Zeinab Hefny’s A Pillow for Your Love: Confronting the Shiite-Sunni Conflict

Hefny boldly punctures Saudi biases with a taboo-shattering love story.

This is the second in our series of essays highlighting women writers from Yemen, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia who have never been translated into English before. One of Asymptote’s core goals is to provide a platform for work from regions generally underrepresented in translation. Yemen, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia have long been marginalized in the realm of translations from Arabic to English. The contributors have chosen to focus on women writers because they face greater hardships in getting published. The latest essay focuses on the firebrand Saudi writer, Zeinab Hefny.

A dominant conflict in Arab society is the one between the Shiite and Sunni sects of Islam. This conflict has led to extreme violence against the Shiites, from political marginalization in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, genocide by Saddam Hussein in Iraq, to confiscation of property, captivity of women and bombing by ISIS. Recently, a military alliance led by Saudi Arabia struck Shiite targets in Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the region, that left hundreds dead and wounded. Despite these atrocities, very few Arab writers have discussed the Shiites’ daily suffering and the violation of their political rights.

However, one who has stood up to condemn this racist sectarianism is the Sunni Saudi writer Zeinab Hefny. She plays an important role as an activist-writer who touches on multiple Saudi taboos—social, sexual, and religious—from the Shiite-Sunni issue to women’s rights.

Zefny’s novel, A Pillow for Your Love (2011), is a worthy addition to the canon of dauntless Arab literature attempting to expose the cultural, political, social and religious crises in Arab society that few Arab writers have confronted out of fear of prosecution. In the novel, Hefny discusses religious anathemas in the Arab community. She highlights the plight of the Shiite sect in the predominantly Sunni Saudi society. This is a thorny issue in the region not only because Sunnis perceive the Shiites as inferior, but because they consider the Shiite religious outlook as blasphemous. The novel discusses this dilemma through the narrative fabric, evidenced through the awareness of the protagonists—Jaafar, a Shiite, and Fatima, a Sunni. With their story, the writer also reveals the sufferings of the Shiite community that arise from Sunni discrimination.

The novel proceeds smoothly to the meeting of Jaafar and Fatima abroad in Lebanon. It details their taboo-breaking romantic and sexual relationship, forbidden by both religion and society. After overcoming many obstacles, the two lovers get married at the end of the novel, making a strong statement against the Shiite-Sunni divide.

The narrative successfully depicts the discrimination faced by Shiites in every aspect of their lives. For example, a tense scene between Fatima and Jaafar that underscores Saudi society’s intolerance begins with Jaafar acknowledging his love for Fatima and his desire to marry her. This news brings great pleasure to Fatima, a widow who has been deprived of physical intimacy since the death of her husband. Fatima has focused her life on her daughter, who has recently moved away. However, the mood shifts from happiness to disappointment when Fatima discovers that Jaafar is Shiite.

She tried to gather the fragments of nerves, which had scattered before her eyes. She tried to cover her happiness, which had started to dance joyfully deep inside her. Suddenly, fear caught her by surprise…She asked him to talk a little bit about his family.

He smiled purely, and said, “What do you want to know? From the moment that I met you, I’ve been keen to be an open book. I am from an Al Baqir family, Shiite Qatif families, and…”

She cut him off with an alarmed tone: “What? You are Shiite?! Why didn’t you tell me this when we met yesterday?”

He gulped at the insult. “Tell me the truth: is this matter so important to you?”

“Even if it is not, do you think that my Sunni family would easily welcome the idea of my marrying a Shiite?”

Jaafar’s emotions also descend from ecstasy to humiliation. The narrative takes a detour to reflect the depth of the perceived inferiority of the Shiites by showcasing an earlier incident when Jaafar had his heart broken by another woman because of his sect. In an interior monologue, Jaafar relates the circumstance:

I was fascinated by the femininity flowing through the ropes of her voice as she talked with me over the phone. In the early days, her speech was mostly focused on America and the period of her life when she studied there and her dream of living in the bustling city of New York. Her nostalgia for the freedom that she breathed, as she walked in the New York streets, her continued disappointments since she returned to Saudi Arabia, and her inability to exercise and to work as a lawyer after her graduation from law school were clear. Her tone mixed with rebellion and anger toward her empty life. She was familiar with considerable political circumstances.

I do not know how the conversation detoured to the history of the Shiites, Sunnis, and to the first Gulf War and to the involvement of Iran in Iraq’s internal affairs and to Saudi Shiites. I do not know how to show the enthusiasm that I have and my sympathy for Shiites and with their right to ascend to high positions in the government, similar to the Sunnis.

There was silence between us, breached by her voice, her tone tense, saying, “Your defense of Shiites is strange!”

