A Year of Feminist Classics

Because they're better together :)

Tag Archives: Politics

Introduction to Beyond the Veil by Fatema Mernissi

Fatema Mernissi is a Moroccan feminist and sociologist who is renowned for her work on women’s rights within Islam. Beyond the Veil is the result of her doctoral research and was first published in 1975; the edition I have, from 2011, includes a new introduction addressing the Islamophobia that currently permeates European politics and the West’s obsession with the veil.

So far I’ve only read the first few chapters of Beyond the Veil , and before I say anything about them I want to acknowledge a few things, namely that as a white European whose knowledge of Islam is limited I’m likely to get things wrong. Obviously it’s no one’s responsibility but my own to try to get them right, but I think that acknowledging my perspective and letting you all know that I’m more than open to hearing from people more knowledgeable than I am will make for a more productive discussion. So if I happen to be wrong, feel free to correct me, and if you happen to be knowledgeable about feminism and Islam, I would love to hear from you.

In the  introduction to the original 1975 edition, Mernissi says the following:

In this book I want to demonstrate that there is a fundamental contradiction between Islam as interpreted in official policy and equality between the sexes. Sexual equality violates Islam’s premises, actualised in its laws, that heterosexual love is dangerous to Allah’s order. Muslim marriage is based on male dominance. The desegregation of the sexes violates Islam’s ideology on women’s position in the social order: that women should be under the authority of fathers, brothers, or husbands. Since women are considered by Allah to be a destructive element, they are to be spatially confined and excluded from matters other than those of the family. Female access to non-domestic space is put under the control of makes.

Paradoxically, and contrary to what is commonly assumed, Islam does not advance the thesis of women’s inherent inferiority. Quite the contrary, it affirms the potential equality between the sexes. The existing inequality does not rest on an ideological or biological theory of women’s inferiority, but is the outcome of specific social institutions designed to restrain their power; namely, segregation and legal subordination in the family structure.

The point Mernissi makes in the second paragraph seems particularly important to me: gender inequality is not inherent to Islam, but is the result of specific  religious interpretations having been actualised into law, policy, and social practices. There are historical reasons for why these anti-equality interpretations trumped more progressive ones, and I can’t wait to read more of Beyond the Veil to find out what they were.

And of course, I’m also really looking forward to hearing your thoughts on the book.

Further Reading:

Wrap-Up: God Dies by the Nile

Title: God Dies by the Nile
Author: Saadawi, Nawal El
Length: Varies per edition, approximately 175 pages
Genre: Fiction
Original Published In: 1974

I have to start by saying what a fantastic time I’ve had this month. Due to my life finally being in order I’ve been able to participate much more than I had been able to previously. Sadly participation was lower this month but hopefully my availability continues strong and participation increases as we read books that are more available!

I started the month with an introduction to Saadawi and to this book, continued with some possible discussion questions to think of when reviewing the book, and then mid-month continued with more information and news about Saadawi. In addition to reading this title I tried to learn more about Saadawi by searching out her political protest involvement (discussed in the posts linked above) and I also tried to read more of her works. Sadly due to the Canada Post strike and lock-out two of the titles I purchased have yet to arrive on my doorstep, but I was able to read both Woman at Point Zero and The Novel. I do think that these titles helped me get a better understanding of Saadawi’s work.

Now, my thoughts on this book. I really did like it (my review is also posted at Amy Reads). Although now that SilverSeason has pointed out some of the language (translation?) issues I can’t get them out of my head (everything being pale), I still really enjoyed the language of the book. I found it very sparse and simplistic, and the use of repetition, to me, really reinforced how little possibility there was of anything changing. Through the course of the novel we see the perspective of a variety of characters through the story which, I felt, gave the reader a true overview of the situation and the true extent of the corruption.

Another thing that I enjoyed about the book was the way in which the corruption and mistreatment affected every member of the village in some way. The powerful were on edge trying to keep their power, the women suffered at the hands of men, and the men also struggle as the powerful work at different ways to access the women and so get rid of the men. The treatment of men through the story, to me, showed clearly how improving the lot of women also helps men. If the mayor can’t simply kill the man to get the woman, then the man wouldn’t suffer as much either. I loved how Saadawi showed the effects throughout not only on women but on men – I can’t help but think (sadly) that seeing that their lot will also improve will get men to pay more attention.

Lastly, throughout the novel we see again and again how religion is used by corrupt officials to trick and subjugate peasants. I thought that through this Saadawi was showing that religion itself isn’t the cause of suffering but rather a tool being used. Her choice of title, I felt, owed more to the corruption. Allah can’t really be killed, unless someone else has taken over the role of Allah as we saw in the book.

