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The Feminist Novel Is on the Rise in the Arab Gulf: An Interview With Mona Kareem

By Salwa Benaissa

Mona Kareem is the author of three poetry collections in Arabic, a translator, and a literary scholar whose research is offering new critical perspectives on feminist novels in the Arab Gulf. She is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Forum Transregionale Studien in Berlin. In this interview with Salwa Benaissa, Kareem discusses her ongoing study, Good Mothers, Bad Sisters: Arab Women Writers in the Nation.

“I’m trying to introduce intersectionality as a way of analyzing [Arabic literature],” begins Kareem. Intersectional feminism, a term first coined by American scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 and the buzzword of the moment, acknowledges factors in women’s oppression besides gender such as race, class, or ethnicity. Over the past decade, the concept has gained ground in mainstream discourse, but Kareem believes intersectional theory has yet to be embraced in the Gulf, or in analyses of Arabic literature at large. “[Feminism] has to be inherently anti-racist,” Kareem tells me. “This is an idea we haven’t been engaging with in Arab feminism.” 

In the early 2000s, as geopolitical upheaval swept over the Gulf region, a cultural shift was underway in the literary world. Against a backdrop of 9/11 and the Iraq War, the feminist novel began to experience a renaissance. “The liberalization era that happened in the Arab Gulf and Saudi Arabia in particular came at the very time the Internet became accessible,” says Kareem. “This is when novels like Girls of Riyadh [were] published.” Described as the Saudi Sex and the City, the best-seller by blogger-turned-novelist Rajaa Alsanea was published in 2005 and sparked a flurry of similar titles across the region, such as The Others by Saba al-Hirz or Immoral Women by Samar al-Muqrin, all one-time best-selling novels for their respective authors. 

While Kareem’s research focuses on contemporary feminist novels from the Arab Gulf, she approaches these as part of the larger feminist lineage in Arabic literature. The novel as a literary form has served as a space for feminist theorizing and influenced public discourse throughout the history of Arab feminism. “If you are studying the Arab Gulf, you will notice that even [scholars in] sociology and political science go back to the novel. All of our first-wave [and] second-wave feminists were novelists.” Trailblazers from the 1960s and 70’s include Fatima Mernissi from Morocco, and Latifa al-Zayyat and Nawal El Saadawi from Egypt. Unlike these North African authors, contemporary women writers from the Arab Gulf have shown more interest in stories of marginalized groups than in middle-class subjectivities.  

“My starting point was when I realized I take for granted feminist solidarity. I’m personally a stateless woman,” says Kareem, who is part of the Bidoon population of Kuwait, which did not receive citizenship when the nation gained independence in 1961 and whose members remain unrecognized as citizens by the state, suffering major discrimination as a result. “All my life I saw how other women opposed [the idea] that women pass citizenship on to their kids. They always wanted equality to be catered to certain groups of women. When we talk about ‘Arab women,’ we usually talk about a certain class of women-citizens.”

One of the more significant flaws in contemporary feminist literature of the Arab Gulf is a tendency to mirror oppressive realities rather than challenge them. Kareem—who has looked at dozens of novels by authors from across the Arab Gulf, such as Badriya Al-Bishr from Saudi Arabia, Ghalia Al-Said and Fatima al-Shidi from Oman, and Fawziyya al-Salem from Kuwait— points to the prevalence of social realism in Arabic fiction and its tendency to reduce literature to a medium reproducing reality as is, often without making the necessary intervention expected of the creative medium. Within this aesthetic, we find the recurring notion of “impossible love” between an Arab woman and her Black lover as a staging of sociopolitical issues; the traumatic experiences of Black women slaves become tools to measure the extreme extents of gender violence. This occurs against the backdrop of an almost complete failure to deal with immigrant populations in a region where the bulk of the working class is composed of noncitizens, mostly from South Asia and East Africa.

