Abeer Esber: For Wrong Reasons, Easier for Arab Women to Publish

This was written by M. Lynx Qualey and originally appeared at Arabic Literature (In English).

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.

  • http://www.muslimness.com Zaufishan

    Agreed. Where women and men differ by design, there has never been a valid reason to object; the moment one dips into the others’ rights though, tension builds. Let each individual be judged according to their merit rather than how far they’ll assimilate into what is demanded from them according to culture.

    It’s a matter of equity, not equality.


  • http://www.wluml.org Rochelle

    1) One the whole, men publish much more often then women, in the Arab world or anywhere else.

    2) If women do find it easier to get published, it couldn’t possible be because women’s voices have been silenced for so long that now there is a public desire to read women’s work, could it?…

    I’m hearing “reverse sexism” and it makes me want to stick something in my eye.

  • Jannah

    I’m with Rochelle here… for how many centuries were there no Arab women publishing anything at all? There’s been a long-overdue balance needing to be redressed there. I certainly feel a deep desire and passion to see the sisters finally finding their voice and being heard, and I’m thrilled that this is happening in my lifetime.

    And every time I hear about the poor poor men oppressed by those evil feminists, I don’t know if I want to laugh in ridicule or throw up.

  • http://www.heavybaggloves.net/ Alex

    Interesting and very true look at how Arab women have been historically portrayed in the western world of publishing – are they downtrodden slaves, or harem seductresses? Why have the images changed over time, and how do this women take the initiative to define themselves.