Women and Arabic Literature: News from Cairo and Casablanca

“Serious” literature is, in most languages, a male-dominated business. Literary works translated into English have hovered around a 70-30 split:

Exotic and kitchsy?
Exotic and kitchsy?

This often reflects a bias in the source language, and indeed the Arabic literature of prizes and festivals has generally been the province of men. There are some exceptions, such as the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature, steered by the eminent Samia Mehrez. The world of comix has also been a more egalitarian one: While France’s Angouleme comix prize had its “30 men, 0 women” year, the inaugural CairoComix prizes went to a majority of women winners.

This year’s Cairo Literature Festival — which ran Feb. 11 – 16 — put its focus on women writers, with 30 of the 50 writers identifying as women. It featured some of the language’s leading women writers, including the poet Iman Mersal, who launched her new book, How to Mend: On Motherhood and its Ghosts.

However, according to a report in Mada Masr, some participants felt the way in which women’s writing was promoted was “exotic and kitschy,” and with an apparent lack of respect for some of the authors. Award-winning Egyptian novelist May Telmissany reportedly said at her panel: “I do not believe literature has a sex.”

Meanwhile, in Ursula Lindsay’s report from the Casablanca Book Fair, which also took place mid-February, she gave numbers from a new report on publishing in Morocco that suggested women’s writing remains a minority pursuit:

The King Abdul Aziz Foundation for Human Sciences and Islamic Studies—a Saudi-funded association and library dedicated to encouraging research in the Maghreb region—has just issued its second report on publishing in Morocco. The report catalogued 3,304 new publications in 2016, including 497 academic journals (it excluded textbooks, manuals and publications in the hard sciences). Literary works make up the highest percentage of the publications (25 percent), followed by writing on the law (14 percent) and religion (10 percent). About a quarter of all books are self-published, and 86 percent of the authors are male.*


This year is also the first — in a ten-year history — that the judging panel for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction was dominated by women. The internationally acclaimed Palestinian novelist Sahar Khalifeh is the judging chair, and there was some noise on social media about whether this meant women’s writing would be favored. But as has been the case most years, there is only one woman’s book on the shortlist, Najwa Binshatwan’s The Slaves’ Pens, with Renée Hayek’s The Year of the Radio not advancing.

*Bolding mine.