Since the turn of the century, in an ever-changing socio-political landscape – from 9/11, to the Arab Spring in 2011 and onwards – women have increasingly begun to own their narratives, discussing the changes from the lens of their - often defining - positions as women. And one of the best ways to do so is through literature. Contemporary women have put pen to paper, writing books that depict, explore, and analyse the complexities of Arab women's experiences. While this is in no way a new development – the 20th century saw a slew of female-focused narratives from the likes of feminist figures such as Egyptians Huda Sha’arawi and Nawal Saadawi – books from this century deal with the modern-day realities, issues, and nuances of being an Arab woman in today's world.
Some of the experiences that Arab women have delved into relate to men – because let’s face it, the patriarchy is far from dead – while others relate to the body through which the woman is most often judged, defined, and understood. Their topics range from the hijab to to the oppression of women in the region to the experience of women in diaspora. From women discovering a slowly-(or not-so-slowly)-brewing sexual revolution in the Middle East, to those documenting women’s central roles in political revolutions and social movements, these authors have taken to writing as a means of documenting the rapid changes in and outside the region – and consequently, or even in parallel, in themselves.
These 21 books epitomise Arab women’s experiences, giving voice to feelings and situations that women may often feel alone in, and allowing others a glimpse into the Arab world through the lens of those immersed in all of its spaces at once. Whether they are non-fiction, novels, or fictionalised stories somewhere in between the two, these books all offer a peek into the lives of Arab women...
1. A Woman Is No Man, 2019
This novel, written by Palestinian-American author Etaf Rum, explores the lives of Arab women living in America. Following Deya, an eighteen-year-old who is already being catapulted into marriage – forced by her grandparents to meet potential suitors – the novel delves into her struggles with her conservative family, as well as her trouble understanding what happened to her parents. After being told all her life that her parents had died in a car accident, she receives a note from a stranger that makes her doubt everything she knows. The novel then alternates between her life and her mother’s – in some ways, eerily similar, and in others, wildly different – and becomes an inter-generational exploration of the history of her community, through the eyes of a woman coming of age.
3. It’s Not About the Burqa, 2019
Sparked by a surge of outrage after reading one of many, many white men’s analyses of women’s subordination in the region and their “traditional submissiveness,” British Muslim and feminist Mariam Khan wrote this book to counter these widespread discourses, and to hand the mic to Muslim women themselves. 17 women speak about the fluidity of faith, the hijab, love, divorce, feminism, and sex, from their direct experiences in the Arab world and across the diaspora. These are the women who are silenced, and who know exactly what living as a Muslim woman feels like, and that it’s not, as a matter of fact, contrary to what many “experts” may write, all about the burqa. Writers in the collection include the Egyptian public speaker and author Mona Eltahawy and Guardian journalist Coco Khan.
4. Our Women on the Ground: Essays by Arab Women Reporting from the Arab World, 2019
A first of its kind account of Arab female journalists on their experiences “on ground,” this book includes nineteen essays that tackle what it means to report on the streets of a region that is at once, home, and foreign – home because it is where you were brought up; foreign because you’re forced to step out of it as a journalist for the sake of “objective reporting” – and how that experience unfolds for women. With a foreword from possibly the most famous female journalist in contemporary times, British-Iranian Christiane Amanpour, the book explores everything from experiences of sexual harassment on the streets, to the intimate connections made between women during war. The book shares the journalists' unique perspectives on war, journalism and the powers, joys and tribulations of reporting (as a woman) in the Arab world.
5. My Past Is a Foreign Country, 2019
An autobiographical account of a young Indian woman raised in Saudi Arabia, this book provides a very rare voice in literature, an intersection between Asian and Middle Eastern women, and an account of a woman’s resistance to her constraints, from those set by family, to those meant to define how it is she can love and be loved. While Zeba Takhlani is not technically Arab, her experience as a Muslim woman raised in Saudi Arabia - while carrying another ethnic identity - provides a fascinating perspective of the experience of immigrant women in the Arab world. As she moves from Saudi Arabia to India, Germany and the UK, the narrative shifts into a trans-national, border-defying charting of a feminist woman's journey towards becoming who she chooses to be.
6. The Greater Freedom: Life as a Middle Eastern Woman Outside the Stereotypes, 2019
Born in Egypt and raised in London, Alya Mooro’s experience as a woman, torn between two cultures and the entirely different sets of expectations that come with them, comprises the subject of this book. Both a memoir and a social exploration, where she interviews other Middle Eastern women who are, like her, in a sort of identity limbo, the book tries to step outside of the binaries of gender and culture that give her – and millions of other women – no room to exist. A discussion of gender roles, norms, and multiculturalism, the book is a rallying call for women to take hammers to the glass boxes of expectations that try to contain them, and to live, freely, in the grey area.
