GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

Family Name:
Al Mutlaq
First Name:
Title of Paper:
The impact of globalization on GCC women: Genres and themes in twenty-first century Saudi women’s fiction
Paper Proposal Text :
An analysis of the literary works of contemporary Saudi women writers will help situate the experience of women in the GCC within the framework and rhetoric of globalization. By looking at emerging trends and dominant themes in regional literature, this paper will attempt to answer, in particular, the questions: How do women in the Gulf define and interact with processes of globalization? How do they understand the different effects it has on their lives? And, what aspects of globalization may promote or alternatively hinder gender equality (for example, technology, consumerism or global education)? And how do these processes interact with regional cultural and social dynamics (such as Islam, rentierism or tribalism)? The effects of globalization on the cultural and gender identities of women from the region, will be explored and problematized through the preoccupations of the, largely, female protagonists. Contemporary Arab women writers attempt to hold up a mirror to aspects of their (her)story and society, experimenting with new narrative forms and voices, challenging – or arguably in some instances creating – stereotypes of the Gulf woman. What are the images, values and cultural codes they convey through their work, and what global influences are the most prevalent? Crucially, which female (and Arab/Hejazi, etc) identities are being constructed or deconstructed in a context of rapidly-shifting political, socio-cultural and economic realities?

In this paper, I will briefly look at the so-called Saudi ‘chick-lit’ novels as representative of a new trend in the GCC region, and I will investigate socio-cultural themes in the more serious literary works of Umimah al-Khamis, Badriah al-Besher and Layla al-Jehani.

In the past few years, Saudi Arabian women novelists had a breakthrough on the international literary scene when Raja al-Sanae’s début novel, Riyadh Girls, created a niche in the global market. Eager to lift the veil off women’s life in the enigmatic and conservative Kingdom, al-Sanae wrote her book in a diary form that chronicled the lives of three university friends, turning the personal into the public and helping, in the process, dispel some of the mystery surrounding the life of the Gulf woman. Riyadh Girls has arguably been the catalyst for a new rash of Saudi mass-market novels with suggestive titles, such as Samar al Mugrin’s Women of Vice and Athir Abdullah’s I loved you more than I should; writers have even broached the subject of lesbianism. Represented in these novels is a, relatively privileged, generation torn between the dominant conservative cultural discourse (and religious decrees that invite international ridicule), and a private sphere which is increasingly liberal. Through the licit use of ICTs, travel and education, this generation has been exposed to cosmopolitan mores and has come to expect basic levels of freedom of expression and movement. Female writers are cultivating new spaces in which women can negotiate persistent taboos around sexual relations and romantic love. Madawi Al Rasheed, writing in Middle East Online in 2011, points out:

“A new generation is writing about women as sexual agents rather than submissive victims of patriarchal society[…] While the oil economy helped consolidate the “obsession” with sex and enforcement of segregation, the recent neoliberal monitorization, privatization, consumption (and advertising) since the late 1990s have all helped push women novelists to privilege sex stories. Saudi society is not actually obsessed with sex; it is simply being drawn into global images and practices of old and new desires, sex among them .” (M. al Rasheed, Middle East Online)

Most of these novels do not represent the socio-economic reality for a majority of women of the region: the ‘heroine’ is always a rich woman by virtue of her family fortune, or through being a successful entrepreneur; she is constantly engaged in a romantic relationship of sorts, shopping for designer goods in Paris or London. This does contribute to a false impression of the existence of simple dichotomy and conflict between westernized liberals and indigenous Islamists, while no less important gaps are being daily widened between rich and poor, national and immigrant, etc, in the Gulf States.

Two of the novels the paper will focus on, Al-Warefah by Al-Khamis (2008) and, Ahbabtuka Akthar Minma Yanbaghi by Athir Abdullah (2009), share themes of intellectual pursuit and personal journeys; in both narratives, the female protagonists are on scholarships in Canada and through third-person and first-person stories, the reader learns of their disappointments in love and their crisis of confidence as women; Though professionally successful, they appear to estimate their worth and attractiveness solely through the eyes of men, a result of unequal gender power relations in the oil-rich Gulf states. Furthermore, in a globalized context, the beauty standard has narrowed the range of what and who is desirable. This raises the question of how improved technology and the international media have influenced the dynamics of sexual relations between men and women in the region. ‘Cultural exchange’ is problematized as one in western culture is at once idealized and condemned as licentious, and in which indigenous/national culture is either fetishised or treated with contempt. The English language creeps into the narrative of both novels. In Al-Warefah, it reflects this generation’s creation of a hybrid language and the reality of the protagonist’s daily communication with her foreign colleagues. In Ahbabtuka Akthar Minma Yanbaghi, Abdullah incorporate the lyrics from Elton John and Limp Bizkit pop songs as a contemporary form of emotional expression.

Novelists, such as Al-Sanae, have been condemned by critics not only for the ‘obscenity’ of their subject matters, but for their immature writing style. Kuwaiti novelist, Layla al Othman – who herself was accused by Islamist groups in Kuwait of using indecent language and defamatory expressions in The Departure, and sentenced to one month in prison for ‘moral and religious offences’ –, said of these new Saudi novels: “It is shameful to read those women novelists due to the flagrant sexual content [of their work].” Badryah al Bisher, a Saudi writer has argued, however, that “Arab literature has been producing this genre of fiction for many years, but when Saudi women writers followed the same trend they were castigated by critics who accused them of being desperate for attention and fame.”

However one estimates the literary quality of their work, this generation is disrupting and deconstructing rigid gendered identities. They are dubbed ‘rebellious’ by critics because they are breaking fiercely maintained cultural taboos around self-expression, love and sex – taboos that are used as political currency by Islamists and authorities alike.