Many of the ‘standard’ feminist classics that we can name off the top of our head when asked to are written by women from Europe or North America. As part of this project it was pointed out that we should expand our horizons and consider those classics coming from other parts of the world as well. (And can I just remark again how grateful I am that this suggestion was made to us!) As I’d heard quite a little bit about Saadawi and her works I thought she would be a great choice and so she was added to our list.
Saadawi is a fantastic woman to read about. I admit that I am going in to this project a little blind and know almost nothing about her except what I’ve managed to find online. She was born in 1931 outside Cairo and was actually sent to school – which was unusual for a girl at the time. Raised by her father to be strong and independent but forced at a young age to take care of her younger siblings when her parents died, she still managed to graduate medical school in Cairo in 1955. She spoke her mind and wrote about the issues that she saw affecting women even though it caused her to lose good jobs and be persecuted by the government. (Read more on Wikipedia.)
She has a long list of works to her name ranging from autobiographies of her time in the Egyptian women’s prison to non-fiction on the status of women in the Arab world to fictional novels. According to Wikipedia it is her 1972 Women and Sex that was seminal to second-wave feminism but alas, it seems to be harder to find. Instead we chose for this month her novel God Dies by the Nile which was written in 1974 as Death of the Only Man in the World and published under the new title when translated from Arabic in 1985. The original title was meant to be God Dies by the Nile but no Arabic publishers would print the title either in Lebanon where it was first printed or later in Egypt because they said, according to the foreword, that “God cannot die” and that they didn’t want their shops burned down by fundamentalists.
The novel that we will be reading together (and I do hope that you all join in with us! I know this is a harder book to find but I think it will be very worth finding if you can), God Dies by the Nile is set in a small village on the Nile river. The cover of my edition (published by Zed Books and purchased online at Book Depository) reads:
Nawal El Saadawi’s classic attempt to square religion with a society in which women are respected as equals is as relevant today as ever.
Some of the other books that we’ve read have been very focused on Christianity (Mary Wollstonecraft for example), so I think it will be an interesting change to read a novel now that tries to square feminist ideals with Islam. The novel deals not only with religion but also with corruption and, obviously, the mistreatment of women. I think that we will have a lot to discuss in its pages.
Saadawi also says of the book that it was inspired by stories she heard as a young girl of peasants committing suicide or running away because they become pregnant as servants to mayors and other big men, and how there is no retribution or justice for them. She says also “I finished the novel in two months. Writing it gave me enormous pleasure, a pleasure which sustained me inside prison, and which is more essential to me than breathing.”
Because I know so little about Saadawi and her works and we kind of picked this title at random, I’ve also picked up two other works by her – The Novel and Women at Point Zero to read as well through the month. Is anyone else interested in reading some of her other works and talking about them here? I would love to host anyone who would like to discuss any of her other works or her political activism! Please send me an email at feministclassics[at]gmail[dot]com or at amy[dot]mckie[at]gmail[dot]com.