In Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North, relations between men and women are characterized by violence. During his time in England, the Sudanese protagonist of the novel, Mustafa Sa’eed, has a number of relationships with English women that end in death or murder. And in the small village of Wad Hamid in Sudan, where the novel’s unnamed narrator encounters Sa’eed, tragedy strikes when Sa’eed’s widow Hosna is forced to marry a man much older than herself. In its portrayal of relationships between men and women, the novel suggests that—whether in Sudan or England—women everywhere are the frequently victims of violent misogyny.
Mustafa Sa’eed’s relationships with his various mistresses in England are characterized by misogyny and violence. Sa’eed describes these women as his “prey,” as targets which he deviously and intentionally seduces in order to wield power over them. He consistently deceives the women, lying about his true identity (by giving false names, for instance) and by cheating on them with other women. A number of the women he seduces end up taking their own lives, partly, it is suggested, as a result of Sa’eed’s emotional manipulation of them. His lovers Ann Hammond, Sheila Greenwood, and Isabella Seymour all commit suicide after being in relationships with him. In the court case in which Sa’eed is tried for murder, it is suggested that these women end their lives partly because of Sa’eed’s betrayal of them. During one year in London, for instance, Sa’eed lived with five different women simultaneously, deceiving each about his commitment to her. The misogyny and uneven power dynamic that characterizes Sa’eed’s relationships with these women is exemplified most clearly in his relationship with Ann Hammond. In their intimate life, Ann Hammond plays the role of Sa’eed’s “slave girl” “Sausan,” and Sa’eed plays the role of her master. The master-slave roleplay that Sa’eed engages in with Ann suggests that the relationship may unequal in a broader sense, and that it is Sa’eed who wields the ability to dominate and subjugate Ann Hammond.
Sa’eed’s relationship with his English wife Jean Morris is the most explicitly violent of his intimate relationships. Sa’eed characterizes his marriage to Jean as a “war,” full of battles, which he invariably loses. His description of his marriage in this way suggests that the relationship between the genders is inherently one of conflict and violence. Indeed, unlike the other English women, Jean Morris refuses to let Sa’eed control her. Of all the women, she is the one who challenges Sa’eed the most, by refusing to allow him to subjugate her in the way that he subjugates other women. She behaves however she wants—flirting with other men, for instance—and often provokes Sa’eed in the process. This leads to scenes of violent conflict between the two. Sa’eed speaks of how, when provoked by Jean, he would often slap her. She, in turn, would answer his violence by also physically attacking him. The violence that characterizes the marriage between the two reaches its climax when Sa’eed murders Jean one February night in his London apartment. On that night, Sa’eed finds Jean waiting naked for him in bed. As he makes love to her, he plunges a knife into her chest, killing her. Although Jean herself seems to welcome her death, this violent ending to their relationship ultimately confirms that violence is central to it.
Violence doesn’t just show up in the relationships between Sa’eed and English women in the novel. It also characterizes the relationships between Sudanese men and women in the small village of Wad Hamid on the banks of the Nile river in Sudan. Signs of the violence to which women are subjected in that village are suggested in a conversation between the narrator’s grandfather and his friends, Bint Majzoub, Wad Rayyes, and Bakri. The friends’ conversation reveals that female circumcision is a widespread practice in the village, and also throughout Sudan. This deeply violent practice of removing parts of a woman’s genitals shows the violence to which women are subject in that culture.
Sudanese women are also subjected to violence in other ways throughout the novel—particularly when it comes to their marital relationships to men. For instance, when Sa’eed’s widow, Hosna Bint Mahmoud, refuses to marry Wad Rayyes, a man forty years older than her, she is subjected to violence by her father, who assaults her physically and beats her because she has dared to contradict his wishes. Furthermore, after being forcibly married off to Wad Rayyes, Hosna is subjected to rape. The village is awoken one night by screams coming from Wad Rayyes’s house, and when the villagers break down the door to the house, they find that Hosna has been physically violated—she has bite marks and scratches all over her body. In defending herself against her husband’s sexual violence, she kills him and stabs herself. The terribly violent end to which Hosna and Wad Rayyes come again emphasizes the conflict that characterizes relations between the genders in the novel. Certainly, Hosna perpetrates violence against Wad Rayyes, but this is only in response to the misogynistic sexual violence that has been perpetrated against her. In the process, she ends up destroying herself as well.
Throughout, Season of Migration to the North depicts relations between men and women as fundamentally conflict-ridden and fraught with violence. In these relationships, both genders suffer, but it is women who bear the brunt of the violence—as suggested in the tragic ends that many of Mustafa Sa’eed’s lovers meet in England, as well as Hosna’s own violation by her husband Wad Rayyes in the small village of Wad Hamid in Sudan. The novel, in other words, suggests that patriarchy and misogyny afflict women across the world in ways that lead to death and destruction. Women are consistently the targets of male violence, and they suffer tragic consequences as a result.
Gender and Violence ThemeTracker
Gender and Violence Quotes in Season of Migration to the North
“As we drank tea, she asked me about my home. I related to her fabricated stories about deserts of golden sands and jungles where non-existent animals called out to one another. I told her that the streets of my country teemed with elephants and lions and that during siesta time crocodiles crawled through it […]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.”
“A week or ten days after you went away [Hosna’s] father said he had given Wad Rayyes a promise—and they married her off to him. Her father swore at her and beat her; he told her she’d marry him whether she liked it or not.”
“The red straw mat was swimming in blood. I raised the lamp and saw that every inch of Bint Mahmoud’s body was covered in bites and scratches…Wad Rayyes had been stabbed more than ten times—in his stomach, chest, face, and between his thighs”
“In London I took her to my house, the den of lethal lies that I had deliberately built up, lie upon lie: the sandalwood and incense; the ostrich feathers and ivory and ebony figurines; the paintings and drawings of forests of palm trees along the shores of the Nile, boats with sails like doves’ wings, suns setting over the mountains of the Red Sea, camel caravans wending their way along sand dunes on the borders of the Yemen, baobab tress in Kordofan, naked girls from the tribes of Zandi.”
“The moments of ecstasy were in fact rare; the rest of the time we spent in a murderous war in which no quarter was given. The war invariably ended in my defeat. When I slapped her, she would slap me back and dig her nails into my face...”
“I pressed down the dagger with my chest until it had all disappeared between her breasts. I could feel the hot blood gushing from her chest. I began crushing my chest against her as she called out imploringly: ‘Come with me.””