Arab women and new realities

Arab women and new realities
7 min read
09 February, 2018
A new book amplifies Arab women's voices, capturing a moment in history when women have had enough of keeping quiet. Florence Massena met its authors.
Women across the Arab world continue to fight for their voices to be heard [Getty]
Arab Women Voice New Realities has just been published in Lebanon by Turning Point. It's a fiction and non-fiction anthology written by 33 women from across the Arab world.

Co-edited by Dima Nasser, a Lebanese PhD candidate at Brown University, and Associate Professor of English and Creative Writing Roseanne Saad Khalaf, it portrays the new realities facing women from a variety of countries and situations.

Young authors, experienced ones, students, successful professionals: it is impossible to define what unites the women who collaborated to write this book. Maybe it is the sadness of their stories - despite some incisive and light styles. Or maybe it is the incredible depth of their thoughts brought to paper.

"One of their common traits is that women's voices have become stronger, more determined," Roseanna Saad Khalaf told The New Arab. "They overcame many fears and want to tell stories honestly, no longer holding back. They related personal experiences into stories more-or-less focused on what they think and feel.

"The taboo of women's stories is shattering and they are telling the truth, as if they have been held back for so long they don't accept it anymore."

The book was Nasser's idea. She approached Khalaf and the Turning Point publishing house. "They were excited to pursue it," Nasser told us. "We collectively felt that Arab women's experiences remain under-explored and their stories are worth telling. The stories were already there and spoke about important realities - and all they needed was someone with the means to give them a platform and an archive."

She says she particularly noticed "the passion which characterised each story, and each author's drive to protect and defend her voice against distortion". 
The book is important because the daily realities of Arab women are underexplored, said Dima Nasser [Turning Point]

Several themes run through the compilation as the book addresses beauty and family pressure, commitment issues, an inability to find a sense of place - but also violence and oppression. All the stories offer solutions to their daily struggles.

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"For some career-driven women, like Raya Hajj's protagonist in On The Seventh Floor, their inability to find a stable situation at home or in their personal lives was a thorn in their side, but for others, such as the protagonist in Mishka Mourani's Amira's Mirror, they were trying to escape the home situation through work and independence," says Nasser.

"This anthology says that young Arab women continue to surprise and break with expectations. There are many universal concerns that are not specific to Arab women, but being a young Arab woman in today's world is like moving across a spectrum of colours. There is no one formula, one experience, or one story. For this reason, we need to continue to tell more."

Zeina Abi Assy is a Lebanese writer and media artist based in Brooklyn. She shared her story, Body As Home, on her relationship with her physical self and how it has changed with time.

"I grew up in Jbeil [a city in Lebanon's coastal north], a fat ballerina - and I had to reconcile with the hate I felt towards my body as I grew up and moved to Beirut, and later to Brooklyn," Abi Assy told The New Arab.

"Along the way, societal constructs and desire tainted my view of myself, and it would not be until years later that I would start to untangle their complexities and their effects on me and my body. [This story] is my attempt at making peace with myself outside the confinements that I grew up within."

It is a way for the author and reader to jointly challenge a cultural environment wanting to shape her as she is not.

"Even if society still has a strong grip on a woman's life, the difference today is that so many women are speaking up and this loudness is going to inevitably have a lasting effect on the culture," she added.

Zeina Abi Assy's contribution focuses on body image and breaking stereotypes [Florence Massena]

Another voice, another story. Kuwaiti professor of English literature Shahd Alshammari talks about disability and love, a subject often at the centre of her research.

"My story is about love found and lost because of disability and gender dynamics," the author said. "Two people meet and are separated because neither of them can meet in the middle; they cannot fight off society's shackles. Disability is pretty much undiscussed in the world, let alone the Arab world. Love and disability as two separate topics rarely overlap in literature and I felt the need to do so.

"I also suffer from multiple sclerosis, which always features in my research and creative writing." She dreams of a society more openly talking about about disability for women, but also about the right to work whatever your gender or disability.

Shahd Alshammari believes tackling disability discrimination and sexism are two battles under one cause [Florence Massena] 

For Syrian scholar Nisreen Sinjab, based in Beirut, the important thing was to be able to depict the real life of an Arab women today, torn between her family, her career and herself.

"It is a story of a woman trying to have a thirty-minute time out by meditating," Sinjab told The New Arab. "Little does she know the shutting out of external distractions is just the tip of an iceberg. What lies ahead is a journey of reconciliation with herself, and with her different roles as a mother, lover, wife, daughter and working woman." 

Told with a deeply personal resonance, the story feels like therapy. The author also feels the need "to be free, not physically but intellectually".

Arab women must not only have physical freedom, but intellectual freedom too, urges Nisreen Sinjab [Florence Massena]

For most of these authors carrying the voice of their region, experiences and generation, the driving priority is to set up an example for other women. "That they don't have to abide by certain societal rules at their own expense, that they can prevail despite anything that comes their way and taints their lives," says Zeina Abi Assy.

"That they can take control and total command of their lives and where they want to go, and that they are not alone in their hardships and insecurities - and that however much women are told to be quiet about their truths, that is no longer an option."

One particularly brave story is the testimony, in the shape of letters, of young Gabi Toufiq [a pen name as she wishes to remain anonymous] who wrote about her rape by a cousin, her family’s reaction and her long journey of survival.

"I chose this topic for a non-fiction writing class when I was still a student and I received unbelievable support and encouragement from my colleagues to continue writing, so I did," Toufiq said. "After I shared my story with a number of my friends, I was brought closer to them by similar experiences. It's important to me to let them know they are not alone. I want to do what I wished someone had done for me while I was going through the events I wrote about.

"It sadly voices a very true reality of victim-blaming and victim-shaming, however, it also sheds light on the modern movement of Arab feminism and the many courageous young women leaders who stood in the face of society and challenged old traditions and beliefs."

Courage seems to be the watchword of what brought these women to write in this anthology.

"It illustrates the honesty, boldness and force of young writers in the region," says Roseanne Saad Khalaf. "They have defied the structures and the groups that stigmatised them and are more independent, educated, have access to more tools than before. It is OK to speak up now."

Roseanne Saad Khalaf says it takes courage for women to illustrate the way women are stigmatised in the Arab world [Turning Point]

Florence Massena is a freelance journalist based in Lebanon, where she reports on the region with a focus on the environment, women's issues, refugees and humanitarian initiatives.

Follow her on Twitter: @FlorenceMassena