“Regardless of being from my family, I’m talking here as a human being.”

She was stunned by my response, and said, “Why didn’t you tell me that you are Shiite?”

“Both Shiites and Sunnis bear witness that there is no god except Allah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah.”

“This is invalid, what you claim. There are many fundamental differences between us. I cannot lie about history. Sorry. I do not want to talk with a Rafidi!”

She hung up the phone with this sharp tone and without saying bye.

I could not believe my ears. How can a young woman who studied abroad and has wide cultural experiences be so mentally reactionary?

Rafidi is a derogatory nickname that Sunnis employ for Shiites. This scene reveals Jaafar’s personal anguish caused by the religious, cultural, political norms of Saudi society.

Through Jaafar’s voice, we find out more about his rising religious and social consciousness, while also becoming acquainted with another dimension of the discrimination against Shiites. This occurs when Jaafar starts a blog under his own name in which he attempts to reconcile the conflict between the Shiite and Sunni sects. This is how Jaafar describes it:

I was in the twenty-fourth year of my life when a policeman knocked on the door of our house and told me to go with to the police station. My father, alarmed, asked the policeman the reason for his call. The policeman answered that we would know more once got to the police station. My mother’s tears and lamentations followed me to the doorstep.

The officer said, addressing my father, “Your son is accused of fomenting sectarian strife in the country through his own blog.”

“This is a dangerous accusation, Officer. I beg you to release him, and will let him write a letter of apology and shut down the blog forever.”

“Sorry. This decision is beyond my authority. There are orders to keep him here for quite some time.”

I remained in a room in the police station for two weeks. The officer questioned me several times to find out if there were foreign hands inciting me to adopt this direction. When I left the police station, I wrote an apology letter to shut down the blog. This experience strengthened me and urged me to be more aware.

This scene makes clear the silencing of any Shiite attempts to alleviate the Shiite-Sunni strife while at the same time suggesting, with the mention of “foreign hands,” that these attempts are considered seditious. Jaafar, in a bitter monologue, expresses his sadness over this oppression:

Many questions began to swell in the intellectual truth about what is going on around me. My sense of injustice began to worsen day by day. Marginalized citizen that I am within my homeland!

In the novel, the many heated dialogues between Fatima and Jaafar also reflect the contrast between their religious doctrines’ different interpretations of the Quran:

“Well, Jaafar, I agree with your view, but doesn’t your doctrine permit a pleasure marriage [Nikah Al-mut‘ah] which is a big insult to women? Is marriage just a night or nights that evaporate and disappear?”

He laughed coolly, saying: “Hallelujah O Fatima, but don’t you think your Sunni doctrine insults women’s rights too?! Doesn’t your doctrine have a common law marriage, Misyaar marriage, Almesfar marriage, friend marriage, and weekend marriage? Every day your Imams have created new fatwas of marriage that don’t exist in the original Islamic Sharia! Are not these marriages a denial of women’s rights with their allowing, by disguising prostitution, the degradation of the status of women?”

This important scene highlights not only how the Shiites and Sunnis deal with women’s rights but also how each of them denies women’s rights with dichotomous doctrinal interpretations that work in favor of men at the expense of women. This is a significant conversation because in the end, the novel brings the two marginalized characters together—a Shiite man in a Sunni culture, a Sunni widow in a conservative society.

Considering the deep divide between the two sects, the culmination of the novel with the marriage of a Sunni woman and a Shiite man is a bold assertion of humanity. Hefny, in a television interview about the conclusion of the novel said, “Intermarriage between communities is the beginning of reconciliation; our problem lies in our educational curricula that fuel sectarianism.”

Hefny’s audacity has resulted in many sanctions against her—banned books, travel restrictions on leaving the country, and denial of participation in public events. Despite her books being sold in Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria, she has still not been published in Saudi Arabia. Even then, her spirit fuels her project to improve the human condition through a literature of commitment. In the end, Zeinab Hefny is like a bird that doesn’t sing in tune with the rest of the flock, but her song lights the path for everyone to follow.

Dr.Wijdan Al-Sayegh, a well-known Arab writer, has nearly two decades of experience in teaching and writing on Arabic literature and language. She has published twenty-four books, three of which won renowned Arab prizes, including the Al-afeef Cultural Award for Literature and Arts in Yemen in 2003. Her publications deal with social, political, and religious taboos in modern Arabic texts. She has also been an active contributor to many Arabic journals, periodicals, and literary magazines across the Arab world. 

Tom Zimmerman teaches English, directs the Writing Center, edits The Huron River Review and The Big Windows Review, and serves as faculty advisor of the WCC Poetry Club at Washtenaw Community College, in Ann Arbor, Michigan.


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