Nawal El Saadawi: Women, Creativity & Mental Health Print E-mail

Women Creativity and Mental Health

By Nawal El Saadawi

(Egypt) (2001)

1 - Undoing what education did to us:

                We are born creative. Living creatures are creative by nature because to survive they need creativity. An Arabic proverbs says: (El Hagah Um El Ekhtera'a) Need is the mother of creativity or necessity is the mother of invention.

To live as human beings, we need food and sex and good art. We need to dance and hear music. But the majority of women and men in our world cannot satisfy these essential human needs. Millions of female and male children (especially in our continent Africa) die of hunger or in wars. Millions of women and men are deprived of essential human rights, of education, employment, food and health.

                Those who are lucky and go to schools and universities are victims of what we call "fragmentation of knowledge". To understand the roots of this fragmentation of knowledge we must go back to early civilization and in particular to the slave system, to slave or class patriarchal philosophy. This philosophy evolved a system of values and ideas that became almost sacred. It separated between the body and the mind (or the sprit) in order to ensure complete domination of masters over slaves. Women were included in the same category as slaves and animals since they represented the body. The owners of the land, the master, or the ruling class represented the mind or the spirit and belonged to God.

                We inherited this philosophical concept. Everything had to undergo division so that the masters can "Divide and Rule". The dichotomy of body/mind or master/spirit led to the fragmentation of knowledge, to the separation between science and art, between the natural sciences and humanities. Patriarchal class civilization and its scientific discoveries could advance towards vistas of new areas only by specialization, by dealing with parts and abandoning the whole. Colonialism, neocolonialism and post modern globalization accentuated class, gender race and religion divisions, and evolved more rapacious systems of exploitation, and so the split within the human being was deepened, the separation between fields of knowledge and creativity accentuated, and the patriarchal division between "superior" man and "inferior" women consecrated.

                Separation between body and mind, between art and science, are two sides of the same coin. With them the mind is the seat of rational thinking, that is of science, the body is the seat of feelings and emotions, that is, of art.

                The colonialist mind, the white mind, is made to be the mind of the world and it is a male mind. Women especially women living in our continent, "black Africa", represent the body, the primitive, the emotional.

                But creativity can only manifest itself to the degree that there is unity between the mind and the body, between rational conscious thoughts and the emotions, the unconscious, in other words to the degree that the unconscious becomes conscious, and the mind and the body are one.

Separating physical health from mental health leads to a false representation of reality and prevents us from understanding the importance of un-fragmented knowledge in the creative process. The result is a very harmful dichotomy between the conscious and the conscious.

                I am a medical doctor, and a psychiatrist, but I never liked the profession. Medical education like all university education is based on the fragmentation of knowledge. Psychiatry continues to live in darkness, especially where women are concerned. It either follows the tenets of the psychoanalytic school, or the teachings of the great religions in the Old and New Testaments and the Qur'an which promote the idea that women is inferior to man, that her mind is incomplete and her sprit is inferior or absent.

                Creativity is related to the ability to undo what formal and informal education did to us since childhood.  Scientific education is no better than religious education. Both based on the fragmentation of knowledge, on dichotomies and on separation between things. Both destroy the natural creative power and mental health of people, especially women.

                Confidence in the "self" is the basis of both mental health and creativity. We lose this confidence through education in schools and at home. This is not specific of my country Egypt or of Africa or Arab countries. It is a universal phenomenon. The education system is based on a class patriarchal philosophy which deprives the human being of its divine power (the creative power) because God, the Creator, should not be challenged or questioned.

                When I was a student in primary school I read the Bible and the Qur-an. The teacher told us that Muslims should believe in the three holy books of God. So I read parts of the three divine books when I was ten years old. The contradictions in these books appeared very clear to me, especially where women are concerned in the way God perceives them.

                My schoolmates were Muslims, Copts and Jews. We felt frightened and humiliated by what we read in the holy books about women and menstrual blood. In the Torah God speaks of menstruation and calls it Al- Tamth, which means an unclean secretion. During the days of Al Tamth, a women is considered unclean for seven days. She should not touch anything sacred, nor come anywhere near it. If a women becomes pregnant with child, and bears a son, she is not purified of her blood until thirty- three days have passed. But if she gave birth to a female child, she remains unclean for sixty-six days. Once she is cleansed she must slaughter a lamb, and a female pigeon or female dove, and offer them to God, so that she be forgiven for her sins, and cleansed of her blood.

