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.

4 thoughts on “Abeer Esber: For Wrong Reasons, Easier for Arab Women to Publish

  1. I’m definitely going to see if anyone on my English Literature course reads your blog, I go to a college with a very active feminist society and I know a few members who would find this very interesting.

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