War against Women and
Women against War
Waging War on the Mind
Nawal El Saadawi
The World Social Forum 2004
16-21 January, 2004
I am writing this paper sitting at my
kitchen table in
The number of these microphones has
multiplied steadily during the past three decades with the rapid rise in the
number of mosques built with money from the petrol rich Gulf countries or from
Egyptians who have spent many years working there. They constitute the middle and upper class
conservative backbone of the Islamic fundamentalist movement in
The call to prayer when I first heard it as a child then later as a young girl was beautiful to hear. It wafted over the city in soft and sometimes musical tones. Now it has become a cacophony of strident vengeful voices, a threatening call shot through with violence. It strikes fear into the hearts of people, tears them from the depths of sleep in the dark hours of early dawn, is repeated throughout the day until at night exhausted they lie down on a floor, or in a bed to be awakened the following dawn in the name of godly worship.
The call to prayer, the sermons and religious teachings pouring out in an incessant stream of loud and angry voices from ninety thousand microphones spread over the country encroaching on peoples right to rest and to silence are a form of war. This is one of the many wars unleashed on millions of peaceful people since Sadat came to power in 1971 and reopened the doors to American neo-imperialism.
It was Sadat in agreement with the United States
administration of Nixon and Kissinger who encouraged and supported the political
movement of Islamic fundamentalism, helped it to flourish and grow. It was Sadat who reversed the policies of
He needed an internal ally, the support of a political, economic, and cultural Islamic movement to fight against the democratic and more socially oriented parties and movements which opposed his policies. It was in this way that during his regime international capital, spearheaded by the United States in alliance with the ruling class reimposed its domination on women, men and children and paved its way under the guise of restoring the values and practices of Islam, of Islamic traditions and of the family unit as basic to the health and prosperity of society. The multinationals and their intermediaries hid behind the cloak of Islam, of a revived religious fundamentalism. This was a war on the mind of people, a campaign launched to control and domesticate their thinking, a religious brainwashing required to facilitate and hide what capital was planning to do with their land, with their life.
This war on the mind is a global phenomenon. The growing influence exercised by political fundamentalist movements is a development which has taken place in many countries in both the East and the West, even though it is particularly visible in the Arab region as a result of the close cooperation which exists between local dictatorial and corrupt regimes on the one hand and United States neo-imperialists allied to the aggressive Zionist rulers of Israel on the other.
The neo-conservative, neo-colonial forms have
dealt severe blows to the more progressive, more socially oriented movements
and political parties in the Arab countries.
The most furious attacks during the past thirty years have been directed
against women considered as the main target by political fundamentalist
movements. Control of women,
domestication of their bodies and especially of their minds has always been
considered by them as one of their most important, if not their most important
aims. This is manifest in the banning of
many women's groups and associations during the past years. In 1991 for example the Egyptian branch of
the Arab Women's Solidarity Association was shut down by a government decree
because it denounced the war waged on
The invasion of
To prevent women from fighting back against war
and increased exploitation their organizations must be dissolved when they
arise as has happened so often. More
effective is to prevent them from arising by draconian laws such as the law on
associations promulgated two years ago in
It is a ferocious war waged against the minds of both women and men, but especially women because it is only women who can liberate women and in so doing constitute a tremendous force for the liberation of society as a whole.
In this war women are besieged by a double pincer assault that of "corporate consumerism" and a "free market" on the one hand and "religious political fundamentalism" on the other ostensibly at odds but actually combining to maintain the subjugation of women, to control their minds and their bodies by patriarchal imprisonment, veiling, domestication and subjugation where fear and obedience become prime movers, or by a pseudo freedom built on sexual commercialization of their bodies and various forms or degrees of prostitution, by transforming them into cheap labour in the informal or sweat sector or in free trade areas, or in services.
However in our area the most dangerous and pervasive forces in the war on women's minds are those of political religious fundamentalism at home in the traditionalist conservative social structure of our societies. For it serves to conceal, to perpetuate, to reinforce and to rationalize the economic, political, social and cultural exploitation of international corporate capital and United States imperialism made easier by the adaptability and versatility resulting from new technologies in the field of information and communication.
