Zainab Hefny: A Bold Saudi Writer in a Conservative Society

Saudi women writers’ texts are revolutionary because they had no choice but the pen to disclose their suffering.

Despite the dominant conservative society of Saudi Arabia, the Saudi creative scene is considered the most daring in the Arab region. Indeed, many Saudi writers are courageous enough to confront the power of a patriarchal, religious culture; however, some have paid the price for their opinions, bold visions, and enlightened thoughts. For instance, liberal journalist and novelist Dr. Turki Al Hamad was known for his hard line against the Wahhabi order of the Minister of the Interior, following a complaint filed by religious authorities in December 2012 because of his tweets that were considered offensive to the divine, Islam, and the Prophet Muhammad. One such tweet states, “A new Nazi view of the world the Arab world calls Islamism. But this time of Nazism is over, and the sun will shine again” (1). Even more recently, the Saudi writer Raif Badawi has been sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment and floggings as punishment for using writing to express and expose the need for societal change. On January 9, 2015, Badawi was flogged 50 times before hundreds of spectators in front of a Jeddah mosque, the first in a series of one thousand lashes to be carried out over twenty weeks (2).

This atmosphere applies as well to the women’s creative scene in Saudi Arabia. In the recent wave of female writers such as Raja Al Sanea, Raja Alem, Samar Al Mogren, and Badria Al-Bishr, who have had the courage to discuss the social taboos and the patriarchal rule, we find Zainab Hefny, novelist (3) and short story (4) writer, possessing a clear voice. Hefny draws the reader’s attention with her daring writing that attacks the conservative and patriarchal Saudi society, revealing its underground workings and true motivations. She has mentioned in one of her TV interviews that “if you want to know exactly what is going on in my society, just read my novels.” Furthermore, she has indicated that “Saudi women writers’ texts are revolutionary because Saudi women writers had no choice but the pen to disclose their suffering due to the enormity of the social pressures.” Hefny has refused to wear Islamic dress, including the hijab and burka (scarf and veil), during media interviews and press appearances in newspapers and journals. She says about the hijab and burka: “I realized that a lot of social heritage is not based in sharia [Islamic law], but the link between the two has become taken for granted with the succession of time. Now, it is difficult for any individual in our society that comes out of the shell of the cultural norms to escape extreme actions such as reprimands in the form of the ugliest charges or even being stoned” (5).

Within the Arab world, Hefny is identified with two Arab icons, Egyptian feminist Hoda Shaarawi (1879-1947) and Dr. Nawal El Saadawi (1930- ). Shaarawi was an earlier feminist who took a similarly unpopular position on the burka, and Saadawi is known for her strong support of women’s issues against a patriarchal society. Hefny has said: “I am proud of my new nicknames, the Saudi Shaarawi and the Saudi Nawal Saadawi, because these women courageously stood for women’s issues, and I am proud today to stand in my writings against the perception of the inferiority of women as evil objects who must be domesticated so as not to sabotage the community.”

Hefny’s writing journey began at the age of twelve, when she had her first work published. She remembered her father’s reaction when she told him about her first publication: “I was running happily to show him my published text. When he looked at my name published in the journal, his eyes filled with tears of joy.” In contrast, there was a more strained relationship with her mother, which Hefny describes in one of her autobiographical texts: “When I arrived at the point of womanhood and the world of femininity rushed at me, I hurried excitedly to tell my mother that my period had come. I chattered on that I am like her now. My mother pulled me to her, hugging and kissing me. I passed that night dreaming about entering this new world where I am able to wear makeup and high heels. The next day, I was surprised when my mother brought me an abaya [black cloak] to put on any time I left the house. I asked her, ‘Why?! What is the reason?!’ She said, ‘You’ve become a bride.’ I replied, asking her, ‘Where is the groom, my mother?!’ My mom smiled and said, ‘He will definitely come one day.’ I took the cloak and stuffed it into the closet. Suddenly, I was overcome by a crazy idea to go out and leave the cloak behind. I tried to do that immediately. I found my mother rushing toward me, glaring at me, and threatening to tell my father that I had committed this crime. She told me angrily, ‘Do you want wagging tongues to ruin our reputation?’” (6).

