PORTLAND — She has been married and divorced three times and been thrown in prison. Although she has lived in a repressed culture, she has never been afraid to speak her mind.

Recently, Nawal El Saadawi, the 80-year-old Egyptian novelist, feminist and human rights activist, was one of thousands of protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square during demonstrations that drove Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak from power.

On Tuesday night, Saadawi spoke at the Portland campus of the University of Southern Maine, providing a first-hand account of the Egyptian revolution and the state of affairs in her native country.

More than 200 people filled Luther Bonney Hall to capacity to hear her speak. The appearance is part of a tour of U.S. college campuses.

She said the revolt that ousted Mubarak last month proved that the Egyptian people have character.

“I have confidence in the power of the people,” Saadawi said.

Saadawi said the seeds of the Egyptian revolution are spreading to places such as Wisconsin – where massive union protests were launched when the Legislature stripped state employees of their collective bargaining rights.

“It’s spreading like a virus, a very good virus,” said Saadawi who teaches courses in creativity and dissidence.

She poked fun at her government, encouraged students to rebel by thinking for themselves.

“I divorced three husbands just to be here tonight and to be able to speak my mind,” Saadawi told the audience. “There are millions of women who live with husbands they are afraid to divorce. They are beaten for speaking their minds.”

“I’m proud of being divorced,” she said. She also urged Americans to learn more about the Muslim religion and rid themselves of “Islamophobia.”

Saadawi was born in a small Egyptian village in the Nile delta region in 1931.

She graduated as a physician from Cairo University in 1955.

She began writing short stories and novels in the 1950s, but her rebellious nature emerged in the 1970s with the publication of “Women and Sex and the Hidden Face of Eve” in which she called for an end to violence against women in Egyptian and Arabic society.

“This truth started a war of words with Anwar Sadat and his government and eventually led to her imprisonment in 1981,” said C. George Caffentziz, a USM philosophy professor, who introduced Saadawi.

After Sadat left office, she continued to fight for women’s rights and against fundamentalism, but her positions drew death threats from Islamic fundamentalists, Caffentzis said.

For the past 20 years, for own her safety, she has worked in U.S. universities such as Duke, Harvard, Columbia, and at USM during a one-year professorship in 2003.

Saadawi said that since the age of 10 she had dreamed of a peoples’ revolt in Egpyt. When asked who might be chosen to take Mubarak’s place, Saadawi said she knows of no qualified candidates.

Someone in the audience asked her if she would run.

Her reply: “I said no. I can’t. I am 80 years old.”


Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at: [email protected]