                The red stain of menstruation in our cloths frightened us whether we were Muslims, Copts or Jews. We kept going to the bathroom. We were seized with something like obsession, a kind of neurosis. It was a neurosis, which affected many girls. However I felt a little better than my Jewish schoolmates. In the Qur'an menstruation (heid) was described as no more than something which offended others. The word "offended" seemed innocent to me in comparison with what was said about it in the Torah, and the word "heid" seemed better to me than the word "tamth", where the blood is twice as unclean if the child is a girl. Besides, I could not see how the impure blood could be cleansed by offering a roast chicken, or a roast lamb, to God?

                When I went to bed at night I asked god secretly how could a poor women be cleansed of her blood if she could not buy him a chicken or a lamb? He did not reply, but I thanked him for making my father a Muslim. At least I did not have to worry about offering God chickens or lambs. But when I learned that Muslims should believe in the Torah and the Gospels, as well as the Qur'an I started to worry.

                The moment we were born are we are made to live in fear, to obey God blindly without questioning, to obey our parents, our teachers, our bosses our husbands. Education is based on obedience. Obedience and fear are two faces of the same coin. You cannot obey unless you are afraid of punishment or looking for a reward. We obey god because he threatens us by hell fire or tempts us with paradise. In school and at home we are threatened by failure or tempted by success or good grades. Creativity is the ability to do your work because you love it. You do not do it for academic goals or for money, or fame or any other reward, except the feeling of pleasure that you experience while doing creative work.

                It is difficult for me to describe the pleasure I feel when I am writing a novel. It is a physical mental and spiritual pleasure all at the same moment. That is why some people think inspiration is divine. The power of creativity is derived from the pleasure and happiness that invades the whole body, mind and spirit. It has the power to undo the historical separation between the physical, the mental and the spiritual in the human being. It has the power to undo the fragmentation of knowledge, which we inherited from the slave period, and which is maintained until today by academic education and political religious teaching.

                Creativity and knowledge are two faces of the same coin. But it must be real knowledge capable of fusing the past, the present and the future into one moment.

                To develop memory is essential to creativity, but we lose our memory through fear and cannot remember what happened in our childhood because we were afraid of punishment. When I was writing my autobiography I found it difficult to remember events related to the three major taboos; religion, sex and politics. As a child 6 years of age I had to hide everything related to my sexual experiences. As a child of 10 years I had to hide my doubts about God's justice and as a child of 12 I had to sing in school every morning with other children: I love god and the King. Deep inside me I did not feel this love but the schoolteachers forced us to sing this song every morning. After the downfall of the king, after the 1952 revolution all teachers started to call him the corrupt King.

                The educational system is used by political and religious powers to distort knowledge and fragment it. You cannot exploit people without controlling their brains. If our minds are free, if we are left to use our natural creative power, then no political or religious authoritarian system can survive. That is why creative writers often go to prison, or are threatened with death, or are assassinated as happens in some countries, to this day.

                In the past it was enough to say that the earth is round and not flat to be burned at the stake. In some countries it is enough to say that women's rights are human rights to be looked upon as being an atheist and accused of challenging the order of God. In schools we do not learn how to rebel and be dissident. Creativity and dissidence are two faces of the same coin. But we cannot be dissident unless we are able to undo what education did to us.

2- To Change the Medical and Psychiatric Profession:

                To understand the relation between women's creativity and their mental health I have to overcome what I learned in medical college and what I read about women's psychology, including what was written by distinguished scientists like Sigmund Freud and others. When I was a medical student in Cairo University and this was in the middle of the twentieth century, it was forbidden to challenge any idea we heard from our professors. They were considered like gods or semi-gods. After I worked as a physician for years I felt frustrated and started to work in the field of psychiatry but my frustration increased. I discovered that it is very difficult to change the medical profession, whether in the field of physical or in that of mental health. You need to change the whole political and religious system. But one cannot do it alone, or by writing books (fiction or non-fiction). You need political power to change the political system and you cannot have political power without organizing people. But knowledge is also power, and therefore you have to unveil the mind of people.

                When we started the Arab Women's solidarity Organization in 1982 we had two major objectives: 1) unveiling of the mind, 2) unity between women. We felt powerful as a group. Collective power gives women confidence in the self, and hence the ability to be creative, to develop a critical mind.

