|(c) Manal Husain|
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.