Why a Conference on Creativity,
Dissidence and Women ?

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Nawal El Saadawi

Seventh International Conference of the Arab Women's Solidarity Association
'Creativity, Dissidence and Women' Cairo, 21-23 May 2005

The three words:
Creativity, Dissidence and Women are three words that are liable (especially when linked together) to cause fear and anxiety amongst most men, and some women, not only in our countries but also in the rest of the world.

Ever since the days of the slave system and the birth of patriarchy and class these three words were linked to the Devil, for the Devil was the first rebel in history, the only angel who questioned what the other angels feared to question and tried to see things from an angle which was new to them.
There is a close relationship between creativity, knowledge and awareness of what goes on around us. Creativity gives birth to new knowledge, to a new consciousness. It is a rebellion against ignorance, submission, and injustice. And when women rebel against ignorance, against submission and against injustice they raise fear amongst those who rule over them.

Woman in history was the first to be creative, to be seduced by the tree of knowledge, by what was new and unknown before. And gathered here in this conference we are the daughters (and the sons) of Eve, the first rebel, and perhaps of the Devil too. We are following in their path, for they were the first to show the way, they were the myth that blazed our trail. They were the two who were eternally cursed, banished and made to suffer because they sought to discover and to know.

So it is understandable if these three words raise waves of anger and anxiety and fear, waves which have risen higher and higher since the eighties of the previous century with the emergence of corporate capitalist globalization accompanied by a fundamentalist crusade sweeping through many parts of the world, involving Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism and Budhism.

It is natural that a world political, economic and social system built on power rather than justice should seek to reinforce itself, to launch an offensive against the growing resistance of women and people against their creative endeavours to build a new world should have recourse to the age-old heavenly, sacred authority of religion, in order to strengthen its hold over the women and men 'slaves' living in this post-modern, global age. It is also natural that the women and men slaves of this age in their turn should seek to transform religion into an ideological weapon in their struggle to be freed from the injustices imposed upon them by those who rule over the state, in society and in the family.

This struggle between the rulers and the ruled, between the patriarchal masters and the slaves, between the women (and men) of the world and the corporate capitalist bosses trying to enforce their neo-liberal doctrines, who are breeding fundamentalist religious movements and marginalizing vast populations of the globe, and encouraging them to grow, or by using them as a pretext for war has always existed in essence. However it has witnessed different political, economic social and cultural developments throughout history and particularly in this fast-moving informational age.

Our modern or post-modern age is characterized by the flow of informational science and technology. Informational technology has become even more dangerous than military weapons which themselves are now highly dependent on this technology. The destruction of the mind, of its creativity, the nurturing of false consciousness built on scattered, delinked information has become more lethal than destruction by war.

The creation of a false consciousness amongst women leads them to submission, to enslavement, to become instruments in the propagation of male desire, obedient victims of male violence, domesticated to work in the home or even to toil where they are required outside the home, in the name of society, or the nation or religion, or culture, or the natural orders of things, or a divine law or as an expression of female nature. When women submit it means that they cease to rebel against male domination, against patriarchy and fundamentalist teachings, that they lose their ability to question, to think independently, to resist and be creative. They internalize submission sometimes to the degree of taking pleasure in it and may go as far as self-immolation.

A few days ago in Cairo two young women barely twenty years old, their faces and bodies completely covered wearing the 'nikab' which reveals only the eyes attempted to attack a bus of tourists with two outdated guns and having failed one of them shot the other and then committed suicide, or at least that was how they ended their lives according to some reports. They were obeying the orders of their men, as ordained by the religious precepts they had been indoctrinated with.
When a woman becomes her own enemy what can we do? This is one of the greatest obstacles faced by feminist movements all over the world. A woman can become her own enemy by accepting to become a sex object living to consume, to dress or undress for men, or by submitting to religious precepts which are against the true spirit of religion, and imprisoning herself in the home, or wearing a black tent in the humid heat of summer.

In the Arab countries conservative interpretations of religion, and a cultural indoctrination with patriarchalism are amongst the main reasons for female submission to men. This is not because Islam as a religion is backward as compared to Judaism or Christianity. Our societies have not been able to develop, to modernize economically and socially because we were colonized for long periods of time. Now colonialism has been replaced by the neo-colonialism of the United States in cooperation with Israel. Our area is the theatre of two wars of occupation, one in Palestine and the other in Iraq and may be more wars are yet to come. We remain dependent economically and politically, money flows out of our country as we are sucked into the global market, unemployment is rampant (3.5 million of whom educated youth constitute a half). Our industry and agriculture have both regressed and we are exposed to market consumerism on the one hand and religion, fundamentalism on the other after successive governments allied first to the British and now to the Americans have connived to liquidate progressive, democratic and left wing movements in our countries.

Expanding the understanding of Creativity:

Creativity is considered sometimes as something limited to literature and the arts. But creativity in fact can be exercised in all areas of life and work. It can be exercised in economics, politics, culture, religion social development, the sciences and the arts. With the global changes affecting human society women have exhibited an amazing degree of creativity broth in the Arab countries and in the rest of the world by adapting their struggles within the family, at work and in society to these changes, by a flow of innovative ideas and practices within their movements. They have broken through many of the boundaries, and limitations which held them back in the past. Feminist movements have abandoned their exclusionary practices directed against men (irrespective of matters related to sexual life) and little by little men are changing some of their prejudices related to women.