Hefny’s marriage did not last long. The death of her husband left her alone to deal with raising their children and all the other family responsibilities in a society that oppresses women and believes in masculine tutelage. She said: “Our society insists on the treatment of women as unqualified creatures who need masculine tutelage to be imposed upon them. Women are forbidden to travel outside the country without a male guardian, and their educational path from the school to the university is also subject to their approval. Women have no right to even get an ID card or passport without a formal letter from a guardian. There are a lot of jobs that are still limited to men and are unavailable to women, under the pretext of fear that this kind of intellectual tolerance will lead to social disintegration. Next, women are deprived of the right of driving a car but are allowed to ride alone with a male driver, even one who is a stranger.” All of the disparate media channels are managed by men. If we look at the written press, we will find that the Saudi female journalists are far away from decision-making, and none of them, regardless of journalistic success abroad, occupy the position of editor-in-chief, even in local newspapers. If women have the somewhat lower position of managing editor, they still lack the authority to even change the location of an advertisement in their newspaper. Within audio-visual media, we find that the female announcers shackled to certain programs are contracted for lower wages, and are not on the same career path as men, thus ensuring a purely masculine Saudi society. These facts lead to a restriction of women’s upward mobility, forcing them to stand at the ends of lines until a man feels generous enough to clear the closed path in front of her. A woman’s good or bad luck is determined by the cruel mercy of men, who have all the power. Because of this, the palace of women’s dreams is destroyed by men who take advantage of their authority and pretend that they are protective guardians staying alert to offer comfort and safety. This leads women to raise the flag of surrender and to obey completely (7).

Hefny describes her contradictory life existing under this masculine culture: “I suffered from emotional deprivation after my husband’s death, but God compensated me with the gift of writing. On paper, I fell in love with whom I wanted. On paper, I chose the man I married. On paper, I divorced whom I didn’t want.” Due to her bold writing about sensitive topics in her society, her books have been banned from participation in book fairs that are held in Saudi Arabia. Moreover, her books have not been published, and she was excluded from any public literary events in Saudi Arabia. For example, in one of her television interviews, she described how “my literature has been ignored in Saudi Arabia, where I have not been called to any conference about the novel in my homeland. I want to share a funny story: I got an official invitation to present my creative testimony about my writing at a conference on the novel in my city, Jeddah. Then three days later, I received a formal apology indicating that I had been invited by mistake and I would no longer be included. That hurt me a lot, and I contacted the Minister at that time, but his answer was polite while he still did not give me the real reason.”

Because of her collection of short stories, Women at the Equator (1996), which discussed and highlighted social themes in Saudi society, including women’s political rights and lesbian relationships, Hefny was prevented from writing and traveling abroad. She has said in this regard: “It is usual for the State to react violently because I publicly announced the scandals of the community, but I personally find that this collection of short stories was ahead of its time because the stories discussed the freedoms of Saudi people, including their right to representation by a Parliament as well as the right of women to drive a car.” She added: “I know that the real writer is a writer who writes for a change in society and any change in a society is born of violent reactions and will be in the face of clashes, and I am used to paying the price.” She asserted further: “The good writer is not a writer who highlights the positives in the community and writes to please everyone. Instead, a good writer writes for us to know our mistakes and face them. Our real problem lies in Arab habits that prefer to cover up social problems without facing them.”

Over the course of her career, Hefny has faced a barrage of charges. First, that a man, not she, is the original author of her writing, to which she replied: “I used to hear this charge a lot, especially since the prevailing view of women writers was that their pens were too weak to write about rugged topics and they were not entitled to write boldly.” She added: “I wrote boldly while discussing political and social issues, which usually men write about.” Another accusation leveled at her is that her fiction contains autobiographical material and that her heroines are but different faces of the writer herself. In fact, the well-known television broadcaster Turki al-Dakhil, host of the program Adaat (Lightings), criticized her for this, to which she replied: “The heroines of my novels are not Zainab Hefney.” She explained: “Creative writing occupies an insane realm in which I enter a prohibited area with my fictional characters and leave them to follow their own nature.” Yet another accusation is that she has used sex to sell her books, a common marketing strategy. She replied to this by saying: “I have used sex in my writing for noble goals and to discuss realistic social situations.” She added: “Sex is an important part of our lives, but sexual taboos were not present in our ancient history. In the past, we had an intellectual civilization because the writer was free. Now, we have actually regressed religiously and socially. For example, today there is cultural and religious apostasy because Andalusian books, such as Ṭawq al-Ḥamāmah [The Ring of the Dove ] (8), would not be published today, and if a contemporary female poet were to recite, for example, these lines from Andalusian poet Wallada bint al-Mustakfi [1093 AC] (9): ‘I allow my lover to touch my cheek / And offer my kiss to whomever craves it,’ she would be stoned.”

