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