Abeer Esber: For Wrong Reasons, Easier for Arab Women to Publish

After all the kerfuffle about how many Arabic Booker nominees use the girls’ room instead of the boys’ (and how this is proof of literary discrimination), I appreciate Syrian author Abeer Esber, writing on Qantara:

“In my view, this gender discussion has nothing to do with good literature.”

Well, perhaps not nothing, but the links are certainly more complicated than “fewer women on your prize list” = “sexism.”

“Unfortunately,” she continues, “women in Arab countries are currently finding it easier, for all the wrong reasons, to find a publisher for their books.”

So, why are publishers drawn to Arab female writers? Sex appeal, of course: the idea that “taboos are being broken,” along with the notion—among Western publishers, lit-fair organizers, others—that one is subverting the “dominant Arab paradigm” by celebrating female authors.

Youssef Bazzi details the same phenomenon in his essay in Banipal 36.

Says Esber: “Abdul Rahman Alawi, [her German publisher]…is only interested in working with female Arab writers.” Yes, one way or another—through stripping them of their hijab, or by publishing their books—“we” will save Arab/Muslim women!

Esber argues that she is not a “female writer,” but—for God’s sake—a “writer,” interested in the same subjects as men: lack(s) of democracy, lack of individuality, and the loss of dreams.

No one is saying women have reached a state of happy equality, or that sexism doesn’t exist. Not me, at any rate, and I doubt Esber. But is stuffing the Arabic Booker list with women writers going to help?

I believe that, when it comes to sports, it’s good to have separate leagues for women, who are clearly built on a different scale. But women writers—Abeer Esber, Mansoura ezz-Eldin, Hanan al-Shaykh, whoever—can be placed in the same league as any other writer, and judged on their merits.