On God Dies by the Nile and Female Anger

I read this book for the Year of Feminist Classics project. For the intro post on this book and its author, go here.

Written by Egyptian feminist Nawal El Saadawi, God Dies by the Nile is about the corruption and oppression taking place in a rural Egyptian village named Kafr El Teen. The village is mostly populated by poor, illiterate peasants, and the handful of political and religious men in power exploit this fact to their every advantage. When the Mayor’s eye falls upon Zakeya’s two beautiful young nieces, he is willing to destroy their entire family in order to satiate his lust.

This was a difficult book for me to delve into. It’s a pretty short novel, but it took me over a week to get through. A lot of it has a disjointed, dreamlike quality that made it hard to lose yourself in. I suspect part of the problem had to do with transition issues (my edition was translated by Saadawi’s husband, Sherif Hetata);  if I were to read God Dies by the Nile in its original language, I’m pretty sure I would find more nuance.

Many of the gender inequalities are also presented in extremes. All of the female characters are presented as victims of corrupt religious men on a power trip. When seen through a male point of view (the book is written from different perspectives), the women are written in highly sexualized terms; women are expected to be devout and dress modestly, yet several situations arise in which descriptions of their naked bodies–particularly their breasts and thighs–work their way into the narrative. The men, conversely, are almost all portrayed as predators. Religious hypocrites abound, and even the most innocuous men have elements of deviancy (such as one innocent, good-hearted man whose one vice was his predilection for sex with his beloved bull).

From a literary perspective, I wasn’t a fan of this extreme good/bad binary. But from a feminist-circa-1980s perspective, this binary makes perfect sense. After all, one of the main features of second wave feminism was consciousness raising. At the time this book was written, second wave feminists were getting a lot off their chests.

While perusing Goodreads, I noticed one of the reviewers talking about the anger that permeates the book, and that got me thinking about the tired old Angry Feminist stereotype. More specifically, it irked me because of this: Why does a woman’s anger, feminist or otherwise, constantly need to be justified? Why does it need to taper off to make others more comfortable? Why can’t it just be?

Angry Feminist is a label that is typically used in a dismissive manner. If you’re a woman trying to talk about pay equity, abortion rights, workplace discrimination or almost any other type of gender inequality with someone who disagrees with you, chances are you’ll be dismissed as an Angry Feminist at some point. Another thing is that the Angry Feminists the stereotype is based on were mostly a group of second wave, radical U.S. feminists; even then, they were a minority within the larger movement (though they surely got a lot of airtime in the media).

As Nawal El Saadawi is a Muslim woman of color writing about disenfranchised women in an African country, the Angry Feminist label assumes a messier set of baggage when applied to this book. The Angry Woman of Color label has racist roots in both feminism and society at large. Think of the anger-related stereotypes of women of color and how they’ve been used in delegitimizing ways, even though the anger that inspired these terms is often perfectly justifiable: Bitchy Asian, Angry Black Woman, Hot-Tempered Latina, etc. Now think of the mainstream anger-related stereotype for Muslim women…I don’t think there is one. By and large, the most prevalent stereotype of Muslim women involves silence and face-covering veils.

It does the women Saadawi is writing about an incredible disservice to dismiss God Dies by the Nile as Angry Feminist Literature. What Saadawi managed to do is impressive: not only did she create a book about–and thereby honor the lived experiences of–a disenfranchised Angry Muslim Woman of Color, she managed to publish one that was seen by second-wave feminists worldwide in a time before the Internet.

If Zakeya made you uncomfortable, good. Hear her roar. She’s roaring for a reason.

Publisher/Year: Zed Books Ltd., 1986
Source: Interlibrary loan from East Texas State University
Format: Print

8 thoughts on “On God Dies by the Nile and Female Anger

  1. Melissa, have I mentioned before that your posts are seriously brilliant? You make me think of completely new and important things and I thank you for that. I love how you discuss the Angry Feminist stereotype like this, such a fantastic point and you are right – not only is the stereotype ridiculous (why is being angry about being subjugated a bad thing, exactly? It is really just a way to keep women down, I think) but Saadawi combats many stereotypes in this book by allowing Muslim women to show that anger. She does that well in all her books I think.

  2. I’m just going to cosign amymckie. Wonderful post! I’ve only read Woman At Point Zero and it does sound like the same major themes are being disseminated across her works. I can dig it.

  3. I’m only a few chapters into this one, but already I can see exactly what you mean and I completely agree with what you say about the Angry Feminist stereotype and why it’s a disservice to see nothing else in Saadawi or God Dies by the Nile.

  4. Thank you! 🙂

    I have one of Saadawi’s other books and I’m really curious to see how (or if) these themes come up a lot in her work. When I finished this book I initially felt kind of apathetic (I *really* wish someone else would translate it), but the more I thought about it, more I came to admire it.

  5. I just read a different Nawal El Saadawi novel, and while I can’t say I loved it, I do LOVE your post. Such an important point!

  6. See also J. Jill Robinson’s novel More In Anger for a generational look at female anger. (Thomas Allen Publishers, May 2012).

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