                I used my office in the organization to meet women who came to me seeking psychiatrical advice. Some of them were diagnosed by psychiatrists as neurotic or mentally sick. In fact they were not sick. They were creative and were rebelling against injustices forced upon them by the family code or other restrictions. I did not give them any pills or drugs. I gave them a book which I wrote during the mid-seventies based on a field study done by me in Ain Shams University. In this study I tried to understand why women suffer what is called neurosis. I discovered that women who were diagnosed as neurotic were often more powerful and more intelligent than others. They were able to see the paradoxes in the legal and religious system that governs their lives. Creativity is related to this ability to see paradoxes. Creative people are most sensitive to contradictions. They are like children who see how their parents say something and do the opposite, or how god says in his Book that He created male and female from the same soul and then in another page, says the opposite that men are superior to women.

                Children are born creative, and they are sensitive to paradoxes in life but they lose this ability as they grow up through education and their increasing fear of authority. The child in the adult dies, but a creative person keeps the child alive, and sometimes appears childish or ridiculous, or psychologically disturbed to others.

                Creative men are tolerated more easily than creative women. Men from upper classes who are creative are appreciated or respected more than creative men from lower classes since we live in a class- patriarchal system in which class patriarchal values and norms dominate. The medical or psychiatric profession is dominated by these values just as in other professions. Many psychiatrists and psychologicalists have adopted Freudian ideas about the psychology of women.

                One of the common ideas in Freudian thinking is to consider women's creativity biological. In other words women can create babies but they cannot create ideas because they consume their creative energies in reproduction. Or to think women have a smaller super- ego than men or that women tend to be emotional, to reply on the unconscious rather then the conscious. Yet Freud related creativity to the unconscious. Women should therefore be more creative since they rely to a greater degree on the unconscious. He was not aware of his own contradictions just like the gods and semi-gods in the medical profession.

                In the field study I mentioned earlier I discovered that often normal women who never suffered from psychological conflicts were less intelligent or less creative then so called neurotic women. To be a normal women mean to be obedient to your husband, to be stupid, to love him even if he treats you cruelly, to appear calm and smile and be silent even if you are angry and want to scream.

                In psychiatry things are turned upside down. This has continued in history ever since the establishment of the slave class-patriarchal system. In Ancient Egypt we had a female goddess "Noot" who was goddess of the sky, her husband "Geep" was the god of earth, but with the establishment of the slave system the husband became the god of the sky, and his wife became the goddess of earth, or the body. Then later she lost her divine position totally and became the symbol of the devil.

                Eve who ate from the tree of knowledge became the sinful. The monotheistic god considered knowledge to be a sin. This is natural for if you want to control people you have to deprive them of knowledge, real knowledge, and not the pseudo-knowledge, which is injected into our brains in schools and universities.

                I can say without exaggeration that I graduated from the medical college less knowledgeable than when I entered college. At least then I saw the human being as a whole. He or she was not divided into body and mind, and the body was not fragmented into spleen, liver, lungs and intestines.

                We need to change medical knowledge, and challenge what is still prevalent in psychiatry, in order to understand women's creativity and what to have mental health means.

                This needs collective efforts, not only individual efforts. It needs political power and the power of integrated knowledge.

3- Conception of the Self:

                My ability to create is related to the way I see myself, how I conceive of myself. If we study poetry written by women in ancient Egypt, or Ancient Arab societies before the slave system we discover how women respected themselves at that time. They felt they were complete human beings, they did not feel inferior to men. The self in Ancient women's poetry was positive, powerful, and happy. The women's poet was not afraid of God, or her father or her husband, or her community, because women before slavery were well established, were economically independent. They helped to support their children, and the children carried the name of them other. Women participated in different activities, in agriculture, in art and in hunting. They wrote poetry, played music, danced, drank wine and spoke about love and sex. Women were not shy, they expressed their feelings, they did not wait for men to take the first step in love affairs, or sexual relations. Below is a piece of poetry composed by an ancient Egypt girl, writing to her lover, she says:

-                                                              - Through you ya zahabeya 1

-                                                              - I send a message

-                                                              - Please give it to him

-                                                              - Tell him that I will go to him

-                                                              - I will embrace him

-                                                               - In front all of his friends

-                                                               - I will not be shy

-                                                               - But I will be proud

-                                                               - When people say I love him

-                                                               - If my goddess helps me

-                                                               - To see you today

                                                            - I will celebrate this event


Another piece of poetry by an ancient Egyptian wise man (Ainy) says:

                                                           - Oh my son, give your mother double my

                                                           - Share of bread

                                                           - Carry your mother as she carried you in her womb

                                                           - She carried you on her shoulder for months

                                                           - After your birth

                                                           - Her nipple stayed in your mouth three years

                                                           - She was never offended by your secretions

                                                           - When you were learning how to write she stood

                                                           - By your side

                                                           - Everyday she provided you with food and ga'a

                                                           - You will be lucky if you do not do anything

                                                           - Which forces your mother to blame you.

