Skip to main content

Daughters of the Nile: Zahra Barri on love, activism & identity

Daughters of the Nile: Zahra Barri on love, activism and identity in Egypt
6 min read
19 June, 2024
Book Club: Zahra Barri’s debut novel is a celebration of female relationships and holds a place for queer and feminist movements in Islam.

Cairo 1951: Islamic feminist Fatiha has just stormed the Egyptian Parliament with her best friend and sister-in-arms, legendary Egyptian feminist Doria Shafik, demanding the president grant Egyptian women equal civil and political rights to men, as promised in the constitution.

Fatiha’s husband Ali is supportive but sometimes her activism tries his patience.

Cairo 1970: Yasminah, daughter of Islamic feminist and professor Fatiha Bin-Khalid, has had her marriage arranged to a man she does not love after her parents’ apartment has been broken into and the walls graffitied with the words 'shaza gensia' and they find out she has been secretly dating a bisexual Persian man called Ommy.

Bristol 2011: Half-Irish half Egyptian Nadia is struggling with all the men in her life – the pompous newsreader she had an affair with at the TV station she works at followed by her racist and sexist male boss at the magazine she works for. She is becoming increasingly intrigued about her sexuality but is confused when she finds a copy of her Aunt Yasminah’s annotated Quran and collections of hadith in which she has drawn red circles around passages on homosexuality.

These are the timelines of three generations of Egyptian women in the Bin-Khalid family, in Irish-Egyptian writer and stand-up-comedienne Zahra Barri’s debut novel Daughters of the Nile, published earlier this month by Unbound.

Barri was the winner of Unbound Firsts 2024, an annual competition for writers of colour by the UK-based crowdfunding publishing house.

Her prize was the publication of her compelling multi-generational saga about Islam, queerness and feminism set between Egypt and the UK, spanning eight decades.

Daughters of the Nile is Barri’s proclaimed love letter to the strong Muslim Egyptian women she grew up with and the ground-breaking female figures she discovered through the annals of Egyptian history.

She also drew inspiration from remarkable – and comical – members of her own family.

“I wanted to write against the cliché of the Muslim woman. I've grown up with very strong, feminist Muslim women. I wanted to show how history repeats itself in families and represent the Muslim woman in new and interesting ways,” Barri tells The New Arab.

“I knew I wanted to cover a lot of taboos, as well as explore Islam from a feminist and non-cis hetero perspective. My family was a starting point and then I created this alternative Egyptian family from that and the characters came alive on the page,” she added. 

The novel recounts real-life events from the 1950s-1970s during a very dynamic period, both socially and politically, in modern Egyptian history.

Book Club
Live Story

In the 1940s, Fatiha receives a scholarship to study at the prestigious Sorbonne University in Paris where she meets Doria Shafik, also from Egypt, and an unlikely lifelong friendship blossoms between the two.

The book’s title Daughters of the Nile, is an English translation of Bint Al-Nil, the real-life feminist magazine Doria Shafik founded and edited between 1945 and 1957, which the Egyptian government ultimately banned.

Barri gives us a behind-the-scenes look into Shafik and her feminist peers’ lives, as they plan a feminist revolution while juggling the familial expectations of their husbands and children who expect them to be home in time to cook and serve dinner.

What is most fascinating is the sisterly love between two very different types of feminists; the media often depicts Islamic women’s rights activists and secular Arab women’s rights activists as two polar parties, but Barri has reimagined this relationship and offered up the possibility that they would have united for a common cause.

“There's so much opposition between Western, secular feminists and Muslim feminists and I am an embodiment of both because I've had an Islamic upbringing from my Egyptian side and lived in Saudi Arabia, but I've also lived in the West. I've seen empowered women on both sides and oppressed women on both sides. And as Fatima Mernissi says, we're all oppressed by the patriarchy in different ways – it’s two sides of the same coin,” explains Barri.

Yasminah is perhaps the most radical of all three protagonists; she leaves her husband and son and elopes to pre-revolution Iran to live in an open relationship with Ommy, where she comes face-to-face with her bisexuality, something that would have been unheard of in 1970s Egypt. She makes it her life’s work to understand queerness in Islam.

Four decades later, Nadia wrongly assumes that her Aunt Yasminah is homophobic, an indication that she truly does not know her aunt nor has she made an effort to get to know her.

Moving from Bristol to London provides Nadia with the opportunity to learn the truth about her aunt who she has always assumed to be conservative and disapproving of Nadia and her lifestyle.

“She stereotypes her aunt and that is an expression of what we all do, we look at people and we judge them and your judgments are all based on superficialities and not based on actually getting to know someone,” comments Barri.

With the novel having been released during Pride Month, I could not help but reflect on the fact that in Egypt’s modern history, all social movements have always stopped short of demanding queer rights, which is not surprising in a country that is infamous for cracking down on members of the community. I ask Zahra Barri whether this was something she discovered through her research for Daughters of the Nile.

“Even in Western politics, it has only been in the most recent period that we have included queer people in the mix. I think every culture is getting better at incorporating the queer experience and an Egyptian Islamic academic called Mohammed Abdu wrote a lot about Islam and queerness,” she says.

“He argued that some Western countries use stereotypes surrounding Islam not being conducive towards queerness to create Islamophobia.”

Barri adds, “When I went back to the classical period of Islam, to Ibn Arabi and his work on gender, I discovered the work was current to not just the gay experience, but the non-binary experience, showing that when we go back in time to the roots of Islam, we can actually find some really progressive thought, which is an interesting oxymoron isn’t it, going back in time to find progressiveness.”

Daughters of the Nile is published by Unbound and is out now

Yousra Samir Imran is a British Egyptian writer and author based in Yorkshire. She is the author of Hijab and Red Lipstick, published by Hashtag Press

Follow her on Twitter: @UNDERYOURABAYA