Inside Saudi Arabia’s First Feminist Literary Magazine
‘I want to counter Western stereotypes about Middle Eastern women, while highlighting issues for Saudis that aren’t spoken about in Saudi society.’
Ahd Niazy tells me she is having a tough week; it’s her final semester at Emory University, where she is a double major in Creative Writing and Interdisciplinary Studies in Culture and Society, and the senior crunch is well underway. As we speak via FaceTime, she is sitting in a computer room on campus and in the background I occasionally see flustered students walk by.
Ahd is the creator and editor-in-chief of Jahanamiya, Saudi Arabia’s first feminist literary magazine. In just three issues, the magazine has pushed the boundaries of the Saudi literary establishment with startlingly intimate pieces of fiction, essay, and poetry.
Jahanamiya denotes the bougainvillea plant in Arabic — a carefully chosen word. The bougainvillea grows easily in Saudi Arabia, can look after itself (it hardly needs any tending), and is very hardy and colorful — so it adds something beautiful and vibrant to the world, Ahd explains to me. It’s a metaphor for the voices of Saudi women, she adds.
Since 2011, when Raja Alem became the first woman to win the International Prize for Arabic Fiction for her book The Dove’s Necklace, the international literary community has become increasingly interested in Saudi writers. With Jahanamiya, Ahd is bringing the diverse voices of Saudi women into this spotlight.
In just three issues, the magazine has pushed the boundaries of the Saudi literary establishment with startlingly intimate pieces of fiction, essay, and poetry.
Even through my computer screen, it is clear that Ahd is a warm and thoughtful speaker who brims with a contagious enthusiasm. After spending many of her childhood years in Alabama, and the last four years studying in Georgia, she laughingly refers to herself as a “Southern Saudi girl.”
We find ourselves careening off on multiple tangents during our conversation. We laugh at the mirrored image we make — an American in Saudi Arabia interviewing a Saudi in America. We’re both adult-third-culture-kids so we also spend a lot of time exploring the complex notions of “home” we wrestle with.
Ahd was born in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, but her family moved to Birmingham, Alabama when she was only a few months old. After spending her formative years there, her family moved back to Jeddah when she was 11. Ahd recalls this return to Saudi Arabia as a pivotal event in her life.
“It was a hard time because my father wanted my younger sister and I to get acclimated to Saudi culture very quickly. He wanted us to completely shift and that wasn’t really possible for me,” she tells me.
This experience galvanized Ahd. From then on she has had a fierce resistance to being labeled or pressured into doing something just because it is what is expected, she says. It was at this time that she also became interested in women’s rights and began questioning societal values and cultural norms, habits that continued through to the start of her academic career at Emory, where the idea for Jahanamiya first took hold:
“It was during my sophomore year when I took the class ‘Orientalism’ that I first became interested in questions of representation. Why did so many works of art and literature historically present Arabs and Middle Easterners as hyper-spiritual or hyper-sexual or savage? Looking at the media today, I realized it had only gotten worse. I wondered: why do they get to represent us? Why don’t we get to represent ourselves?”
Jahanamiya is Ahd’s answer to those questions. Launched in the summer of 2015, publishing work exclusively by Saudi women, Jahanamiya seeks to counter stereotypes about Middle Eastern women and provide a platform for Saudi women to express themselves in their own voices.
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The first issue took Ahd a year to put together as she taught herself the ins and outs of creating and editing a literary magazine. A solo operation, she orchestrates everything, from soliciting art from regional artists to editing submissions from contributors. “It remains a major learning curve,” she says with a laugh.
From the beginning, Jahanamiya has targeted two audiences, which Ahd admits can be challenging. “I want to counter Western stereotypes about Middle Eastern women, while at the same time highlighting issues for Saudis that aren’t spoken about in Saudi society.”
The first issue, Arabic Coffee — al-gahwa al-arabia, was named for the omnipresent staple of Saudi society where the dallah (Arabic coffee pot) and fenjan (traditional coffee cups) are always on hand to greet guests. Through the portal of this custom, contributors explored issues of memory, social obligation, societal critique, and nostalgia.
Majda Gama’s poem, ‘Why My Coffee is Green’, ends with these lines:
“Wind off our Red Sea / shoreline stung us / with salt, nights / at the beach house / in winter meant coffee / in finajeen with ginger / grated in. Zenjibeel / I said, tasting the word, / the spice travelling / through my body.”
Saudi society can be intensely private and finding contributors to Jahanamiya can sometimes be difficult, but Ahd is passionate about amplifying women’s voices and celebrating the diversity of Saudi culture. Most of Jahanamiya’s contributors are not professional writers, but businesswomen, entrepreneurs, artists, and stay-at-home moms.