“I call it ‘colonial romance fiction,’ because I noticed it does not fully capture the complexity of this encounter,” says Kareem. “Sometimes it is only limited to how the citizen-woman feels in a situation because if she was a free woman then she would be marrying this Black man, or this South Asian man. Racism against her lover is [presented as] sexism against her. It subsequently becomes a variation on the master-and-slave relation.” In al-Salem’s novel The Ship Lords (1998), for example, the story of a kidnapped African woman sold into slavery in Kuwait becomes a story of romance as the slave forgets her homeland, and starts a family with her master, embracing her Kuwaiti identity. “In this sense," notes Kareem, "the love story is meant to scapegoat the slave woman in order to achieve an empty reconciliation with that near history of slavery.”

The majority of these books fall into the genre of social realism or, more recently, historical fiction. “I think if you want to write either genre, you need to be politically thoughtful and ambitious,” says Kareem. “You cannot just talk about slavery and labor migration by talking about representation or, even worse, reducing the scope of these experiences to aspects of daily struggle with no history or trajectory. That’s not enough.” 

One reason this happens, Kareem believes, is that literary audiences are not holding writers accountable. “There’s such a patronizing approach to these women writers. Male critics would champion a story of female rebellion by a woman writer even if it meant overlooking nationalist and racist rhetoric in her work." One example is Taiba al-Ibrahim’s Diary of a Servant (1995), which depicts a sociopathic South Asian man in love with his Kuwaiti boss; he ends up marrying her after her memory loss following the shock of losing her daughter in the Gulf War. “The story is meant to depict the migrant as a traitor and rapist during the Gulf War, through an allegory of the nation as a vulnerable woman. But male critics were only able to see a female protagonist breaking taboos by marrying her servant, even without her initial consent.” 

Photo Credit: Manal Husai

If one were looking for guidance, an example of writing against the neocolonialist grain, it might be found in Kareem's own work. One poem titled "Kumari," from the Arabic collection What I Sleep for Today, addresses a fictional migrant worker. It responds to a grand scale of abuse against migrant domestic workers in the Gulf who are made to work under slavelike conditions, with some recent disturbing cases having been reported by international media.

“I just capture[d] the details of her experience as I observed it in Kuwait,” says Kareem about her poem. “How [domestic workers] escape houses, how they are abused, how they are given [false] names.” The poem ends by calling upon Kumari to kill her masters, which led critics to accuse Kareem of inciting violence. “Sometimes, I like to adopt an extremist writing style because I believe [it] allows for this push to think from the margins,” says Kareem. “You can only do that if you make your reader uncomfortable.” 

In 2013, an English translation of the poem was reprinted by the magazine Jadaliyya alongside “Manifesto Against the Woman,” another controversial text by Kareem which she wrote “to break down this monolithic group[ing] of The Arab Woman, and how harmful it is.” In "Manifesto," Kareem writes: “I write against the Woman who thinks brazenly that we are one. She, whose behind perches upon the comfortable chair of citizenship, class, and race.” Both the poem and the manifesto have since been taught in universities and used by South Asian activists.

Kareem seeks to single out writers whose work she believes pushes against tired tropes. One writer she admires is Saudi novelist Laila al-Johani, who uses the Islamic canon as a springboard for talking about racism and sexism in her 2007 novel Days of Ignorance. She also commends Al-Bishr for her novel The Seesaw, as yet untranslated into English, which follows the first generation of Saudi women to transition from the desert to urban life. Of their male counterparts, Kareem mentions Aziz Mohammed from Saudi Arabia and Mortada Gzar from Iraq, who offer fresh perspectives on cultural masculinity.  

Part of the larger problem, Kareem believes, is that there remains a disparity between women and men in the Arab publishing industry. “There’s a gap, there’s no platform for us, even though there’s a readership and a huge number of women writers. Nobody thought, ‘OK, I will make a press that invests in women’s literature,’” Kareem told me. “Even though the feminist novel [is] on the rise, it’s best-selling, it went beyond being literature into public, intellectual, and political activism, so you would think there is a financial opportunity.” 

It all comes back to the politics of writing. “A lot of women writers or publishers, they think of feminism as an accusation,” says Kareem. “But I think after Jokha al-Harthi’s Booker win, Arab women writers will be offered better opportunities, beyond demands from the state or from the West for a fiction that can be tokenized.”


Published Jun 26, 2019   Copyright 2019 Salwa Benaissa

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