Economic difficulties have played a role in many cases especially amongst the youth. Women have played an important role in the struggle against war, in movements against corporate capitalist globalization, are increasingly visible in cultural activities, in professional life, in work. Their contributions to literature, philosophy, the democratization of social and communal movements is often remarkable. Their contribution to religious interpretation and thinking, once the prerogative of men, has been remarkable. They have linked religion to its historical context and concentrated on the humanistic aspects of religious texts in the Quran, Bible and New Testament in an attempt to emphasize what is favorable to more justice and freedom for women and men.

The fragmentation which has affected the feminist movement and reduced the size and effectiveness of many of its constituent organizations might conceal the fact that women's resistance to patriarchy and male domination has grown in scope and variety, and manifested the same changes which have characterized social movements during the past decades.

Women have broken down the frontiers between their theoretical and ideological contributions and the various areas of practical activity by occupying positions in the church which were reserved for men or fulfilling the role of Imam and leading Muslim congregations in prayers. They have engaged in political activity more frequently, participated in elections to various posts and occupied increasingly elevated political responsibilities. In Egypt I presented myself as a candidate to the presidential elections which resulted for the first time in a debate on the pages of widely read newspapers and television screens followed by millions of people in the Arab countries.
However this does not mean that it is enough for a woman in a high post in order to advance the cause of women's resistance to male domination. Women at different levels can often reinforce male domination by the ideas they propagate and the policies they defend. Examples are women like Margaret Thatcher, and Condoleeza Rice who differ little from men like George Bush, or Dick Cheynee. Margaret Thatcher showed support for Pinochet before she left England and she stood against women's rights in her country.

The creativity and dissidence of women serves their cause when it serves to raise their consciousness, to lift the veils off their minds and to enhance their resistance against patriarchalism and social inequality in society and in the family. Creativity channeled in such a way paves the way to change, to the demolition of outmoded, reactionary anti-democratic structures, to the strengthening of political and social movements which struggle for peace, democracy, and justice, and for gender equality.

However, when social structures change there is always an intervening period of chaos, and confusion. Transnational of periods of chaos are inevitable, but we should learn how to live and deal with them, how to allay the feelings of anxiety, fear and insecurity which they often engender among men and women. Creative women know how to live with chaos because they have understood that every creation is an inspiration which surges up out of chaos. Dissidence and chaos which disturb the status quo are words which are linked to madness in the minds of many women and men fearing anything which upsets the false stability with which they surround themselves. Creative women through out history were often considered to be mad. Dissident women in the Middle Ages were burnt as witches. I remember that as a young girl when I first held a pen to write and expressed my desire to be a writer my peers in medical college, my girl friends said that I was mad. When I presented myself as a candidate to the Presidential elections an important member of the Peoples Assembly belonging to the government party said I was a mad women. He insulted male candidates from the opposition as being corrupt, or dishonest, or opportunist but the only candidate he described as mad was me, a woman.

The theory of chaos has become a part of world science. The minds of women and men have started to assimilate the idea of chaos as being the other face of order, like night is the other side to day, death a corollary to life, and madness an integral part of reason.

Provoking Debate or Asking New Questions:

Every creative contribution to human thinking leads to a struggle between the new and the old, between the oppressors and those who are seeking freedom, between the exploited and the exploiters, between the irrational and the rational. When what is new prevails, new problems, new questions arise. Controversy and struggle are inevitable and necessary especially during periods of more rapid change and should be welcomed as positive on condition that they are non-violent, depend on democratic means and avoid bloodshed.

During the past period a controversy broke out in Egypt, over the question of whether a woman could become President. The religious authorities had different opinions on this issue. The Sheikh of Al Azhar Dr. Mohammed Sayed Tantawi declared that in Islam a woman can become President whereas the Mufti Dr. Ali Goma'a said that Islam is categorically against allowing a woman to become President of the country. When asked why this was so he replied: 'because of her physiology and her monthly periods'.

Perhaps his Excellency the Mufti does not know that in my village and in the other villages of Egypt women often work in the fields from dawn to dusk despite their monthly periods. Peasant women sometimes give birth in the field, cut the umbilical cord themselves, bury the placenta, wrap the small baby in a basket and carry it home on their head.

Another recent controversy was concerned with the right of women to carry out the functions of an Imam and lead the faithful in prayer. The majority of men and a number of women did not agree to her becoming an 'Imam' . Amongst the women was Dr. 'Soad Saleh' Dean of the School of Islamic Studies in the university of Al Azhar. She maintained that in Islam there were strict conditions which had to be applied to those who became Imams namely maturity of mind and body, but above all they had to be masculine. Therefore, a woman cannot become an Imam, especially as she will kneel and prostrate herself in front of the rows of men praying behind her and cause corruption to spread around.