What did everyone else think? Please share your thoughts!

A few participants have already linked their reviews so I will share a brief taste of their experiences reading the book. Do click through to read their full reviews and comment!

Christina of The Blue Bookcase showed reasons why she wanted to really like the book and explains why it just didn’t work, starting by asking:

There are important issues here, ones that often occupy the minds of bleeding-heart liberals like me. God Dies has class struggle, domestic abuse, arranged marriage, female circumcision, corruption in government and religion, and even PTSD. These huge, horrible things are as relevant now as they were when the book was written in the 1970’s. So why didn’t I get all excited and activsity when I read this?

Lauren of Underneath a Book did enjoy the book more. She compares it to another book (that I need to read!), Beloved, saying:

Both women, Zakeya and Sethe, live incredibly hard lives, surviving through their wits and hard, physical labor, and are constantly tormented by the inequalities that surround them. Both Morrison and Saadawi do an incredible job of rendering even the most violent, desperate acts understandable and those who commit them human.

SilverSeason, blogging at Silver Threads, had issues with the language and translation and also points out that:

I find this novel more of a protest against the injustice of Egyptian society than a feminist tract. There is not much to choose between the abuse of men and women in the story; each is abused in accordance with his or her gender. Men are murdered and falsely accused of murder. Women are deceived and seduced and cast out. Being male does not save the “son of fornication and sin” from death at the hands of the mob.

BeachReader talked about the same thing, saying:

It is so full of despair, anger, and violence that it keeps the reader on edge because you know as you read it there is no happy ending.  Not only is it about the subjugation of women on the most bases of levels, it is also about the confinements of a social class system that’s walls are impenetrable.

Melissa of The Feminist Texican [Reads] had a post that completely blew me away (seriously Melissa, your posts are always brilliant!). She talks about how she saw a review on GoodReads that talked about the anger in the book and this got her thinking about – and discussing – the stereotype of Angry Feminist. I’ll just include a short excerpt but I highly recommend reading the whole:

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.


Finally, please do add your review to the InLinkz collection below to create an easy database for participants to use to find your review and keep the discussion going!

Discussion Questions: God Dies on the Nile by Nawal El Saadawi

I finished reading this book on Saturday and wow, there is so much to discuss in it. I thought I’d start a post here with a few general questions for discussion either in the comments, via email (if you email me at feministclassics[at]gmail[dot]com I will put them in a post), or on your own site if you have one. If you have more questions do comment with them or email them to me and I’ll add them in.

I know that the book is harder to find and so there will be less of us discussing the title this month, but I do hope that there will be a few who join in 🙂

Overall, did you like the book? Do you think the point was to like it? Do you think Saadawi (and her translator) conveyed the ideas she meant to? There are a large number of really graphic violent and sexual acts discussed or mentioned in the book. Do you think these contributed to the story in a positive way or did they sometimes detract from it?

There was a really interesting quote that read, on page 51, “Men have always been immoral. But now the women are throwing virtue overboard, and that will lead to a real catastrophe.” I thought this was an interesting double standard that is very rarely actually acknowledged. What did you think of this?

The title, God Dies by the Nile is explained in the ending chapters of the book. Throughout the book religion is shown as corrupt but it seemed to me it was shown as corrupt in how it was practiced rather than in its true form, and that the corruption of government led to and bolstered the corruption of the religion. And it isn’t really God who dies but rather the main cause of corruption in the town. In other books we’ve discussed this month authors used the Christian religion to bolster their feminist ideas. In this one Saadawi shows the corruption of religion and how women are being oppressed and mistreated through the religion. Do you think this is a generational thing that there is a now a dissatisfaction in the thought of religion helping, or is it the fact that the book was written as a novel rather than non-fiction, or (an idea I don’t agree with but I’m interested in hearing other views!) is it because she is talking about Islam as opposed to Christianity?

Saadawi was a big presence in the recent uprisings and protests against Mubarak’s regime in Egypt. She says that democracy and women’s rights go hand in hand and can’t be separated. Do you think this is a true point? The book we are reading this month ties the corruption in the government to the oppression of women in various ways, how do you think she shows it most? Do you think her current statements fit with her earlier ones (i.e. the book)? (For more, Afirca is a Country has numerous videos with her: an interview with Newsweek, a question and answer with Al Jazeera on the link between democracy and women’s rights, and a speech by her on her books and the uprising.)