Top Five Female Arab Writers

8th Mar 2012


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A couple of months ago, Egyptian novelist and journalist Ahdaf Soueif gave a talk at London’s Mosaic Rooms about the Egyptian revolution, her art and the place of art in the uprising. As the lecture came to a close, the floor was opened up to questions. Usually, I find it a little tricky to concentrate for this part of the night as people have a tendency to ask questions that are a little too clever for me, but one question stuck in my mind.

A young lady, speaking in a marked D4 Dublin accent, stood up to introduce herself as a Libyan poet. She said that at a recent forum for significant female Arab writers, she and her significant female Arab writer colleagues had agreed that literary society in the Arab world marginalized women authors. What could be done to change this, she wondered out loud? Soueif looked baffled and said that she just couldn’t see that this was the case. Some of the Arab world’s best-known writers, both in-and-outside the region, are women. It seemed unbelievable to her that someone could think this was the case.

Agree or disagree, I have to admit that I was taken aback by how strongly Soueif felt that this was the case, and her response has had us thinking over the last few weeks. So, in honour of International Women’s Day 2012, we have decided to put together a list of our five favourite women novelists from the Arab world. For a number of reasons, but mainly my inability to read anything other than basic Arabic, we have limited ourselves to writers whose works are published in English too.


Huda Barakat
She may be one of Lebanon’s most famous authors, but pitifully few of Barakat’s novels have been translated into English. Still, we recommend you beg, borrow or steal the three novels by Huda that were published in the UK…

Huda found herself in Paris studying for a doctorate when the Lebanese civil war broke out in 1975, and headed back to Beirut the year after to work as a teacher and translator, staying through the darkest years of the conflict.

The author returned to Paris in 1989 and has lived there since, but her experiences of the civil war are key to her writing, with many of her books set in civil war-era. She also courted controversy by featuring a gay protagonist in her novel, The Stone of Laughter


Assia Djebar
The elder stateswoman of Francophone literature, Djebar is one of the most distinguished writers in the Arab world, although she herself comes from the Algeria’s significant Berber minority. 

Djebar, whose real name is Fatima-Zohra Imalayène, has written about the role and repression of women in Algeria in many of her novels and says “Like so many other Algerian women authors, I write with a sense of urgency against misogyny and regression.”

In recognition of her (not inconsiderable) literary talent, Djebar was elected to the Académie Française, the body responsible for maintaining the purity of the French language, in 2005. A number of her novels have also been translated into English from the French, and all are more than deserving of your time. We particularly recommend Women of Algiers in Their Apartment, if you can rustle up a copy from somewhere.


Hanan al-Shaykh
Back to Lebanon for the indomitable Hanan al-Shaykh.  Born in 1945 in the newly-independent Republic of Lebanon, Hanan al-Shaykh was educated variously in the country’s conservative south and in an American school for girls in Cairo.

Al-Shaykh, who worked as a journalist at the co, was forced to leave Lebanon in 1975 because of the civil war and eventually settled in London. She has written about the repression of women in Arab societies, drawing on her own strict childhood in south Lebanon, as well as exile and the Lebanese civil war.

Most recently, Hanan’s re-imagining of the One Thousand and One Nights was published in English by Bloomsbury (we’re very much looking forward to taking a look ourselves), but Only in London is another great starting point. 


Nawal El-Saadawi 
One of Egypt’s most respected living authors and a key figure in the early feminist movements in the Arab world, Nawal El-Saadawi has had a huge influence on writers across the region.

Born in 1931 to a distinguished family, Nawal El-Saadawi’s parents died young and left her responsible for the care of her siblings. Working as a doctor in 1950s Cairo, she saw the physical suffering of Egyptian women first-hand and believed strongly that these problems were symptoms of the patriarchal, misogynistic and class-riven society in which they lived.

Author of a host of novels and social criticism, El-Saadawi was even imprisoned under the Mubarak regime for her activism. Mercifully, a large number of her works are available to the English-language reader, although as a starting point, her autobiographies are particularly inspiring.


Ahdaf Soueif 
After the preamble to this list, how could we possibly neglect Ahdaf Soueif? Although I was forced to translate an excerpt from her novel The Map of Love for my finals at university, I have managed to see past this and forgive her.  Her novels, written in English and recently translated into the Arabic, are beautifully crafted and a pleasure to read.

