These Arab women are reclaiming their narrative through literature, from the meaning of the hijab to their role in political revolutions and social movements.
One of the most powerful ways for Arab women to reclaim their narrative is through literature. Contemporary Arab women have put pen to paper, writing books that depict, explore, and analyse the complexities of their unique experiences - from the hijab to the patriarchy, from the cultural expectations of women in diaspora to their central role they’ve played in political revolutions and social movements. These authors have taken to writing as a means of documenting the changes and observations in and outside the region, and consequently, in themselves.
1. Cairo Circles (2021) by Doma Mahmoud
The lives of six young Egyptians intertwine over the course of over a decade, revealing complex relationships complicated by faith, tradition, social class, and the boundaries of personal freedom. A multi-perspective page-turner, Doma Mahmoud’s debut novel introduces readers to a bold and inventive new voice in fiction as Cairo’s streets burst to life on the page.
2. The Other Americans (2020) by Laila Lalami
Moroccan immigrant, father, husband, and business owner Driss Guerraoui is hit and killed by a speeding car. The aftermath of his death brings together a cast of characters including his daughter, wife, family friends, a detective, and the one witness to his death. The characters, divided by race, religion, and class, tell their stories through their own voice, and connections among them emerge. Driss’s family confronts its long-kept secrets, their American town faces its hypocrisies, and a love that is messy and unpredictable is born.
3. Our Women on the Ground: Essays by Arab Women Reporting from the Arab World (2019) edited by Zahra Hankir
A compilation of essays written by 19 Arab female journalists, this book takes readers to places few dare to go, like the eastern Aleppo home of journalist Zaina Erhaim. The captivating anthology tells the stories behind the stories that come out of war zones and the women working to shape the prevailing narratives surrounding changing homelands and risking their lives on the front lines. In the journalists’ own words, the reader learns what it’s like to report on conflicts that quite literally hit close to home via their heartfelt stories that shatter stereotypes about the Arab region’s women.
4. Washes, Prays (2020) by Noor Naga
Heartbreaking and humorous, this novel chronicles protagonist Coocoo's spiralling inner descent. The reader witnesses the transformation of her love into something at first desperate and obsessive, then finally cringing and animal—utterly devoid of grace. Her best friend, Nouf, remains by her side the entire time, and together they face the growing contradictions of Coocoo's personal life. What does it mean to pray while giving your body to a man who cannot keep it? How long can a homeless love survive on the streets?
5. Mornings in Jenin (2006) by Susan Abulhawa
This cross-generational novel begins when a Palestinian family is forcibly removed from their ancient village of Ein Hod by Israel in 1948, and the Abulheja family is moved into the Jenin refugee camp. Exiled from his homeland, the family’s patriarch is sick of a broken heart. His eldest son fathers a family before being hit with an Israeli bullet, and his grandchildren struggle toward freedom, peace, and the now foreign concept of ‘home’. This is the Palestinian story, told as never before, through four generations of a single family.
6. White Tears/Brown Scars: How White Feminism Betrays Women of Color (2019) by Ruby Hamad
Dissecting the third wave notion of ‘white feminism’, this book tells a charged story of white women’s active participation in campaigns of oppression and offers an overdue validation of the experiences of women of colour. Hamad discusses how the prevalent social representation and division between the ‘innocent white woman’ and the racialized, sexualized image of women of colour was created. From discussing subjects as varied as The Hunger Games, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the viral "BBQ Becky" video, and 19th century lynchings of Mexicans in the American Southwest, Hamad ventures into an investigation of gender and race in parallel.
7. These Impossible Things (2022) by Salma El Wardany
Now available for pre-order, Egyptian-British writer El Wardany channels her own Muslim upbringing into a story of three young Muslim girls: Malak, Kees, and Jenna, whose world mirrors that of many modern Arab girls where staying over at a boyfriend's place is disguised as friend’s sleepover, and tiredness is blamed on studying instead of partying. Jenna is overwhelmed with a loneliness she can’t bear, always in the mood for a party and new adventures as a result. Kees is in love with a white Catholic man, unable to take their relationship to the next level for fear of her family’s reaction. Malak, on the other hand, wants everything, and she’s willing to break her own heart to get it.
8. Woman at Point Zero (1975) by Nawal El Saadawi
A woman’s voice rises from her prison cell in this short, 114-page book from late author and activist Nawal El Saadawi, where the author visits a woman sentenced to death for having killed a pimp in a Cairo street. Firdaus tells the story of her life beginning with her upbringing in an Egyptian village to her eventual job as a common city prostitute. The book discusses society's retribution for her act of defiance as she welcomes as the only way she can finally be free, her own death.
9. In the Eye of the Sun (1992) by Ahdaf Soueif
An intimate look into the lives of modern Arab women, a woman raised among Egypt’s creme de la creme marries a relatively Westernised husband, but while pursuing her graduate degree she finds herself entangled in a love affair with an uncouth Englishman. Densely detailed and richly textured, this novel recounts Cairo, London and English university life totell Asya's story cinematically, beginning in 1979 and going back to 1967, with chapters divided into scenes and a plethora of flashbacks, flash-forwards and different perspectives.