While reading poetry written by women in the Arab Peninsula, I came across a women poet her name was "El Zaba'a Bent Omar Ben El Mourek". She was a well known poet centuries before Islam. Throughout her life she refused to marry so she could devote herself to her creative work. The poem says:

                                                           -I am a free women

                                                           - I belong to no man

                                                           - How could I be possessed by a husband?

                                                           - How awful to live that way

                                                           - To be poor and free

                                                           -Is better than to be wealthy

                                                           - And live in slavery.

This is an Arab creative woman who lived alone and was proud of herself. She was fulfilled and happy because she could realize herself in creative writing and she did not feel the need to be a wife or a mother.

        Today single women, especially in our region, face many social, moral and religious problems. But creativity helps women to overcome these problems. They can rebel and challenge the society. They have a positive image of themselves even if in eyes of people around them their image is negative.

        El Khansa'a is a well-known poet who was born at the end of the 6th century and died in the middle of the 7th century. She was a strong creative Muslim women. Some of her poems survived to this day. She refused to marry a man who was described as the "Lord of Arabs". Her brother recommended him but she refused to follow his advice.
He respected her opinion, because she respected herself. Her poetry was full of self-confidence and dignity.        

Confidence in the self is able to challenge dominant norms and values. A creative women can stand alone in the face of political and religious power. She is sure of herself even if most people do not support her. She may have conflicts and political problems but her mental health is not affected, on the contrary, battles with the society may inspire her and develop her creative powers.

Some people think that creative women (or men) tend to be mad, or psychologically weak. Traditional schools of psychiatry thought that creativity and madness had something in common. However new conceptions of mental health have helped to explain the relation between new  creativity and self-confidence. In a class patriarchal culture, which robs women of their self-esteem, it is easy to condemn a creative women of many things. Her self-esteem is looked upon as abnormal. Women should be modest, shy, passive, obedient, silent and self-sacrificing, or must negate themselves for husbands and children.

If a women negates herself she cannot be creative. How can she if she does not have self-esteem?

A women negates her personality when she gives up her name in marriage.

What do you mean by the word "self"? It is not a conundrum. It is very simple. The self means me, myself, my person my body and mind and spirit together, my being in a certain place and at a certain time, my experiences in life, my conception of myself when I use the pronoun "I" in the first person. It is how I see myself, and understand my past, present and future, and memory plays an important role in this. Many painful humiliating moments may be buried in the deep layers of the unconscious and make us lose part of our memory in order to forget the pain and shame. Many things happen to us that we never speak about to forget the pain and shame. Many things happen to us that we never speak about to friends, or admit even to ourselves. We are afraid to remember or to confess them to ourselves. All people suffer from this amnesia to different degrees, but women's amnesia is usually greater because their fear is greater.

To overcome fear we need power, political power and power of knowledge.
We need to re-read our history or "heresy" (her story). Because of our fear of "heresy" we have buried our history, and women's names are buried in history. Their resistance is ignored, their creative work is not mentioned, except if they are accepted by powerful patriarchal critics. Patriarchal critics are not all men. Some women are more patriarchal than their male colleagues.

The self is related to the individual entity, but it is not an individual enitity cut off from history, or form its social, political, economic and cultural circumstances. The self is not a fixed jacket. It changes with time, place and environment. There is always a conflict between the self and political and religious powers.

The self is creative by nature and fights to be outstanding, to be independent, to live and create not to be swallowed up or devoured by others, in the family or the tribe or the state.

Creativity is the ability to be your self-inspite of all pressures. It is also the ability to stand up for yourself and look at your self in relation to others. The relationship between the self and the other can be creative or destructive, according to whether the relation is built on equality and freedom or inequality exploitation and oppression.

With the establishment of the class, patriarchal system the image and conception of the self changed. Women started to see themselves as inferior to men, they started to despise themselves, to hate the self and fear authority in the family, in the tribe, in the state and to fear God. Since then the relationship of the self with the other has been distorted. It has been built on glorifying the male, the god, the male self, and despising the female other, the devil. This dichotomy (self/other, god/devil, woman/man) created problems for both men and women. It affected the mental health of both sexes.

