Laila al-Othman: Too Much Sex in New Saudi (Women’s) Lit

Kuwaiti novelist Laila Al-Othman

A couple weeks back, Kuwaiti novelist Laila al-Othman found an appreciative audience when she attacked a new strain of Saudi literature, penned by women, for its “increasingly sexual content.”

According to the Arab news-translation service Meedan:

Al-Othman told a seminar in Saudi Arabia “the trend towards increasing sexual content can be understood by the love of fame and the fact that publishing houses race to have new female writers who aspire to make hasty career jumps.”

Al-Othman apparently pointed to Wardah Abdel-Malik’s Al-Awbah (The Return) and Saba al-Harz’s Al-Akharoun (The Others), although she surely also must’ve had in mind Rajaa Alsanea’s very popular Girls of Riyadh.

Apparently, several other Saudi women novelists have agreed with Al-Othman. Meedan floated these unattributed quotes:

…”the new female writers who have no real talent opt for eroticism.”

…”one would be ashamed to read those women’s novels due to the flagrant sexual content.”

Indeed, as The National reports, a new genre of Saudi fiction was born after Girls of Riyadh, and these young female (and male) writers are eager to break Saudi taboos.

But certainly taboo-busting—while not so interesting if done primarily to titillate Western readers—is an important part of serious literature.

Al-Harz’s The Others, which I haven’t read, has been called more “literary” than Girls of Riyadh.  Reviews in The National and elsewhere seem to have fallen off the Internet. So, from the somewhat unforgiving blog Instants of Insanity:

“In all, this [The Others] is a pretty decent novel. I guess it is part of the new ‘scandalous’ novels written by female writers; a genre (if we can call it that) popularized by Riyadh Girls, which sucked…. “

Other reviews of Girls of Riyadh have not been quite so harsh. Many Western readers, I suppose, were titillated by this chance to look “behind the veil,” “under the covers,” and so on.

And yes, all this “looking behind the veil” makes my skin crawl. However, it’s difficult to disentangle the Arab criticisms of this new subgenre. Is the thrust of the al-Othman-inspired criticisms that erotic tropes are being exploited merely to sell novels, and that this panders to (and reinforces) Western views of Arab women? Or is the criticism that sexual content—in itself—is shameful?


  1. Wow, more breaking news from the Gulf.

    1) People write about taboos after they are economically promising, bringing new incentives for a struggling artist.

    2) People write about the improper in a society that insists on suppressing it, convincing people it is something worth talking about as a form of social and/or political resistance.

    Honestly, expecting anything else is pure ignorance. I think it is cute that Othman thinks this way. She is not nearly as famous as Binaat Ar-Riyaadh’s Rajaa Alsanea, so maybe she should consider selling it with some eroticism, instead of seeking more mundane cliches.

    1. She is a better writer (and translator) than the author of the Girls of Riyadh though. And the aim of an artist should not be to make money, it should be to make good art. Authors who write for titillation (as opposed to the use of the new, shocking, or taboo for artistic purposes, eg. Joyce, or Qabbani) should not be held up as pinnacles of virtue.

      Breaking taboos on sexuality and equality will be the major project for Arab societies in this century. However, playing to the erotic, orientalist expectations of the west is not the best way to do this.

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