Countries like ours are described as "poor" or "backward" or "Third World". We are not poor. The Arab countries are amongst the richest countries of the world due to their immense natural and human resources. But their riches in labour, mineral, fossil or other resources continue to be poured into the pipe lines of foreign plunder by the capitalist, corporate World Bank, World Trade Organization "free market" mechanisms of unequal trade balances, foreign debt, speculation, currency devaluation and exchange, structural adjustment and investment policies.
A military and economic war, a trade in arms, in human beings, an economic genocide continues to drain the life blood of our lands.
Our region has lived through many wars mainly due
to its rich oil resources which made it the prey of the colonialists and the
neo-colonialists serving the interests of international and multi-national
capital. In my own life-time, since I
was a child, I have lived through seven wars and now I am the horrified witness
of the Israeli massacres in
Wars have become terribly destructive due to the development of sophisticated technologically advanced weapons. The worst are called weapons of mass destruction but there are so called conventional weapons which are almost as bad (two ton bombs, laser directed one ton rockets, cluster bombs, bombs that suck up the oxygen around them where they explode, rockets coated with depleted uranium etc..). Nuclear, biological and chemical weapons threaten the lives of millions of people and above all unprotected women and children.
Yet perhaps the most lethal and the most dangerous weapons of all are those that brain wash, or anaesthetize, or paralyse the mind, namely the media, the educational systems and above all the religious fundamentalist teachings which create a "false consciousness" among men and among women who constitute more than half the population of my country and more than half the populations of the world. False consciousness makes women obedient instruments of their own oppression, and transmitters of this false consciousness to future generations of children, of girls and boys. It is lethal because what it does to women's minds is not visible. Unlike physical female genital mutilation it is an invisible gender mutilation which destroys the dynamism, the capacity to understand what is happening, to react and resist, to change, to participate in making changes. It destroys the essential creativity of the human mind. It instills fear, obedience, resignation, illusions, an inability to decide or it leads women to make decisions, to take positions, to defend values and ideas inimical to their own interests, to the health and development of their life. It makes women their own enemy, incapable of discerning friend from foe.
Arab women are being driven to enslave themselves
During the first half of January 2004, a violent conflict burst out over the veiling of young girls in the public schools of France. The French authorities had announced that in defense of their traditional secular system they were preparing to pass a law which banned young girls and boys from wearing visible religious accessories or apparel which denoted their belonging to a particular religious faith. This ban would include such things as the Christian crucifix, the Jewish skull-cap and the Islamic veil.
Following this announcement a wave of protests broke out in the Arab world. The argument was that wearing the veil by girls and women who were Muslems was ordained by divine law and no woman or girl could be forced to disobey what Allah had commended her to do. Religious dignitaries and sheikhs, Islamic thinkers and scholars, heads of political parties or movements like the "Muslem Brotherhood" and the "Gihad", parliamentarians, journalists joined in the general clamour as though some terrible catastrophe had befallen the Islamic faith and its followers although in the Qur'an there is absolutely nothing to indicate that the wearing of the veil is a divine command. So why this furor over a piece of material which is wrapped around the head of women and conceals it? Why should the head of women in particular be considered so dangerous that it must be made to disappear?
This is no more than the age old patriarchal struggle over women's heads, the fear that they might begin to think and throw off the bonds of slavery, of an inferiority enforced on them in all religions and in all societies. For the Muslim men who raised their voice in protest this was an integral part of their struggle to maintain men's control over women, men's control over their minds. This was above all the desire of Islamic fundamentalists to preserve the political power they exercise in society a cornerstone of which has always been power over women.
But in this political fray there were other players using women rights or lack of rights to their own ends. Chirac had his eyes on the polls, on future elections. The American administration raised the banner of human rights, of women's right to chose. Bush is preparing for the next elections and also found in this conflict a suitable occasion to hit back at the French government with which he has been at odds since the war on Iraq. Besides one of Bush's declared aims in waging war first against Afghanistan, then against Iraq was "the liberation of women". The British government took the same position probably in an attempt to retrieve some of Blair's lost popularity amongst many people in England including the Muslem community and as part of his passionate love affair with Bush.