7. Syrian Brides, 2018
This collection of short stories, written by Syrian author Anna Halabi, venture into a side of Syria largely unknown now by the rest of the world – who, sadly, merely know of numbers, figures, and war – and that is the homes. The intimate lives of Syrian women are explored in each story, from the comic and ironic ones to the tragic and triggering. Tackling domestic abuse, the male gaze, and even the woman’s role in marrying her son, these short stories offer a very rare glimpse into the contemporary lives of Syrian women.
8. Bad Girls of the Arab World, 2017
This collection of works is about Arab women’s transgressions – of all kinds, from transgressing gender roles to class roles, and how those transgressions manifest their labels as “bad girls.” It includes short reflective and academic pieces, written by Arab women from different ages, classes, and educational backgrounds, from the MENA region and across the diaspora. The book is an exploration of the different intersectional experiences that women go through as they grow up as Arab women, and how those relate to – and how they end up being perceived in – global and regional discourses. The collection is co-edited by Nadia Yaqub, a Professor and Chair in the Department of Asian Studies and Adjunct Associate Professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at UNC Chapel Hill, and late Professor Rula Qawas, who was dean of the languages faculty at the University of Jordan.
9. Sex and Lies: Sexual Life in Morocco, 2017 | Sexe et Mensonges: La vie sexuelle au Maroc
Based on a number interviews with Moroccan women, French-Moroccan author Leïla Slimani writes a book about the strict surveillance and monitoring of Moroccan women’s bodies and sexual lives, and how they choose to navigate that, often through (forced) lies. She also draws larger connections between women’s sexual lives and their political roles in the state – making a clear parallel between sexual and political freedom. Sex and Lies is a fascinating and ever-relevant account of what sexuality means in the Arab world today, especially for women, whose experience of it remains the most contested, and the most fraught.
10. 32, 2016
A post-Lebanese-Civil-War chronicle, this book focuses on the lives of five Lebanese women as they navigate their social and professional lives in the country where war remains a looming threat. 32 straddles the personal and political lives of women in a rapidly changing socio-political situation. Lebanese-Egyptian novelist Sahar Mandour’s critical exploration of post-civil-war Lebanon offers the much needed perspective of women on the matter, delving into their role in reconstructing a a city after a war has ravaged it, and in spite of the continuous possibility of all of it happening again.
11. Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution, 2015
Egyptian feminist and activist Mona Tahawy is one of the most outspoken and brave voices in the region, and this book is the perfect introduction into her ideologies. Exploring the underbelly of the Arab Spring, less known to the world and to its men, specifically, Tahawy explains how and why Arab women were fighting in two revolutions instead of one; the revolution where they, side by side with men, demand their rights from a corrupt system; and another, where they fight against an entrenched socio-political system that treats women as second-class citizens. Driven by interviews and testimonies, the book is a fierce undertaking of the ways in which culture and religion are used and misused in conversations that oppress women, and keep them silent.
12. The Blue Between Sky and Water, 2015
Set in a refugee camp in Gaza, this story focuses on a matriarch, Nazmiyeh, and her family’s struggles – from a cancerous daughter to a traumatised son. A powerful story about not just any kind of womanhood, but Palestinian womanhood, this book, written by Palestinian-American writer and activist Susan Abulhawa, is a timeless (and timely) symbol of the goals kept and cherished by most Palestinians, everywhere, no matter the individual fights they’re fighting: a desire to go back to the ‘blue between sky and water, where all is as it once was, and where all will meet again.’
13. The Almond, 2006 | L'Amande
An autobiographical erotic novel coming out of the Arab world in 2006 was more than an anomaly. This book, written by Nedjma (a pseudonym) and translated from its original French, delves into the journeys of a young Moroccan woman who finds liberation in her own sexual awakening, and who struggles, nevertheless, through her rediscovery of her sexuality – repressed thus far by her husband’s control over her – and her experience with eroticism. Dubbed a Muslim Vagina Monologues, this book is seminal in that it is one of the first erotic (and autobiographical) novels out of the region, written by a woman.
14. The Arrogant Years: One Girl’s Search for Her Lost Youth, from Cairo to Brooklyn, 2011
While this is not a purely woman-focused narrative, it is an honest telling of the trials and tribulations of a young Egyptian-Jewish woman – a minority within a minority. A follow up memoir to her earlier, award-winning The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit (2007), this book recounts author Lucette Lagnado's coming-of-age as she moves across the world – from Cairo to Brooklyn and beyond – and discovers she has cancer at 16. At once a show of resilience, and a snapshot of society in the ‘60s and ‘70s, The Arrogant Years touches on the difficulties of being a woman, and the forced strength that comes as a consequence of being one.
