Al-Ahram Weekly Online
14 - 20 June 2001
Issue No.538
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Mobilising for Saadawi

A meeting held in solidarity with Nawal El-Saadawi witnessed calls for the abolition, once and for all, of the hisba law, reports Khaled Dawoud

There was hardly room to stand in the leftist Tagammu Party's meeting room as nearly 100 people gathered, this week, to show solidarity with prominent feminist and novelist Nawal El-Saadawi.

On Monday, 18 June, a Cairo personal status court will begin hearings of a case brought against the 70-year-old Saadawi by a lawyer demanding that she be separated from her 78-year-old husband, Sherif Hetata. The lawyer claimed that statements she made in an interview with an independent weekly newspaper in early March "ousted her from Islam."

In that interview, Saadawi was quoted as saying that the rituals of the hajj or Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca were "vestiges of pagan practices." She was also quoted as calling for equal inheritance rights for men and women, which allegedly contravenes Shari'a's stipulation that a man inherit double the woman's share.

The lawsuit was launched in line with what is known as the hisba law, which allows any Muslim to initiate legal proceedings against others if he deems that their words or actions are harmful to Islam. According to a strict interpretation of Islamic law, a Muslim woman who is proven to be an "apostate" cannot continue to be married to a Muslim man. The opposite is also true.

Exacerbating the matter, the same newspaper that interviewed Saadawi sought the opinions of leading scholars of Islam on her reported views, and they all, as expected, strongly condemned her.

Saadawi's case is not unprecedented. Yet, it was the first in several years and was brought after the majority of intellectuals thought that the door had been closed in face of hisba cases. In 1995, a Cairo court ordered the divorce of university professor Nasr Hamed Abu- Zeid, from his wife, Ibtihal Younis, also on the grounds that his writings on Islam made him a non-Muslim. In order to curb the misuse of the hisba law by extremist lawyers against intellectuals, parliament moved to amend that law shortly after Abu-Zeid's forced divorce ruling and his decision to go into exile with his wife in the Netherlands. The amendment confined the right to file hisba cases with courts to the prosecutor-general's office upon receipt of citizens' complaints.

In Saadawi's case, the prosecutor-general had already turned down a complaint filed by the same lawyer, accusing her of "deriding religion." But the lawyer initiated legal action before a personal status court. Legal experts believe that the court will throw out the separation case, primarily because it was not brought by the prosecutor-general.

Saadawi and her supporters advocate abolishing the hisba law once and for all. Speakers at the Tagammu rally, including Farida El-Naqqash, editor of the Tagammu's literary monthly magazine Adab wa Naqd, and American University in Cairo literature professor Ferial Ghazoul, warned that even if courts reject such cases, there remains a great danger that members of extremist groups would consider statements by Islamic scholars criticising people like Saadawi as a "license to kill intellectuals."

For Saadawi, the affair was very disturbing, but it had one positive aspect. Referring to the solidarity rally, Saadawi said, "This is the first time in my long career that I am honoured in Egypt, my own country." Nearing tears, she added that throughout her long career she was honoured nearly everywhere in the world, Europe, the United States and several Arab countries, "but in Egypt I hardly had a chance to express my views in the local media."

Like many of the speakers, Saadawi said that what shocked her the most was that some persons give themselves the right to interfere in the most intimate details of a human being's life, and replace God as the only judge of a human being's religious beliefs.

"Marriage is a sacred bond in Islam and it cannot be broken by others," she said. "Supposing that I made some mistake, why should my husband and children pay the price?" she asked. She was also very critical of intellectuals and what she referred to as their "shameful silence," saying that not a single leading columnist bothered to write in her support.

This view was backed by former Al-Azhar University professor, Ahmed Sobhi Mansour. Mansour is a dissident himself, and was fired from Al-Azhar after he questioned some accepted Islamic principles concerning adherence to the sayings of the Prophet Mohamed, known as hadith.

Saadawi's husband, Hetata, made a very emotional speech about his long years of marriage to his wife. "I don't want to be separated from my wife. I am now 78, and I don't know what I would do without her," he said.

Yet, the seminar ended on a relatively sour note. The journalist who interviewed Saadawi for the contentious interview attended with two of his supporters, and vehemently denied her claims that she was misquoted by the newspaper or that her statements were taken out of context. "I have the tape and let us all listen to it," the journalist, Wahid Raafat, said as he brandished a small cassette recorder. The scene became chaotic after Saadawi refused to have the tape played and her supporters started yelling at the journalist and his two supporters.

In a concluding comment, Saadawi vowed to "continue fighting until the last breath for the annulment of the hisba law which is a disgrace on all levels and represents a grave violation of human rights."

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