“What I do behind the scenes with the contributors is basically one-on-one writing workshops, and we build the pieces together in a nurturing, collaborative way. This helps them be brave with telling their stories,” she adds. The magazine includes artwork from regional artists — both original and previously created––in an effort to showcase stories not only through text but through visual art as well.
Ahd is vehement that she wants to avoid publishing pieces anonymously.
“For too long our culture has disconnected women from owning their identities and stories because of fear of public shame and worries about ‘summa’a’ — your reputation. With Jahanamiya, I want women to share their experiences, own their names, and be proud of who they are.”
The second issue, Ismik, centers on the subject of Saudi women’s names, something that for many is still considered taboo to share publicly. Ismik includes an essay from Ahd herself, “Arabic Tongues and English Ears,” about the cultural weight of names and the complex power dynamics of language.
“The Arabic language has been accused by the western world of committing a gross crime. And in adhering to this biased narrative, we deny all the beauty and strength that the language has to offer — all that it’s given in the past. We forget the music of Um Kalthoom, Fairuz, and Abdelhaleem. We forget the writings of Gibran and Darwish. We forget the waves of succulent words — of poetic tenses and meanings that simply cannot be translated into any other tongue. The poetry living within the Arabic language is undeniable. And poets (generally speaking) don’t kill people; they kill fantasies.”
The third issue, Awlad, examines the relationship between the sexes within the Kingdom. One of the standout pieces in this stunning collection is the short story, “Burdensome Boys,” by Layal Niazy, Ahd’s younger sister, in which the traditional gender roles of Saudi society are flipped.
“Mafloot roughly translate to free, or uninhibited and in motion. And saye’e is sort of a party boy — a wild and untamed mess of a man. I explicitly remember Mama telling me that no ‘respectable woman’ would ever consider taking me as a husband if I picked up that kind of reputation and kept up the “wild” behavior I’d exhibited that night.”
Ahd and I segue into a discussion of the hijab and how it can send different messages depending upon the setting in which it is worn. “Hijab in Saudi is very different than hijab in the U.S.,” she says. “It’s a big issue and I don’t think it’s discussed enough in the Muslim world and the Arab world. We need more narratives about it. But then again, we’re still talking about controlling and regulating women’s bodies. We still cannot fathom that a women can choose what she wears. It’s a hard line to navigate.”
We still cannot fathom that a women can choose what she wears. It’s a hard line to navigate.
I ask Ahd: If what is relevant and impactful in one place is not effective in another, to what extent must we view our feminist praxis as flexible?
“As someone who navigates a mixed identity and balances two cultures at once, I would say that the practice of feminism must differ from place to place.” She adds:
“My beliefs remain the same, but the ways I express them and to whom differs based on where I am and what my primary goal at hand is. Feminism, to me, is about women fighting for their rights to equality — not only economically and politically, but socially and through the questioning and changing of cultural practices that are detrimental to women and girls — whether we’re able to consciously see this or not. Some of these practices may also be detrimental to boys and men’s expectations of women or notions of gender performance. I really do believe that a feminist society is better and healthier for everyone — not just for the women!”
Growing up between the United States and Saudi Arabia, Ahd has spent her life navigating the complex relationship between these two countries, and it is tempting to see Jahanamiya as an effort to build a bridge between them.
“If I could tell the people of these countries about the other, I would say you are more alike than you realize,” she says. “We need to look beyond the stereotypes so we can meet the actual people behind them.”
Jahanamiya’s upcoming issue revolves around the idea of movement, opening up conversations about women’s bodily autonomy, self-determination, and freedom of expression. Looking beyond this, Ahd has big plans: “I hope Jahanamiya continues to grow and to become a known platform for gendered cultural exchange — a platform for storytelling, sharing, and growth. It would be nice to have a full time staff and a steady source of funding to ensure sustainable growth is possible.”
I’m reluctant to finish our conversation but I know that Ahd has the typical senior’s mountain of papers to work on and exams to study for, and a literary magazine to edit on top of that. So, I ask her one last question: “Who are some of your inspirations?”
She replies with a list of names — all female: Mona Eltahawy, Leila Ahmed, Fatima Mernissi, and Nawal El Saadawi. “I find these women inspiring because they are unapologetically themselves and they share themselves with the world. That is a radical thing for a woman to do.”
After we say goodbye, Ahd’s answer lingers in my mind. Her vision of Jahanamiya as a platform to explore the unexplored and change the world through the radical power of personal narrative, feels electrifying and necessary in a world saturated with stereotypes and narrow-minded beliefs.
I bet that if I ask this same question to globally-minded feminists in 10 years’ time, Ahd’s name would be high up on that list.