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The Gender Gap in Publishing: Miral Al-Tahawy on Women Writers

Female writers of the 21st century still face gender bias in publishing their work.

I had trouble writing the above sentence. As a sentence, it’s not interesting. It’s expected and obvious with a tinge of whiny. I’m baffled between stating the obvious on the one hand, and the incredulousness of such a sentence being “old news.”

The claim doesn’t even need much in the name of evidence. Otherwise, why would female writers still feel the need to use their initials, especially in male-dominated genres such as fantasy or thriller? If you don’t know the first name of J.K. Rowling, it’s because she preferred you didn’t.

Nevertheless, the evidence is there for the unconvinced. VIDA, a non-profit organization dedicated to exposing the gender parity in literature, revealed that in 2010 The New York Review of Books covered 306 titles by male authors versus only 59 by female writers. The VIDA count, by no means a comprehensive study into publishing trends worldwide, exposes the gender bias in top tier literary journals. In other words, “venues that are known to further one’s career.”

I suspect influential editors don’t sit around a large table burning manuscripts with women’s names with cigars. And I’d like to think that most editors and publishers don’t intentionally favor male writers, that most editors don’t deem male writers inherently more intelligent, talented, and deserving of publication space.

What I don’t believe in is the system within which the publishing industry functions and favors male writers. This is why just the act of counting and exposing the disparity is so important.

The Gender Gap in Publishing

As an editor of a small section of an academic journal, I did a bit of my own counting. I realized that despite my awareness of the gender bias as both a writer and an editor, even I have fallen into the system’s traps. Since its founding eight years ago, I have been involved with the Journal of Levantine Studies (JLS) through various roles. Since two years, I’ve had the privilege to serve as literary editor to a section entitled dock-ument.

I remember well the brainstorming session all those years ago that led to a rather unconventional section in a peer-reviewed academic journal: a section to feature personal essays, lyrical prose, and even fiction or poetry. We wanted to give voice to writers and intellectuals of the Levant who write in their native tongues; we wanted to encourage different perspectives and unique voices, so they can be heard in a way that is not confined by the constraints of academic discussion.

We published essays by Iraqi novelist Ali Bader and Israeli writer Sami Berdugo. We published poems by Turkish-Cypriot poet Mehmet Yashin and Yezidi poets pouring the collective memory of a traumatic past and present into verse.

When I took over as dock-ument editor, I realized that through seven issues we had published only one female writer in the section. Only one out of seven. It wasn’t intentional and that is precisely the point. Whether by coincidence, subconscious choice, or a spout of indolence in gender awareness, we had favored male writers. And this happened with a female editor-in-chief and a female associate editor.

In order to even the gender gap within our small and relatively new journal, I would need to publish five volumes worth of women writers. With a plethora of talented writers of the female persuasion writing in Arabic, Turkish, Hebrew, and all other languages of the Levant, the task wasn’t difficult. I was proud to publish an personal essay by Kurdish author Nurcan Baysal as my inaugural issue. 

Miral al-Tahawy on the Female Text and the Female Body

The latest issue of JLS by Egyptian writer Miral al-Tahawy features an essay that addresses the obstacles facing women writers today. In“Writing the Body and the Rhetoric of Protest in Arab Women’s Literature,” Al-Tahawy she delineates the hurdles female writers face even when they do get published: a patriarchal critical reception that reduces women’s writing to a kind of “seduction” and “sensuality”. She writes that “women’s writing is often critically received like a body: laden with sensual seduction or sexual temptation.”

Painting by Fani Hason.

Al-Tahawy examines the expression of the female body in Arab literature. She draws a parallel between the female body and women’s writing as tools for protest and change—both have a long history of objectification, oppression, violence, shame, and guilt:

Female presence in writing arouses, in both readers and critics, sensual and erotic fantasies that inspire a metaphoric association between a woman’s body and her writing. For instance, women’s writing is often described by way of praise as a “living feminine body,” which allows the recipient to project historical conceptualizations of femininity onto it. Such descriptions also subject women’s writing to the same contradictory social practices that are applied to women’s bodies, such as curiosity about it, lust for it, voyeurism, violation, dispossession, overinterpretation, and implicit criticism of it as weak and inferior.

As a novelist, Al-Tahawy gives voice to women, particularly women from her native Egyptian Bedouin society.  Her main characters are always girls or women who carry a sense of not belonging and who must deal with their loneliness as they navigate worlds defined by gender roles. Her first novel, The Tent, is narrated by Fatima, a young bedouin girl trapped within the walls of her father’s encampment in the Egyptian desert. Her small body climbs trees to gaze past the gates that remain locked to the women of the household, travels to the bottoms of wells to create alternate realities with imaginary characters, and finds solace lying on the lap of the slave-girl. In Fatima’s world women cannot leave the confines of their house unless to wed men chosen for them.

Her latest novel, Brooklyn Heights, follows Hend as an immigrant in New York. Her new home in Brooklyn feels as alienating and distant as her home back in the Egyptian desert. Despite leaving the physical boundaries of Egypt behind, memories of a previous life in the desert continually haunt and permeate every corner of her new country.

“Writing the Body and the Rhetoric of Protest in Arab Women’s Literature”  is a thought provoking read and available for free on the JLS website. Much of what al-Tahawy exposes about women’s writing in the Arab world is universal and raises much food for thought for editors, critics, and reviewers alike.

Having reviewed my experience as an editor, I realized that it isnot enough to have women occupy decision-making posts to close the gender gap. Rather, it is necessary to have editors and publishers—male and female—who are not only aware of the scope of the gender imbalance in their fields but make a conscious effort to remain alert. We need editors who are committed to second-guessing their gender bias and remain committed to overcoming it with each submission, solicitation, and publishing decision.