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.