Saudi women return to the literary stage after years of exclusion
In the past year, Saudi women saw reformative action by the country’s leadership catapult their growth both locally and globally across fields; most recently and notably in the country’s literary field and circles, which had long been taken over by their male counterparts.
For years, Saudi women have been cementing their presence and name among the country’s literary echelons. Now, they are actively leading on and partaking in a wide array of live debates and discussions pitting them, face to face, against their male counterparts – interactions that have historically taken place by proxy on TV channels.
Saudi Arabia’s Tabuk Literary Club is a prime example of women’s growing clout over the country’s cultural and creative circles. In an unprecedented development since it was first founded, Saudi media figure Nawal Bakhsh recently took the club’s stage to give a literary lecture. She was joined by Noura Al Anzi, who moderated and ran the lecture’s umbrella seminar, which was held in a mixed-gender space – another first move reflecting Saudi Arabia’s progressive gender balance agenda, as men and women were typically segregated in literary debates that were held by proxy on TV channels.
Jizan’s literary club in southeast of Saudi Arabia saw similar progress days earlier, when a female participant also took to the stage to give a lecture before a mixed audience.
In earlier days, such actions would have undoubtedly been subjected to public scrutiny and criticism. Critics had traditionally objected to the presence and participation of women among the country’s literary circles, and had repeatedly asked for their absence from the stage in a bid to “preserve cultural norms and values”.
These two consecutive developments, reported Saudi newspaper Al Hayat, were well and positively received in light of Saudi Arabia’s progressive transformation; the country’s recent course of action has dissipated what the newspaper dubbed “haphazard dissent” on a rather large scale.
Some developments held a more symbolic significant in paving the way for women in Saudi literature; like Riyadh’s Literary Club’s decision to, physically, remove barriers between conference and forum halls reserved for men and those reserved for women.
Saudi women’s stature and conditions were different only a year ago, reported Al-Hayat newspaper, quoting writer Salma Al Moushi. “We still have vivid memories of debates, rejection and controversy that accompanied women’s presence on [Saudi] literary and poetry stages. Today, on these same stages, women are welcome and applauded for their presence,” Al Moushi told Al-Hayat.
Commenting on what she called were “dramatic transformations” in recent months, Al Moushi, author of Cultural Harem, said that they brought forth new perspectives and roles for women, from literary audiences to literary leaders.
“Radical changes that have reshaped the mobility and daily lives of Saudi women are the result of a sovereign decision. And sovereign decisions are entirely different from any administrative decisions that cultural institutions have not been able [to take on fully and firmly]," she explained. To this end, “sovereign decisions have leapfrogged on women’s role and rights, and reshuffled priorities.
While public institutions welcomed decisions empowering women in their daily lives, literary and cultural clubs are aware of the less than reputable role they had played against women in the past. It is extraordinary to see, today, these same institutions welcoming change,” she added. Al Moushi demanded that these developments be not silo-ed from a wider effort to stop a culture of incitement and exclusion against women.
Despite an enduring ban on their participation in literary festivals in the past – a ban that is slowly fading – Saudi’s leading literary women witnessed breakthrough success in the field through bold works, powering through creative barriers with verbal prowess.
In the early 2000s, Saudi female novelists broke the silence on once taboo topics of love, and of cultural norms and traditions inhibiting women. Defying self-censorship, many of their works were attacked and prohibited – all the more reason why their works scaled and enjoyed success both locally and regionally.
Among these challengers, Saudi author Zainab Hifni defied taboos with her collection of stories entitled Women at the Equator. Released in 1996, the collection was banned from the Saudi market. Through it, Hifni voiced Saudi women’s aspirations for personal freedom, driving, voting and speech rights in the press.
Rajaa Al-Sanea, another Saudi author, released Girls of Riyadh in 2005; the book was banned from the Kingdom, but spread far and wide outside of the market after it was translated into several languages. It would record 3 million copies in sales.
The book tells the story of four Saudi girls as they navigate through the pressures imposed by their families and partners, from suppressed freedom, to arranged marriages, to forbidden love stories, to divorce, and to adultery in the upper bourgeoisie echelons of Saudi society. It resonated with a large audience, and opened a slew of debates and discussions around the intimate lives of Saudi women and girls.
In her 2008 book, Nisaa al-Munkar , author Samar Al Mukarran exposed women’s living conditions in Saudi prisons, and highlighted the legal and judicial inequalities between men and women; the book tells the story of a young girl who gets sentenced to four years in jail and 700 lashes for going out on a date with her lover, who, in contrast, was sentenced to three years in jail and 50 lashes. Naturally, the book was at the center of public backlash and controversy.
Across the years, literature has served as a platform of self-expression and rebellion, and as a resort for many Saudi women. And while many had sometimes abused taboos and prohibition to sensationalize their work, literary works that stood the test of time were those that truly reflected and advanced women’s roles and rights in Saudi society.