15. Fe-mail: The trials and tribulations of being a Good Egyptian Girl, and Fe-mail 2, 2008
Starting out as a compilation of witty articles by Egyptian writer and entrepreneur Amy Mowafi, Fe-mail was a trend-setting tour de force when it came out, celebrating the true diversity of Egyptian girl-(and woman-)hood. Evolving later into a two-part series, Fe-mail became a coming-of-age chronicle of a girl's transition to womanhood in an Arab culture, presenting a tongue-in-cheek reading of the never-ending expectations – which she, almost always, has ended up defying – of being an Egyptian woman. Also once compared to an Arab Sex and the City, the books remain relevant to Arab women who try to go against the grain of society, what their parents say, what their bawabs say, and who struggle to find their truth beyond the endless jury presented to them by their beloved motherland.
16. The Complete Persepolis, 2007
The only graphic memoir we have come across thus far by an Arab woman, The Complete Persepolis – a volume of four parts – is the internationally best-selling story of Satrapi’s coming of age in Tehran. A glimpse into the Islamic revolution through the eyes of a young girl, plagued by her own personal issues as well as state-wide political upheaval, the book offers a rare perspective on one of the most defining periods of Iranian history. It is also an honest and intimate chronicle of her girlhood, as she lives in Vienna, away from home, struggling to become a “woman.
17. Muhajababes: Meet the New Middle East: Cool, Sexy and Deovut, 2006
While now perhaps seeming a bit outdated or obvious, this work marked a significant shift in the way Middle Eastern women are read and portrayed in media. British writer Allegra Stratton wanted to venture beyond the Hezbollah headlines and the widespread, narrow readings of Muslim women, and thus came Muhajababes; the hijabi women who defy the expectations – from those around them and from outsiders – of what a hijabi should look and act like. After interviewing women from across the Arab world, she also placed the Muhajababes in contrast with the growing following of who she calls the “Life-makers;” the large mass of followers of religious gurus like Amr Khaled, who uphold a media-friendly, conservative Islam and rally a movement behind them. Showing the discrepancies between religion, media, and real life – where it all plays out – this account offers one of the first fluid understandings of what religion, and by extension ‘hijab,’ means in the Middle East, and the answer comes in multitudes.
18. Children of the New World, 2005 | Les Enfants du Nouveau Monde
The Algerian Revolution and fight for independence from French colonial rule was - famously - a fight where women were indispensable; where their veils ironically became symbols of freedom, worn to emphasise emancipation rather than negate it, and their womanhood became a sign of strength. Assia Djebar, one of the most distinguished Arab woman writers, wrote this novel following her involvement in the Algerian resistance, showcasing the importance of a woman’s perspective on the Revolution. The novel tells the story of women in a rural Algerian town whose lives become intertwined and who empower each other to resist. From wives to political organisers, the female characters in this book are diverse and necessary inclusions in the conversations around the Algerian Revolution.
19. Midnight Tales: A woman’s Journey through the Midde East, 2005 | Kesas Montasef al-Layl: Rehlet Emra'a Hawl al Shark al Awsat
Translated from Arabic, Midnight Tales is a collection of personal essays by Iraqi writer Rosina-Fawzia Al-Rawi, an exploration of love and womanhood across the Middle East, from Iraq, to Syria, to Kuwait, to the Emiratres. The book also moves beyond these two defining categories and documents women's journeys and their coming of age, exploring the transnational connections between women's experiences in the Arab world.
20. Girls of Riyadh, 2005 | Banat al-Riyadh
One of the most famous novels on this list, and an anomaly in its own right, Girls of Riyadh, written by Rajaa al-Sanea and translated into English by Marilyn Booth, was one of the first bold forays into the world of Saudi women – and it was immediately banned in the kingdom when it first came out. Eventually receiving permission to publish it in Saudi Arabia, the book, written in the form of e-mails, delves into the world of young upper-class Saudi women; specifically, Gamrah, who suffers from her husband's trust issues, Sadeem who is a little too willing to please her fiancé, half-American Michelle who's "the wrong class for her boyfriend’s family," and Lamees, the hard-worker who doesn't have enough time for love. The book, previously hailed as a ‘Saudi Sex and the City’ is a real and honest portrayal of the complexities of Saudi femininity.
21. A Certain Woman (2003) | Emra'a.. Ma
A very inward-looking account of womanhood, this prize-winning novel, written by Egyptian author Hala Badry, follows a middle-class young girl, Nahid, on a journey of self-discovery and her quest for liberation from her own internalised and self-imposed taboos surrounding her roles as a woman and her sexuality. A love story and a snapshot of middle-class life in Egypt, the book is a rare and authentic look at the intersection between gender, sexuality, and class.