The same reasoning is found in the insistence on women wearing the veil, since their hair and their faces can be a temptation to men. In the reasoning of those who argue in this way to seclude women and prevent them from assuming various functions in public life is built on the assumption that men are weak, cannot control their desires and liable to be sexually aroused at all times.

An interesting debate arose over a relationship which involved a young woman and a young man working in the cinema industry. The fruit of their relationship was a baby girl which the father Ahmed El Fishawi refused to recognize as being his child even though he admitted having had a sexual relationship with the young woman, an engineer named Hind El Hinnawi. The religious authorities maintained that since he had not been officially married to her, he had a right not to recognize the baby as being his child and a right not to accept a DNA test which Hind's parents were prepared to pay for.

There are thousands of women in Egypt who suffer the same plight as a result of patriarchy which still reigns supreme in society and the family. Property, honour authority belong to the man who however is not held responsible for his acts. Only he can give legitimacy to the child. The mothers name is not recognized as honourable, cannot serve to save the future of children born out of wedlock, even if they are the result of what is called 'custom marriage' recognized in Islam.
The only solution to this problem is to bestow on the mother and her name the same legitimacy as that of the father.

The patriarchal marriage law:

The marriage law in Egypt has remained rigidly patriarchal. It permits the father to escape his responsibilities. Women continue to be scape-goats despite the continued resistance and efforts of Egyptian women which have led to slight improvements like the right of a woman to ask for divorce by going to court but this costs money and efforts only possible in the case of women who are relatively well off. On the other hand men can still marry more than one wife if they wish and over 2% of men continue to do so especially when they grow old and want a younger woman to reinforce their waning powers, or they divorce and remarry leaving the older wife and her children to fight for an alimony in the courts.

During a recent trip to Algeria I attended a conference about the new family law promulgated as a result of the continuous efforts made by groups and associations of women in that country.

Now despite the vociferous campaign launched by the Islamic political movements an Algerian man cannot marry more than one wife or divorce without permission from the court, cannot prevent his daughter from marrying the partner of her choice. A woman also cannot divorce without going to court. The head of the family is no longer necessarily a man. This responsibility can be taken over by other members of the family, by the mother or an older son or daughter if one of them is more capable of assuming it.

These changes are extremely important because they mean a radical democratic change within the family which is the first and also a very influential school in life.
Democracy is a process which begins at birth and continues until the end of life. It is not just voting in elections.
Algerian women have waged continuous battles against colonialism, have demonstrated against the fundamentalist movement in the streets of many cities and have often sacrificed their lives in these struggles and in a continuous effort to gain more rights. Creativity, change, progress can never be achieved without paying a price and need courage, a lot of courage.

The patriarchal family law in Egypt remains a corner stone of support essential for the maintenance of the class patriarchal system, whence the ferocious struggle by the Islamic political movements and by most men backed by tradition, custom, and the prevailing culture which all mould the consciousness of men and women in society.
It is the class patriarchal system based on masculine domination over women, and on the domination of the rich over the poor which permits men like George Bush and Ariel Sharon to wage wars in Palestine, Iraq, and Afghanistan. They draw their power from the global multinational capitalist system controlled by a world network of men and from the ferocious patriarchal forces of Judeo-Christian fundamentalism in the United States, of Judaic fundamentalism in Israel and in other countries where Islam is the prevailing religion. All these forces maintain the need to reinforce the patriarchal family and the domination of men over women.

Towards a new Identity built on Human Solidarity:

Despite all the difficulties faced by women and by progressive democratic movements in general the world is witnessing a new creative solidarity of peoples, a solidarity seeking common goals in the richness of diversity. It is a solidarity built on the refusal of all forms f discrimination built on class, gender, race, colour or religion.
This world movement of peoples, of women and men against global market exploitation, against war and violence, injustices and oppression owe a lot to the feminist movement to the efforts of women who have unmasked the duality and contradictions of the class patriarchal system, linked the personal and familial with the political, evolved new forms of democratic organization, abolished the separation between reason and emotion, between philosophical thought and theorizing and the creativity of the body in dance, and rhythm, in song and music, painting, sculpture between the arts, sciences, politics and social change, between the local and the global, form and content, subject and object, spirit and body, between the individual and the collective the past, the present and the future, between the self and the other.
With gender consciousness has come the flow which sweeps through all boundaries and separations and has brought erotion into science, demonstrated that creative writing, music, dancing express though and feeling in action, has abolished the gap which existed, between theory and practice.

The feminist movement has opened up to all movements that wish to build another world, preserve the environment against the encroachments of science and technology.
This new identity, this human solidarity, this free flow of minds and bodies is exemplified in this conference which has brought together the struggle of a Swedish dancer, a Hindu thinker, an Arab professor, a Nigerian poet, and researchers from Egypt, Syria and Palestine. Here we all meet in the struggle against gender discrimination, against imperialism and war, against male domination and the false consciousness which makes women and men accept the unacceptable.
And because we are many and diverse and rich with our cultures and history and made powerful by our common quest for peace, justice and democracy we are unbeatable even if the path before us is long and arduous..

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