Submitted by: Amanda Jarrett
Within the traditional sense of defining one’s self, a civilization constructs its identity based on how they define the ‘other.’ Characterizing the ‘other’ begins with a set of contrasts between one’s own civilization and the ‘other.’ While one is civilized and enlightened, the other is uncivil and barbaric; one practices freedom, the other restricts it; one liberates women, the other denies them autonomy. Western civilization has been distinguishing themselves as being vastly different from the ‘other’ in a superior way. Though, reality reflects another truth. In Salih’s book “Season of Migration to the North,” he demonstrates how the disparity between Eastern and Western civilizations are not stark, but are in fact more comparable than theyoriginally thought. He argues through the themes of woman’s rights and colonialism that these two civilizations have a similar treatment of women and an intertwining fate. The East and the West can no longer see themselves as vastly different; they can no longer use each other in order to define themselves because their identities and societies are infused. By observing aspects of Salih’s book such as Mustafa’s role in the suicides of women, the deaths of Hosna Bint Mahmoud and Wad Rayyes, and the narrator’s relationship with Bint Mahmoud, there will be a discussion of the patriarchy and its reiteration in both the West and the East. Once this part of the book has been examined, Mernissi’s “A Feminist Interpretation of Women’s Rights in Islam,” Bhutto’s “Politics and the Muslim Woman,” and Amin’s “Emancipation of Women” and “The New Woman” will be used to further interrogate the concept of women’s rights and the patriarchy. As for the colonialist aspect of Salih’s book, there will be a detailed investigation behind Mustafa’s relationship with not only his wife but also with other women in how it relates to the colonialist structure and colonialist narrative. To amplify this observation, Fadlallah’s “Islam and the Logic of Power” will be addressed.
Salih’s book follows an unnamed narrator and his journey in discovering the hidden truths of Mustafa. After pursuing him out of curiosity, the narrator builds a quasi-friendship with Mustafa. Soon, the narrator begins unfolding the unpleasant reality of this man’s life. Mustafa admits to his obsession of manipulating women, which eventually contributed to many of their suicides. Though, he is not held accountable for the majority of these actions, both in the personal sphere and in the public sphere. During the time Mustafa stood trial for the murder of his wife, the court attempted to push for the justice of the women who committed suicide. One such woman was Ann Hammond. When Colonel Hammond took the stand to testify, Mustafa thought that he would be held accountable. This was not the case. Ann’s father stated that “He could not say for sure whether her suicide was due to some spiritual crisis or because of finding out that Mr. Mustafa Sa’eed had deceived her” (Salih, 57). Mustafa was appalled, thinking that the father would understand his obvious influence on his daughter’s death. He even explicitly narrates the moment with his contrasting view of fault by stating that he convinced her to marry him as a way to “be a bridge between north and south” (Salih, 57). Additionally, since the blame of her suicide does not fall on Mustafa, it lays on Ann. Her truths and reality of Mustafa’s manipulation get brushed away due to society’s attitude towards women. The blame falls on her curiosity of Eastern philosophy and how the confusion of her spiritual self was what really lead her to her death. In this there is a reinforcement of patriarchal thinking because women are the ones who cannot think rationally and therefore should be at fault for their circumstances, not the men. Amin furthers this argument by saying that women should not be allowed political rights because they are not ready to handle something of that magnitude.
This narrative of men doing no wrong is further perpetuated by how Mustafa’s lawyer frames his nature during the trial. Professor Maxwell Foster-Keen drew Mustafa to be a “genius whom circumstances had driven to killing in a moment of passion” and emphasized his rule as a contributing individual to society due to his contribution to the field of economics (Salih, 28-29). With the refusal to place the blame for Ann’s death on Mustafa by her father and his lawyer’s presentation of an individual who contributes to society, there is a reinforcement of the patriarchal structure of society. On one hand, the narrative of women are dismissed while the narrative of the men overpower their voices. On the other hand, there is the excuse of a man’s career and the harm that can be done to it if he is properly punished. These reduce the reality of the women whom Mustafa manipulated and their positioning in society, denying their basic right to justice. Furthermore, Amin’s denial of women’s political rights perpetuates the patriarchal narrative by enforcing the rights of men to exercise their power over women, furthering elitist narrative by only wanting to improve the rights of upper class women, and reducing the rest to being mules for men.