To be creative you need to undo this dichotomy. To feel that both god and devil are inside you, both male and female, both self and other, are part of you. It is not easy. It is a long process that may take most of your life, however it is worth making efforts to achieve this unity to undo the divided self which was created by the slave system. Many creative women (and men) are diagnosed by traditional psychiatrists to be schizophrenic, having a divided self, or a double personality. But the schizophrenic system creates the schizophrenic person. You cannot easily be mentally healthy in an unsane society, in a society that forces you to be divided into at least two conflicting parts.

We all suffer from some degree of schizophrenia in order to conform with the class patriarchal capitalist system and live with it. Conformity to a sick society means that you should be sick too, or you will appear abnormal.

In my experience as a medical doctor dealing with mental health problems I noticed that creative women are not understood by psychiatrists. They diagnose them as mentally sick though they are more healthy then their doctors.

But doctors are looked upon as healthy and normal.

Who can really understand creative women?

4- Fighting the Backlash:

                Many of my creative women friends give up their creativity after marriage. I had to divorce my first husband and second husband to go on with my creative writing.

                Before my first marriage I was an independent young doctor and writer. My mother and father encouraged me to be independent and to be creative, especially my mother who since I was a child of 13 years of age gave me a lot of confidence in myself as a writer.

But my first husband did not like my writings. He liked them before marriage, during the love period, but after I signed the marriage contract everything started to change. According to the marriage law the husband is the guardian of his wife, he owns her, she belongs to him. Some women in the upper and middle classes give up their name and carry the name of the husband though in Egypt we have the legal right to keep our father's names after marriage.

I did not take my husband's name, and I did not feel I belonged to my husband, or that he was my guardian. I belonged to myself and I was the guardian of myself. The conflict started from the first day of marriage. My husband tried to dominate. He hated the mental psychological power which I derived from  my creatively. It was impossible to continue being a wife and write creatively or even live as a complete human being.

This happened again with the second husband. Though before marriage he promised me that he would not interfere in my creative work or independence. However he did not keep his promise. One day he came to me and said: You have to choose between me or your writing!  I said: My writing! And we divorced.

As a result I was considered to be mentally sick by most people around me. How could I sacrifice a well off and successful husband to write stories? I was pregnant and I sacrificed the baby by doing an abortion. Everyone was astonished and thought I was not normal. But I did not listen to people. I listened to the inner voice within me. Creative writing for me was like breathing, and I could not give it up just to have a husband or a child.

In the last few years many books have been published in the USA glorifying motherhood. Some American women who were feminists during the sixties and seventies started to lose confidence in themselves. May be they felt alone and tired. Maybe it was the increasing pressure of capitalists political powers and Christian Fundamentalists conservative groups. Many factors played a role in robbing feminists of their self-confidence. They started to retreat. Some of them were my friends. I used to see them during the seventies and early eighties. I lost contact with most of them during the nineties. In the last few years they started to reappear. But the backlash against women's rights affected them. They started to put on make-up and wear big earrings and jewelry. They started to glorify mother hood and the role of women as mothers, to speak about going back to religion or to what they called " spirituality".

Last year I met an American feminist, who calls herself a Christian feminist. She wrote articles about Islamic feminism, Christian feminism, Jewish feminism etc... She believes that veiling of women or cutting their clitoris in circumcision is part of the authentic identity of women in some cultures she celebrates what is called cultural diffirences or cultural relativity. She re-married 20 years after divorcing her husband. I saw her walking beside her new husband like a tamed cat, her face covered in powders (after a facelift) and her ears weighed down by big heavy earrings. She was smiling and looked happy. Her psychiatrists was very pleased with her mental health.

Many of the feminists in our countries follow American feminists. So now we hear a lot about Muslim feminists, and read a lot about Islamic Feminism. This is part of post modernism. It is not difficult to see the relationship between international capitalism, neo-colonial powers and religious fundamentalism.

To be creative and keep our creativity we have to rebel and fight these forces at all levels, from the family level to the national and international level.

Dissidence and creativity are two faces of the same coin. Mental health is the ability to be creative and be dissident without losing yourself confidence.


[1] 1 She is speaking to zahabeya, who was the goddess of love and beauty, her name was "Hatur", and she was drawn in the shape of a golden necklace. The word " zahabeya" means : golden goddess.

2. "About Women", Nawal El Saadawi (in Arabic) Dar El Moustakbal El Arabic, Cairo, 1988, p.21. [1]

  1. beer

Omar Reda Kahla, Aalaam El Niss'a fi Alaimia El Arab wal I slam, part 2, 4th edition, Moassassat El Rissala, Beirut, 1982, p.15