Strangest of all however was the spectacle of young women in the streets of Paris and Cairo and other cities demonstrating against the French government's announcement in defense of their right to wear the veil, and of God's divine commandments in defense of this symbol of their servitude. This is a signal example of how "false consciousness" makes women enemies of their freedom, enemies of themselves, an example of how they are used in the political game being played by the Islamic fundamentalist movement in its bid for power.
During the month of September 2003 I met a group of Iraqi women in New York and was astounded when they expressed their happiness at the "liberation of Iraq" and its occupation by American troops. Perhaps they or their families had suffered at the hands of Saddam Hussein and his tyrannical regime but how could they fail to realize that the Iraqi people, and with them Iraqi women and children would suffer at the hands of a colonial military occupation even more than ever before. Was it fear, this essential component of women's subservience in a world growing ever more violent, or was it the false ideas installed by a media system ruled over by men like Rupert Murdoch and Silvio Berlusconi, by the neo-fascists of the Bush era.
The slogan raised by the girls and young women who demonstrated against the announcement made by the government of France was "The veil is a doctrine not a symbol". This was the same argumentation defended by the religious leaders of the Islamic movement and the sheikh of Al-Azhar which is the most important Islamic centre and university established more than a thousand years ago.
Another argument used as a part of the brain washing process is to consider the veil an integral part of the identity of Islamic women and a reflection of their struggle against Western imperialism against its values, and against "cultural invasion" of the Arab and Islamic countries aimed at enforcing complete domination over them.
Yet in these demonstrations the young women and girls who marched in them wearing the veil were often clothed in tight fitting jeans, their faces covered with layers of make-up, their lips painted bright red, the lashes around their eyes thickened black or blue with heavy mascara. They walked along the streets swaying over high heeled shoes, drinking out of bottles of "Coca Cola" or "Sprite". Their demonstration was a proof of the link between Western capitalist consumerism and Islamic fundamentalism, how in both money and trade ride supreme, bend to the rule of corporate globalization. It was an illustration of how a "false consciousness" is shot with contradiction.
State terrorism and poverty nurture a rising fear
The spread of war in the Arab region, the daily massacres directed against civilian populations in Palestine and Iraq, the threat of other imperialist wars against Syria and Iran with which the Bush and Sharon administrations are closely linked, the terror exercised by corporate militarization and by local police states seeking to keep their peoples in check, the military bases dotted over the area, the atmosphere of growing violence leads to more and more patriarchal violence outside and in the home. With violence fear grows in the hearts and minds of women, makes them more and more obedient, prone to yield to the slightest pressure and accept their fate without resistance, to change. It affects women more than men because they are ruled over by men, by the violence exercised within the family, at the work place, in public life, in the religious institutions. Fear is the midwife of slavery.
Poverty combines with violence to instill even greater fear in women. Economic insecurity, the struggle for survival not only instills fear, it preoccupies the mind, exhausts the energy, the vitality leaves no time, no driving force to do anything else, to fight, to resist, to organize.
In Egypt 81% of female university and technical school graduates are unemployed. The Egyptian government faced with a public debt of 156 milliard pounds equivalent to 137% of gross national income has borrowed 146 milliard pounds from the national social security fund in an attempt to redress the balance of payments and continues to seek different subterfuges in order not to pay them back. Most of this money serves to keep women, widows, single women and female children who have no independent income alive. Their dependence on male members of the family tends to grow making them more vulnerable to patriarchal oppression and violence, more prone to resignation and fear.