The next aspect of women’s rights addresses the lack of autonomy and voice women have in society. Within the story, Salih’s narrator returns home from abroad only to be faced with the horrors of a tragedy. Though, it was entirely possible for this tragedy to have been avoided if there was not a reiteration of their patriarchal structure. Beginning with the death of Mustafa, he turns the responsibility of his wife and family over to his quasi-friend. The narrator, not wanting this responsibility, rarely involves himself in the title of trustee. Only when Wad Rayyes voices his intentions for marrying Bint Mahmoud. The narrator voices his opposition, but Wad Rayyes insists. Bint Mahmoud makes it abundantly clear that she does not want to be married to him and asks the narrator to save her from her fate. Bint Mahmoud is unable to speak for herself because her voice has been drowned out by her father, brothers, and village elders. In this situation, she has no autonomy. Bhutto negates the positioning of Mustafa’s widow by stating that men do not have attributes that make them superior to women. Instead, they “Both are the creatures of God. Both have certain rights” (Bhutto, 109).
Ignoring these certain rights, the village and the narrator allow for Bint Mahmoud to be forced into marriage with Wad Rayyes. As time went by, he became more and more anger towards his new wife because she has refused to let him go near her. Her request for space is warranted, though undesired by the male. One night, the village heard extraneous amounts of screaming coming from their household. Once Bint Majzoub arrived at the house, she described how Bint Mahmoud was naked with her clothes torn, bites and scratches covering her whole body with one of her nipples having bitten off. Wad Rayyes had been stabbed more than ten times. The villagers, upon assessing the scene, made the assumption that Bint Mahmoud had murdered Wad Rayyes and then committed suicide. By doing so, they set the narrative of blame on Bint Mahmoud instead of on Wad Rayyes. This reverts to the earlier discussion on this need for a positive perception of men and how they cannot be the ones at fault. No one seemed to consider the possibility that the she had been raped and the damages she incurred on him were in self-defense. They seem to disregard their previous observations of Wad Rayyes becoming a mad man and how he forced his new wife into a married she repeatedly objected to.
Stepping back from the specific scenarios in Salih’s book and observing the overarching theme, Bhutto and Mernissi both interrogate how society’s reiterate the patriarchal framework apart from religion. Bhutto states that “It is not religion which makes the difference. The difference comes from man-made law […] What took place was the emergence or the assertiveness of the patriarchal society, and religion was taken over to justify the norms of the tribal society” (Bhutto, 109). This demonstrates how religion is not the cause of the patriarchy and therefore cannot be solely associated with one civilization’s religion. The blame of restricting a woman’s position in society cannot be limited to one civilization, East or West. This distinction allows for the separation of tradition and religion, placing the blame for the lack of women’s rights on man-made laws. Mernissi adds to this argument by stating: “A new community still under the influence of pre-Islamic customs, had to act rapidly and severely to see that a key idea of Islam, the patriarchal family, became rooted in the minds of believers” (Mernissi, 119). This shows a key moment in Islamic culture where the relationship between tradition and religion become inseparable from one another. Through the arguments of Bhutto and Mernissi along with the displays of women’s issues in Salih, there is an rejection of the Western narrative of which claims themselves as superior to other civilizations, especially in the East. The oppression of women’s rights and narratives can be observed in both the West with Colonel Hammond testimony at Mustafa’s trial and in the East with the treatment of Bint Mahmoud. Both civilizations can be faulted for denying the autonomy of women due to the reinforcement of the patriarchy.
