Should There Be Quotas for Women in Saudi Book Clubs?

Omaima al-Khamees

This was a suggestion proposed by award-winning Saudi author Omaima al-Khamees at a recent literary event in Jeddah: more room for women.

Al-Khamees, whose The Leafy Tree was longlisted for the 2010 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF), said that Saudi women’s participation in literary clubs should be supported with specific membership quotas, according to ArabNews.

At a recent book event, the author decried the lack of new books by Saudi women writers, saying, “There was an interest in Saudi novels in 2006.” But since then, she said, interest has declined, in part because “at that time, the novels were weak and based on scandals, which many families did not find suitable reading.”

Al-Khamees was likely referring to a wave of literature inspired in part by Rajaa Alsanea’s popular Girls of Riyadh, published in Arabic in 2005 and English in 2007. Other female novelists writing about sex in the latter half of the decade included Seba al-Herz (The Others, available in English) and Samar al-Muqrin. Celebrated Kuwaiti author Laila al-Othman attacked this strain of literature early this year, saying “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.”

Saudi women have long been writing about many topics.

Contemporary Saudi authors have numerous forbears, including Tumadir bint ‘Amr, popularly known as al-Khansa (575-664). She was a poet and literary critic who, according to academic Bouthaina Shaaban, used to stand in “that world’s fair of Arabic poetry, the Okaz market in present-day Saudi Arabia, scrutinizing the work of her fellow poets, and pointing out to them the merits and demerits of their poetry.”

In the recent era, however, Saudi women authors have had great difficulty standing on the same platform as men. Women have been shushed off the stage at Saudi book readings, and, in 2009, IPAF-winning Abdo Khal was arrested at the Riyadh book fair for seeking the autograph of a female author.

Still, Saudi women write. A June article in Middle East Online addressed the “new” Saudi Arabian novel, quoting author Badriya al-Bishr:

There is a new generation of novelists that uses a new language, simple and direct, in dealing with subjects that were not evoked in the past, like the right of a woman to be in love or to work.

The paper notes that al-Bishr’s most recent novel, The Swing, tells the stories of three Saudi women in Europe. She added:

The novel has become a way out. It expresses what one dares not say, and breaks taboos.

Al-Khamees told the paper that this taboo-breaking isn’t always good, and “could have a negative impact on the artistic quality of the novel, as it turns into a rebellious social pamphlet.”

But Al-Bishr disagreed with those—like Al-Othman—who have said that Saudi women writers have gone over the top for fame. She told the paper that in reality people are “more audacious” than in recent novels.

Where can you find the work of contemporary Saudi women writers?

Collections and studies

Voices of Change: Short Stories by Saudi Arabian Women Writers, edited and translated by Abubaker Bagader, Ava M. Heinrichsdorff, and Deborah S. Akers

Women and Words in Saudi Arabia: Politics of Literary Discourse, by Saddeka Arebi

Prominent Saudi women authors who’ve had work translated into English

Raja Alem, perhaps the most well-known female Saudi literary author, is on the shortlist for this year’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction for her novel The Doves’ Necklace. She has two novels in English.

Raja Alsanea is certainly the most well-known female Saudi author. She’s the author of the popular Girls of Riyadh, which was published in Arabic in 2005 and English in 2007 (somewhat controversially, because of translation issues). It has been credited—for better or worse—with starting a new wave of Saudi girl-lit.

Fawzia Abu Khaled is Adonis’s favorite Saudi poetess. Abu Khaled’s work has generally not been translated into English, although you can find her in Contemporary Poems from the Arabian Peninsula, newly out in Arabic and English.

Laila al-Juhni has written three novels. Two of her short stories have been translated and published by Banipal. Journalist Fakhri Saleh has said of her: “Two female Saudi writers took the responsibility to experiment with style – Rajaa Alem and Laila Al-Johani.”

Laila al-Ouhaydib is a short-story writer who has had a story translated and published by Banipal.

Zeinab Hifni is a journalist and novelist whose work has been translated and published by Banipal.

Badreya al-Bishr, quoted above, had a short story, “School Diaries,” included in the collection Voices of Change: Short Stories by Saudi Arabian Women Writers.

Samira Khashuqji’s “Fall Nights” was included in the collection Voices of Change: Short Stories by Saudi Arabian Women Writers.

Siba al-Harz‘s novel The Others is available in English. Al-Harz is a pen name.

Saudi women writers accused of putting ‘too much sex’ in the novel

Samar al-Muqrin, who has written Immoral Women

Siba al-Harz, for her book The Others

Wafaa’ Abdel Rahman, for Love in the Capital

Zaynab Hanafi, for Features

Other well-known Saudi women writers

Hissa Hilal, lest we forget, was the popular poet who did not win Million’s Poet, but perhaps should’ve.

Omaima al-Khamis, who started all this, was longlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2010 for her novel The Leafy Tree

More about Saudi literature

A Primer on Saudi Lit, Abdulrahman Munif to Present