The neo–imperialist alliance with political religious fundamentalism
Why during the last three decades and until quite recently have the neo–imperialists cooperated with Islamic (as well as Jewish) and other religious fundamentalists all over the world? Why did the Texan oil interests, the Bush family, the CIA cooperate for so long with the most radical Islamic wing of the ruling Wahabite dynasty in Seoudi Arabia and engender Ben Laden, his coterie of cadres and his 35,000 strong army of guerrillas in Afghanistan? Why did they encourage and nurture the Islamic fundamentalist movement in the Arab countries, in Africa and Asia.
It is the age old use of religion in power politics by ruling classes needed by them especially in an age where wealth is concentrated in the hands of a shrinking minority. An integral part of this political utilization of religion is the war on women to decapitate them, to make them bodies without a mind. The capitalist corporations make them bodies for commerce, for consumption, for sexual pleasure. The Islamic fundamentalist mercantile capitalists imprison them as bodies for the use of men at home, in the family in reproduction, in caring and nurturing the males.
The neo–corporate rulers of the world use military force violence, police, prisons and economic servitude to protect and reinforce the class patriarchal neo-colonial system but they know that force alone is not enough. They fear the human mind and they fear the minds of women above all. Women are the rock bottom of society, of the family unit, of the home, the connective tissue of society, the mainstay of economic life, the producers and reproducers. They shoulder 90% of all the work but own only 10% of what is owned. Women on the move will change the world, will give birth to another world.
Four hundred and thirty one men own as much as more than half the population of the world, the gap between the rich and the poor grows deeper and wider every year. The Bushs, the Blairs, the Chiracs, the Sharons, the Mosharafs, the Vajpayees and the kings and rulers of the Arab world, the five hundred multinationals controlling 80% of trade and investment in the world, the military industrial complex, the neo-conservative, neo-imperialists of the United States with their control of the media, with their laser and atomic weapons, their permanent military bases in 36 countries and their military presence in 120 of the 189 countries of our globe, with their global outreach and global market enmeshing our lives everywhere constitute a super force more rich, more powerful, more aggressive than history has even known before.
Nevertheless women in the Arab region, in Iraq, in Palestine, in Egypt, in Syria, in Lebanon, in Morocco, in Bahrain, in Seoudi Arabia have never stopped struggling side by side with women in the United States, in Latin America, in Iran, in Afghanistan, in India, in Asia against gender oppression, for peace, democracy and social justice. They have never stopped struggling in different ways against the brain washing of the media, against economic servitude and genocide, against militarization carried on at the expense of health, education, environmental protection, economic security, and employment. They have never stopped struggling to protect themselves and their children against prostitution and slave labour.
Hundreds of thousands of women have marched in demonstrations all over the world for peace against war, for democracy against violence, for women’s right to own their bodies and their minds against patriarchal enslavement.
Women in the Arab countries have succeeded in changing laws, have imposed themselves on many sectors of economic and social activity, have changed values considered as eternal, have drawn increasing numbers of young men into the struggle against gender discrimination.
The movement against corporate militaristic capitalism is a growing superpower of the people, is a movement with a potential, a richness, a democratic content, a versatility, a promise for real participative democracy, for peace and real justice which the world has never known before.
We are all here as a part of this `movement. We are all here to register another milestone in its march towards a new future. However we must all remember that for many years, for much too long women have been banished, have been exiled by the most progressive, the most democratic, the most socialistic movements, and even to varying extents by the local and global social forums of the world.
This wonderful meeting held today is an important step to redress this situation. Other steps have been taken before but the road to making gender an integral part of the struggles for another better world is still long. A better world is not possible, without freeing the minds and bodies of women, from the class patriarchal control exercised by corporate capitalism on the one hand and religious fundamentalism on the other. There will be no better world without organizing women everywhere, there will be no peace, no justice, no real democracy.
But it is only women, women themselves, who can free themselves from all forms of gender oppression and so become a vital dynamic force capable of creating another world.
Nawal El Saadawi
 In 1991 my name appeared on a fundamentalist death list and I was forced into exile for four years. During the year 2002 a campaign was launched against me by fundamentalist circles accusing me of apostasy. They raised a case in the Personal Law Courts demanding that I be divorced from my husband the novelist medical doctor and activist Sherif Hetata.