In addition to observing the different ways women are explicitly minimized in society, there is a another theme in Salih’s book: colonialism. First, the relationship between Mustafa and his wife, Jean Morris, exemplify the violent structure of colonialist relationship. In the beginning of their relationship, he was very persistent in obtaining a woman who did not want him. Eventually after three years of chasing, she agreed to marry him saying “‘You’re a savage bull that does not weary of the chase […] I am tired of your pursuing me and of my running before you. Marry me’” (Salih, 29). Once they were married, she refused to sleep with him. In retaliation, he threatened to kill her, which was a temptation that she welcomed. While he held the knife over, she dared him to commit the act, knowing that he would not be able to go through with it. Mustafa continuously describes their relationship as a war, a set of violent acts towards each other, pushing the limits of civility. Jean would incite conflicts and push his boundaries by sleeping with other men, leaving items of their clothing lying around, and flirting with other men in public. Jean encouraged him to fulfill an image in her head of a violent, barbaric man by forcing him into situations where she manipulated him to act out. Mustafa had thought about escaping the relationship. Though, could not bring himself, realizing that “She was my destiny and in her lay my destruction” (Salih, 132). He knew that there was no point in leaving, his fate had already decided his destiny. Jean pushed him to the edge of his civility until he finally cracked. The moment came where she knew that she had pushed him too far and that he was finally going to submit to violence, to which she was happy about. In this scenario, Jean Morris represents the colonizer whereas Mustafa represents the colonized. The colonizer instigates the violence in the relationship by first subjugating those that are colonized due to the belief that they are superior to the ‘other.’ The colonizer is civilized, the colonized are barbaric. There is a back and forth between the two, any sort of push back is viewed as violent while violent acts by the colonizer are considered to a lesser degree of retaliation. The colonizer tests the boundaries of those they oppress. When the colonized give into the violence, the cycle is perpetuated and they give into the narrative the colonizers have created about the ‘other.’ The acts of violence by the colonized only affirms the narrative of the colonizer, therefore reestablishing their positioning over the colonized. This violence also causes an interconnectedness of destinies that can no longer be separated. Fadlallah reiterates this brutal relationship between the colonizer and the colonized. He states that the colonized often use violence as a way to cleanse themselves of the colonizers, reinforcing the violent relationship between the two. This violence reflects how the colonized are unable to use their power effectively because they do not know how to wield it.
This colonial relationship of exerting power over another can be translated to Mustafa’s treatment and manipulation of women. Knowing his positioning of being a foreigner in the colonizer’s world, he needed to find a way to demonstrate his power. The outlet he found was women, capitalizing on his exotic nature. For women, it was this primitive nature that attracted them to him which is actually realized in the way he scouts for his next prey. On instance that can be described was when he met Isabelle Seymour at a bar. He sought her out and was determined to have her. Once they began chatting, he lied about his name but shared some truths about his family. Though, once he began talking about his home back in the South. “There came a moment when I felt I had been transformed in her eyes into a naked, primitive creature, a spear in one hand and arrows in the other, hunting elephants and lions in the jungles” (Salih, 33). Mustafa has caught his prey, gradually taking away her autonomy as she falls more and more in love with him. His desire to assert his power over these European women is because, to him, they represent those who colonized him. To him, he wants to exploit and violate these women as a way to perpetuate his revenge. Mustafa sees the women as the West and he wants to conquer it the way the West has conquered him. This mode of thinking contradicts Fadlallah’s hope for a common humanity. He claims that in order to find this common ground there must be a level ofmutual respect and similar interests. Mustafa’s goals are not for the goal of a common humanity.
In conclusion, Salih investigates a multitude of important themes in his book, two of which being women’s rights and colonialization. In terms of women’s rights, Bhutto and Mernissi commented on the patriarchy while Amin discussed women’s rights. Salih displayed several issues with the representation, narratives, and rights of women through Mustafa’s relationship with Ann Hammond as well as the representation and rights of Bint Mahmoud. When discussing colonialization, Mustafa and his wife, Jean Morris, exemplified the violent relationship between the colonizer and the colonized demonstrating how dangerous negative narrative can be. Though having caused so much suffering and pain, Mustafa’s plan of revenge was a success.
Benazir Bhutto, “politics and the Muslim Woman,” in Liberal Islam: A Sourcebook, edited by Charles Kurzman, pp. 107-111.
Fatima Mernissi, “A Feminist Interpretation of Women’s Rights in Islam,” Liberal Islam: A Sourcebook, edited by Charles Kurzman, pp. 112-126.
Qasim Amin, “The Emancipation of Woman” and “The New Woman,” Modernist Islamby Charles Kurzman, pp. 61-69.
Sayyid Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, “Islam and the Logic of Power,” in Ibrahim M. Abu-Rabi’s The Contemporary Arab Reader on Political Islam, pp. 56-61.
Tayeb Salih, Season of Migration to the North.