photo: The Guardian

It was one of those weird coincidences that sometimes makes me wonder what is going on in the world, or at least in my own little world.

One evening last week we went to see the Swiss film, ‘The Divine Order,’ because it had been recommended by a friend. We were not disappointed. The film portrays the struggle of the women of Switzerland to obtain the right to vote, which was granted to them only in 1971. Think of England’s suffragettes, who fought for that right and won it early in the twentieth century!

The film, which was written and directed by Petra Volpe, focuses on the life of one particular woman, Nora, a mild-mannered, docile housewife who seems content with her life in village, surrounded by picturesque scenery, but is irked by the fact that her husband exerts his legal right to forbid her to go out to work. This leads to a series of events that stirs up the family and eventually the entire village, so that we see our placid heroine turn into a feisty woman prepared to join in the countrywide fight for what she believes is her right.

What is particularly interesting is the resistance to the idea of women’s suffrage shown by some of the women, who contend that it is part of ‘the divine order’ and only right and proper for women to be dominated by men. Eventually, even some of the men come round to view matters in a different light, and so the election result finally gives the women of Switzerland the vote and all’s well that ends well.

The following day I turned the television on while I was doing my usual morning exercises and happened to catch the daily BBC interview, ‘Hard Talk.’ The interviewee was an elderly woman with a shock of white hair, and although I had missed the beginning of the programme, I soon realized that this was an Egyptian woman at the forefront of the battle for women’s rights in that country.

As the allotted half-hour progressed I found that she was Nawal al-Saadawi, a well-known Egyptian author and activist, who is also a physician and psychiatrist. Apparently she has written over thirty books, both fiction and non-fiction, and has now reached the respectable age of eighty-six.

Nawal al-Saadawi has campaigned consistently against FGM (female genital mutilation), which is still widely practiced in Egypt (and many other countries of the Middle East and Africa), but she also condemns circumcision, the male version of the practice, contending that in both cases it is a cruel and unnatural way of interfering with the human body. She claims that FGM is part of the ideology which seeks to maintain the dominance of men over women, promoting monogamy for women and polygamy for men. “We live in a harsh, patriarchal religious system,” she said, claiming that the support showed by some women for the continuation of the practice of FGM was evidence of their ‘slave mentality’ (akin to the Stockholm Syndrome).

When the interviewer asked Nawal what she thought of Egypt’s current leader, Abdel Fattah a-Sisi who, unlike the Moslem Brotherhood, has not been democratically elected, Nawal was adamant that he is infinitely better than the Moslem Brotherhood. The latter would undoubtedly have imposed all manner of religious laws, she said, on the grounds that everything came from Allah. “To play with religion is to play with fire,” she added, at the same time insisting that most Egyptians do not support the idea of a religious state.

Asked about her opinion of democratic elections, Nawal claimed that elections generally have nothing to do with democracy, and also that democracy has nothing to do with elections. She pointed out that it was money and power that determined election outcomes, and events in several countries seem to have borne her out.

Nawal denigrated the practice of marrying young girls to older men, and related how, at the age of ten, she resisted her parents’ intention to marry her to a much older man. When the interviewer asked her how she managed to do that at such a young age, she just laughed and said “For that you will have to read my autobiography.”

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