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Friday, 26 October, 2001, 15:08 GMT 16:08 UK
Egypt was once the tolerant face of the Arab world, but even before the terrorist attacks of 11 September an Islamic backlash had bred a new intolerance. The most recent victim of this intolerance is feminist writer Nawal El Saadawi.
Fiona Lloyd-Davies reports
Nawal El Saadawi is the first woman in Egyptian history to be threatened with a forced divorce for expressing her views. She was accused of apostasy - renouncing one's religion - for allegedly insulting Islam.
Apostasy is a crime in Islam and the consequences are serious. If found guilty Nawal would be forcibly divorced from Sherif, her husband of 37 years and face a three-year prison term.
The views expressed by 70- year old Nawal enrage people and her shock of flowing, white hair causes outrage. Whether you agree with what she says or not it is hard to ignore her.
When I arrive at her 26th floor apartment I am struck by two of the most dramatic views of Cairo you could ask for. From the sitting room, a large window opens onto a balcony from where you can see the Nile snaking its way into the distance, the artery of the country.
Opposite, from the kitchen you see the reverse view, the higgledy piggledy rooftops of the city of Cairo, home to nine million people.
Here in this tower, as the Nile breeze relieves the heat of the desert and the dust of the city traffic, you feel you are in the heart of Cairo but distanced from it at the same time. Not unlike Nawal - an Arab and a Muslim but also a feminist fighting against convention for parity of the sexes.
Her eyes burn bright with an intensity and passion when we talk about rights - the right to express yourself, the right to think, the right to fight for an equal society.
Nawal and Sherif
Now, Nawal and Sherif are fighting a battle that threatens them both.
They first met after Sherif was released from 15 years' imprisonment for illegal leftist political activism. He was 40 and had spent his youth in solitary confinement and breaking rocks in a scalding desert prison known as "the Incinerator".
"We don't believe in just writing," says Sherif. "We think that writers should try to put what they say into some form of action.
"It's easy to write about justice, and beauty, and things like that but it's more difficult to do something about it. She's tried to put what she believes into action, and do something about it, and speak out and that's why she has all these problems."
Nawal's outspokenness has caused her many problems. As the first Arab woman to speak out against female circumcision 30 years ago Nawal was sacked from her ministerial job of Director of Public Health.
In 1981 after criticising Sadat's regime she was imprisoned. Nawal's name appeared on a fundamentalist death list and both she and Sherif were forced into exile.
But neither Nawal nor Sherif saw this latest battle looming.
It all started this March when Nawal agreed to be interviewed by Wahid Ra'fat, a journalist working for an Egyptian weekly, Al Maydan.
There was a lot to talk about - four of Nawal's books had just been banned at the Cairo Book Fair, not an unusual event in Egypt but certainly enough to cause comment.
"I spoke how social and economic changes are happening and how we have to modify these laws and to educate people more about the essence of Islam and to change some of the laws," she said. "I have written that many times and nothing happened."
What Nawal failed to take into account was how the current climate has changed so radically that even the freedom to speak openly is now in question.
Cairo may have the air of a Western city but a new, conservative Islam is catching the hearts and minds of ordinary people, stifling any social, cultural or religious questioning that might once have been allowed. Also, at the time of the interview, Muslims were returning from Hajj - the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca.
It was in this atmosphere that Nawal spoke her "well-known" mind.
During the course of the interview, Nawal had referred to the historically accepted fact that elements of the Hajj, such as kissing the black stone had pre-Islamic, pagan roots.
The journalist couldn't believe his ears. All he heard was Nawal calling the Hajj pagan. "You're opening fire," he said to Nawal. "Yes" she replied, "but people should know".
The newspaper articles
Ra'fat returned to his editor, Mohamed Hassan Alafy, who saw immediately that the story would run and run. He led the front page that week with "Dr Nawal El Saadawi says Hajj is a remnant of paganism."
Readers of the newspaper were led to excerpts of Nawal's interview with the line: "She has exploded bombs by her inflammatory opinions."
Mr Alafy, an urbane man who speaks fluent English, looked at us with incredulity when we asked him why he published this. "We publish the newspaper to have a reaction - if you don't have a reaction you are a dead newspaper right?" And he got a reaction.
The next issue featured responses to Nawal's interview from Islamic scholars. Alongside them were printed four readers' letters, one of which called for Nawal to be beheaded. The reader had written: "Nawal Al Saadawi says things in her interview that don't just humiliate Islam but also don't respect Allah the greatest. We want her to be beheaded."
Next, the paper upped the stakes by taking the interview to the Grand Mufti, eager to get a fatwa. Four weeks after the first hysterical headlines the paper led with Nawal's story once more, but this time it read "Nawal angers Mufti..."
This was a green light. Now anyone who wanted to be seen as defender of the faith had legitimacy from the highest Islamic authority in the land. The Mufti had been clear - if Nawal had said what the paper claimed she had said, there was no doubt, she had rejected Islam.
One man, a lawyer named Nabih el Wahsh, decided to seize the moment, knowing that the situation was ripe for a public battle between the conservative interpretation of Islam and the more liberal attitudes towards freedom of speech.
Nabih was used to high profile cases. He had incurred a few wry column inches in the world press after the infamous case he brought against the British Royal family for orchestrating the death of Princess Diana. In Egypt's present climate his maverick court actions can do real harm.
What was it that had infuriated him so much? "Firstly, her denial of the Hajj, which is one pillar of Islam. She categorically said that Hajj and the kissing of the black stone are remnants of paganism. She also denied a verse in the Koran which says that men are entitled to twice the inheritance of women. Who is she to demand equality? Is she greater than God?"
In his self-appointed role as guardian of the faith, Nabih el Wahsh invoked the ancient Islamic law of Hisba. Under Hisba any individual can sue another if they believe they are harming a person or religion. Nawal found herself accused of insulting religion. "I am the only woman in Islamic history that they've applied Hisba to, it's ridiculous," she said.
Egypt was watching closely. While she was accused of religious dissent many journalists were sceptical of Wahsh's motives - was he really protecting Islam?
Finally, after some prevarication, the court declared on 30th July that there was no case to answer. She will not go to prison and she and Sherif will not be forcibly divorced.
But she has a dilemma. Either she can leave the country and speak freely about the situation in Egypt or she can stay and face danger every time anybody chooses to exploit religion for personal or political gain.
Since the events of 11 September it has become even more difficult to criticise Islam from within, but Nawal El Sadaawi is determined to carry on her struggle.
No compromise: Broadcast on Sunday 28 October 2001 at 1915 GMT on BBC Two
Reporter: Samira Hepburn
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