10. A Woman Is No Man (2019) by Etaf Rum
Palestinian-American author Etaf Rum details an inter-generational venture into the history of the Arab diaspora through the eyes of a woman coming of age—namely, Deya, an eighteen-year-old who is being forced into marriage by the grandparents who raised her. The novel recounts her struggles with her conservative family, as well as her trouble understanding what happened to her parents. After being told that her parents died in a car accident, she receives a note from a stranger that makes her doubt everything. The novel alternates between her life and her mother’s, which carries some eerie parallels.
11. It’s Not About the Burqa (2019) by Mariam Khan
Sparked by a surge of outrage after reading one of many, many white men’s analyses of the Arab woman’s experience in the region and their “traditional submissiveness,” British Muslim and feminist Mariam Khan tackles this widespread misinformation and hands the mic to Muslim women themselves. In this book, 17 women speak about the fluidity of faith, the hijab, love, divorce, feminism, and sex, from their own perspectives and experiences whilst living in the Arab world and in the diaspora. It gives a platform to the women who are silenced but who know exactly what living as a Muslim woman feels like. Writers in the collection include the Egyptian public speaker and author Mona Eltahawy and Guardian journalist Coco Khan.
12. My Past is A Foreign Country (2019) by Zeba Takhlani
An autobiography 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 their resistance to their constraints. Zeba Takhlani’s experience as a Muslim woman raised in Saudi Arabia whilst carrying another identity offers a fascinating perspective into the experience of immigrant women living in the Arab world. As she moves from Saudi Arabia to India, Germany and the UK, the narrative shifts into a trans-national journey of a feminist woman's journey towards actualizing her identity.
13. The Greater Freedom: Life as a Middle Eastern Woman Outside the Stereotypes (2019) by Alya Mooro
Born in Egypt and raised in London, this book details Alya Mooro’s experience as a woman torn between two cultures and the entirely different sets of expectations that come with them. A memoir and a social exploration, Mooro interviews other Middle Eastern women who are similarly caught in a sort of identity limbo. The book steps outside of the binaries of gender and culture that give Mooro, and millions of other women, no room to exist. A discussion of gender roles and norms, 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 that is multiculturalism.
14. Syrian Brides (2018) by Anna Halabi
This collection of short stories venture into a side of Syria largely unknown to the rest of the world and into the intimate lives of Syrian women. Each story varies from the comic to the tragic and triggering, tackling subjects that include domestic abuse, the male gaze, and the woman’s role in marrying off her son. These short stories offer a very rare glimpse into the contemporary lives of Syrian women during the ongoing conflict.
15. Bad Girls of the Arab World (2017) edited by Nadia Yaqub & Rula Qawas
This collection of works is about Arab women’s transgressions, giving first-hand accounts from women of different ages, classes, and backgrounds. Labelled as ‘bad girls’, the book is an exploration of the different experiences that these women go through as they grow up and how they end up being perceived in regional discourses. The collection of stories is co-edited by Nadia Yaqub, a Professor and Chair in the Department of Asian Studies at UNC Chapel Hill, as well as an Adjunct Associate Professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literature, alongside late Professor Rula Qawas, who was dean of the languages faculty at the University of Jordan.
16. 32 (2016) by Sahar Mandour
Set in post-civil war Lebanon, this book straddles the personal and political lives of five women in a rapidly changing socio-political situation. Lebanese-Egyptian novelist Sahar Mandour’s critical exploration of post-civil war Lebanon puts forward the much needed perspective of women during this time, delving into their role in reconstructing a city that has been ravaged by war in spite of the possibility that it could all happen again.
17. The Blue Between Sky and Water (2015) by Susan Abulhawa
Set in a Gaza refugee camp, this story focuses on matriarch Nazmiyeh and her family’s struggles. From a daughter suffering from cancer to a son with PTSD, this powerful story is not just about any kind of womanhood, but Palestinian womanhood. The novel is a timeless retelling of the sentiments kept and cherished by Palestinians everywhere. No matter the personal battles they’re fighting in their lives, there lies 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.”
18. Children of the New World: A Novel of the Algerian War (2005) by Assia Djebar
The Algerian fight for independence from French colonial rule was, famously, one where women were indispensable. Their veils became symbols of freedom, worn to emphasise emancipation rather than negate it. Djebar first wrote and published this novel in 1962 following her involvement in the Algerian resistance, where the women of her rural town empowered 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 Middle East (2005) by Rosina-Fawzia al-Rawi
A collection of personal essays by Iraqi writer Rosina-Fawzia Al-Rawi, this book is an exploration of love and womanhood from Iraq, to Syria, to Kuwait, to the Emirates. It documents women's journeys and coming of age, exploring the transnational connections between women's experiences in the Arab world. Whether she recounts a trip to buy a rug, a childhood incident on a Lebanese playground, or explicates Arab poetry, al-Rawi's collection is full of tender and intricate accounts of daily life.
20. Girls of Riyadh (2005) by Rajaa al-Sanea
One of the most famous novels on this list, and an anomaly in its own right, Girls of Riyadh was one of the first bold forays into the world of Saudi women. Immediately banned in the kingdom when it first came out, the book eventually received permission to publish in Saudi Arabia. The book is written in the form of emails, and 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) by Hala El Badry
A very inward-looking account of womanhood, this prize-winning novel follows an Egyptian 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.