Hefny has responded to the idea that real literature is literature that respects the nature of the conservative society and its sense of morality by saying: “We cannot apply this criterion to literature because the writing itself is not moral when it dives deeply into prohibited areas to reveal the nakedness of an immoral society.” She added: “We use the term ‘conservative society’ to cover our double standard.” She added further: “Our society prohibits women from having even the most basic rights.” She mentioned: “Women live in violation, and there are no institutions to protect them.” She added: “Our society is a macho society that has distorted history in men’s favor and handcuffed the progress of society.” She said about the situation of women in Saudi Arabia:

“Unfortunately, the religious culture of Wahhabism has contributed to blocking of the progress of women, and the growing demand for the necessity of gender segregation after the Grand Mosque seizure in 1979 led to mounting religious extremism and the dominance of hardline religious discourse over all aspects of life in Saudi Arabia, especially women’s from A to Z, relying on only the Wahhabi family interpretation of doctrine as legislation. As religious radio and television programs intensify, as do fatwas which are based on intimidation and prohibition (haram/halal), women have been marginalized and excluded from public life! This interpretation rejected the idea of women taking a leading position and included the promotion of a prophetic saying, “No people shall ever prosper who appoint a woman as their ruler.”

This cast doubt on women’s intellectual capacity and presented the image of women as creatures that will lead to the spread of corruption in society if they are left without supervision and are not always under the tutelage of a man!” (10). She added: “Saudi feminist literature is revolutionary par excellence because women writers under such social stress have nothing but their pens to expose it.” She added proudly: “I am the first of the sexual revolution on paper in Saudi Arabia.”

Hefny described the duality of social taboos in real life and freedom in fictional life: “I have my mother’s warnings firmly in my intellectual mind, but when I create fictional female characters in my short stories and novels, I have fun and dance with them. I stick my tongue out at my society’s taboos, and I say, ‘Look at me. I created my own woman characters who are able to stand before you, fight against you, and you don’t have any power to judge them, or report them to the police station, or destroy their reputation, or even prevent them from living their realistic love story in broad daylight’” (11).

Hefny currently writes a column in the United Arab Emirates newspaper Al Ittihad (United) and freely discusses political and social issues. She said: “I did not participate in the press in Saudi Arabia because the ceiling for freedom is still low and also because I do not like the censor’s red pen.” However, her bold thoughts were published in a weekly column in a Saudi newspaper that was published in London during her residency there, but she said: “I was discharged from work without a clear reason.”

Her writing boldly discusses various taboos in Saudi Arabia, such as women’s rights, male guardianship, domestic violence, homosexuality, forbidden sexual relations, and social and sectarian racism. Furthermore, her writings have been published throughout all Arab countries, such as Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria, but she has not been successful in having any book published in Saudi Arabia. She answered the interviewer who questioned her regarding this as follows: “Give me one publisher who will accept my books.”

Finally, Zainab Hefny, through her creative experience which has spanned more than two decades, has not bowed in her writings and positions to the glamour of fame, money, or career advancement, but vowed the same principle of seeking to liberate the positions of Saudi women from the clutches of religious authority that is dedicated to a culture of marginalization of women. Through this, Hefny has brought us back to literature committed to human issues concerning men and women. Her calculated audacity, even though it has resulted in sanctions such as banned books, travel restrictions, and denial of participation in book exhibitions, still fuels her project to improve the human condition through a literature of commitment.

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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(1): Jordanian Constitution newspaper, Fakhri Saleh, freedom for the thinker novelist Turki al-Hamad, No. 17, August 1, 2015.

(2): Saudi Arabia … flogged for those who criticize the clerics, the Yemeni newspaper Al Khobar, on Monday, December 8, 2014

(3): Dance to the Tambourine, Arabs Record publishing house, Cairo,1998; I’ve No Longer Cried, Dar Saqi for Printing and Publishing, London, 2004; Features, London, Dar Al-Saqi, 2006; Crooked Legs, Arab Institute for Studies and Publication, Lobnan, 2008; A Pillow for Your Love, London, Dar Al-Saqi, 2011

(4): Your Restriction or My Freedom, Lebanese Arab Institution for distribution, printing and publication, Lebanon,1994; Women at the Equator, Sunrise publishing House, Cairo, 1996; There are Things that Disappear, Dar Al Rayes, Lebanon, 2000.

(5): Zainab Hefny, “My story with the letter,” Women’s Forum and writing, Morocco, July 2004 .

(6): Zainab Hefny, “My story with the letter,” Women’s Forum and writing, Morocco, July 2004.

(7): Ibid.

(8): The Ring of the Dove: A Treatise on the Art and Practice of Arab Love by Ibn Hazm (994AC- 1069AC), Anthony Arberry, Luzac Oriental, 1995.

(9): The Breeze of the scent from Andalusian moistened branch, Ahmed bin Mohammed Mokri Tlemceni (1631AC), Beirut (Export press) 1388-1968.

(10): Zainab Hefny, “Hijazi women between yesterday and today,” Graduates in Bahrain Club Hall, Bahrain, 2009

(11): Zainab Hefny, “Testimony in Creative Experience,” Sanaa Fourth Festival of the Story and the Novel, Ministry of Culture, Sanaa, 2008.