Not only is Soueif an accomplished novelist, but she was also a courageous and insightful voice on the Egyptian uprising last year and her dispatches from Tahrir Square regularly appeared in the western media. Her reporting from Cairo also inspired her account of the revolution, Cairo: My City, our revolution, published last month by Bloomsbury. 


Get in touch to let us know who you think should, or should not, have made the cut. What glaring omissions have we made? We want to hear from you…

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  1. Mira
    Posted 9th Mar 2012 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

    What about Simin Dāneshvar for example? She was a very well-known female Iranian author, who published not only novels and short story collections but also translated many books into Farsi. She passed away yesterday.

    Imported Iranian female poets with a huge influence Iran’s cultural life are Forough Farrokhzad and Simin Beh’bahāni.

    Last but not least: Yes, there are female writers in the Middle East, however only a few them get as much as attention as their male colleagues and so I can very well understand the anger of the young Libyan writer.

  2. Mira
    Posted 9th Mar 2012 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

    *Important* of course, not “imported”!

    • Posted 10th Mar 2012 at 12:21 am | Permalink

      Hey Mira, thank you so much for your comments and the tips. We will definitely check out them out, especially Simin Dāneshvar. Very sad to hear of her passing. Any particular books by her you recommend?

      I don’t feel in a position to comment on the marginalisation of female writers in the Middle East as I’m no expert on the subject. All I can really say is let’s celebrate those whose writing has had such an impact, not just across the region, but across the world!

  3. Bushra Ghannam
    Posted 9th Mar 2012 at 9:20 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for the list. Indeed, it includes major female figures of the Arab World. If I may add, I would also inlcude Ahlam Mostaghanmi from Algeria, Samiha Khreas from Jordan, Laila Al Othman from Kuwait!.
    Thanks again

    • Posted 10th Mar 2012 at 12:23 am | Permalink

      Hi Bushra, thanks for the comments. Have those authors been translated into English? I couldn’t find any information on them.

      • Bushra Ghannam
        Posted 11th Mar 2012 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

        Hi there William,

        Thank you for reading my comment. I know for sure that Ahlam Mostghanmi’s novels have been translated. As for the other two authors, I need to check & I will surely get back to you with the answer!

        Thanks again

        • Posted 12th Mar 2012 at 12:28 am | Permalink

          Thanks Bushra, I did some searching and it seems that, on Amazon at least, they transliterate her name as ‘Mosteghanemi’ which was why I couldn’t find her before. Will definitely check her out. Thanks again for the tip. Best wishes, Will

  4. Bushra Ghannam
    Posted 12th Mar 2012 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

    Hi Will,

    I did my search too and I found out that I misspelled her name…… Sorry
    Two of her novels are translated to English:
    Memory in the Flesh
    Choas of the Senses!!

    Good luck

  5. sharifa
    Posted 12th Jun 2012 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

    Hi William
    There are also two other writers i know that write and publish in britain.
    Fadia Faqir, from Jordan but lives and writes in England. her novels are Nisanat, Pillars of Salt and My Name is Salma.
    Leila Aboulela, Sudanese but also lives and writes in Scotland. Her novels, The Translator, Minaret. and her latest isLyrics Alley, which won the scotish book prize for 2012.

    Best wishes

    • Posted 13th Jun 2012 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

      Hi Sharifa! Thanks a lot for these tips. We’ll definitely check them out. Best wishes, Will

  6. Um Karam
    Posted 28th Dec 2012 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

    Great choice of authors but what about Sahar Khalifeh ( from Palestine)?
    Her third novel “Al Subbar” written in 1976 was translated and published in many languages including Hebrew from 1978 onwards. PROTA ( Project for Translation of Arabic directed by Prof SK Jayyusi) translated and publsihed it in 1985 as “Wild Thorns”. Many of her subsequent works have been translated into English and other langauges . She is considered a v significant novelist in the Arab World in terms of her particular writing style as well as the topics of the novels (Palestinian issues affecting men and women alike).

  7. Um Karam
    Posted 28th Dec 2012 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

    Great line up — what about Sahar Khalife of Palestine. Her third novel “Al-Sabbar” ( 1976) was translated in many languages from 1978 onwards. PROTA ( Project for Translation of Arabic) was the first to translate it in English and published it under the title of “Wild Thorns” in 1985. Since then most of her novels have been translated in many languages. If anyone wants a unique take on Palestine, her books are a great place to start.

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