, freedom, and love.”
Despite referring in the beginning of her talk to the current global society as “a postmodern slave system” that uses things like language, knowledge, gender, and race to promote injustice, El Saadawi was sanguine in her assessment of the future. When asked by a member of the audience to describe what she sees around the world that makes her hopeful, El Saadawi smiled brightly, pointed to the crowd, and replied, “People like you. This is the hope. It’s you and me. When we open our minds together, our hearts together, when we speak up without fear — that’s the hope.”