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Former Visiting Professor in Court, Under Fire in Egypt

A former Duke faculty member is on trial in Cairo, Egypt, for her marriage.

Writer and Islamic feminist Nawal el-Saadawi is defending herself in Egypt's Personal Status Court against a lawsuit brought by an attorney who is charging her with apostasy and with slandering Islam. A court ruling against her could require her to divorce her husband.

But Saadawi, who has previously endured censorship and death threats, is not backing down from the fight, said Miriam Cooke, professor of Asian and African languages and literature and a long-time friend of Saadawi. Cooke brought Saadawi and her husband Sherif Hetata to Duke from 1993-1996 as visiting professors.

"There's not a case that Nawal won't turn into a cause," said Cooke in an interview. "And that's true even if it is her own case. In this situation, what she wants to do is take this case and use it to rid Egyptian law of hisba."

Hisba is a provision in contemporary Egyptian law that allows a Muslim individual to interfere in the lives of others when they commit a crime against God or Islam. In Egypt, where secular law has incorporated Islamic personal status law, Islamist attorneys have attempted in a few cases to use hisba to force individuals who have made allegedly heretical comments to divorce their spouses. They use a controversial, centuries-old Islamic ruling that a Muslim can not be married to an apostate.

Last month, an Islamist attorney named Nabih al Wahsh -- "It means 'savage,'" Cooke said -- turned his attention to Saadawi. The instigation was publication of an interview with her in which she repeated her long-standing views on her opposition to the veiling of women, inequality in inheritance rights and other gender issues. She said these contradicted the essence of Islam and the correct interpretation of the Koran. She also stated that, as with all other religions, some of the practices of Islam were inherited from pagan practices.

Claiming that these views slander Islam, Wahsh filed a lawsuit in Egypt's Personal Status Court under the privilege of hisba and asked that Saadawi be declared an apostate and divorced from her husband. The trial began June 18, but is currently postponed until the trial judge can rule on whether Wahsh has proper legal status to bring the lawsuit. But even if this case fails, as Cooke says Saadawi supporters believe it will, Wahsh has filed yet another case against her in Criminal Court of Azbakeya, scheduled for July 22.

Saadawi considers herself to be a devout Muslim and can quote from the Koran and from Islamic law and traditions with the best of religious scholars, Cooke said. But her politics and writing, particularly on the status of women, have long drawn her into dispute with Islamist scholars and attorneys, Cooke added.

"She's at the forefront of feminism there," Cooke said. "What we don't always understand in the West is that in Islam there is a lot of room for personal exploration of religious feeling in Islam. There is a lot of resistance, both to authoritarian religious ideas, but also to the oppression of women. Nawal comes out of that and is now at the front of that tradition."

Complicating the situation is the role of the Egyptian government. The government is not part of the lawsuit and in fact the state prosecutor has declined to file charges against Saadawi in the case. On the other hand, Cooke and others believe that the government has created an environment that encourages the growing Islamist movement there to attack independent thinkers such as Saadawi.

Supporters of Saadawi are asking for friends to show support through letters, both to Saadawi and to Egyptian authorities. Addresses and sample letters can be found on a Web site about the case at <>.