The 15 Books Which Helped Inspire The Greater Freedom

I’ve been asked a lot, lately, about who and what inspired me to write my forthcoming debut book The Greater Freedom: Life as a Middle Eastern Woman Outside the Stereotypes. As with much of my previous work, my life experiences are mostly what made me wish to contribute to the conversation. I wrote more about my inspiration and the all-encompassing process that was writing the book here.

In hindsight, it’s clear that it’s always been an interest of mine: Identity. Culture. Race. I wrote my university dissertations on the subjects and the books line my shelves as proof, having been patiently waiting for me to re-read them again; older, with clarity. Ready to see that the questions were ones I was trying to ask myself, too.

But the questions I wanted answered were rarely the questions I felt like everyone else was asking. For a long time, their questions became my questions, until my own started to leak into my life and the world around me.

As I took to reading everything I could as research for my own book, I came across a hell of a lot of inspiration; even some books which began to hint at answers to my questions.

While I didn’t necessarily love, agree or particularly resonate with everything I read in these books,  something in each of them served as inspiration throughout the course of my writing my own book, The Greater Freedom: Life as a Middle Eastern Woman Outside the Stereotypes. 

Check out the books and my thoughts on them below and click on the titles to buy!

1. Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate – Leila Ahmed

Islamic societies and people are often orientalised and ‘othered’, thought to be inherently oppressive to women due to the very fabric which makes them up. This book was an insightful read into women and Islam, exploring the historical roots of the religion and the development of Islamic discourses on women and gender from the ancient world to the present.

2. Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution – Mona Eltahawy

A subject close to my heart (as you’ll see why when you read my book), Mona Eltahawy’s Headscarves and Hymens was the first book I read which made me feel somewhat seen. Eltahawy makes an important, engrossing case for the sexual revolution that is so very needed in the region.

3. Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World – Shereen El Feki

Cairo based journalist Shereen El Feki also tackles the subject of sex in the Middle East, charting her travels around a region that has been changing post revolutions. Blending interviews, statistics, opinion polls, journalism and personal reminiscence, the book makes for a pretty depressing but important read into a highly sensitive and still largely secret aspect of Arab society.

4. Fashion is Freedom: How a Girl from Tehran Broke the Rules to Change Her World –  Tala Raassi

An illuminating memoir into life in Iran, moving to the US and the highs and lows of how fashion designer Tala Raassi created successful swimwear line, Dar Be Dar. Beginning with the story of how Tala and her friends were put in prison and punished for wearing miniskirts, the book charts her fight to break the rules and become who she is today.

5. Becoming Arab in London: Performativity and the Undoing of Identity – Ramy M.K Aly

Becoming Arab in London was the only book I came across about being both British and Egyptian, like me. The first ethnographic exploration of gender, race and class practices amongst British born or raised Arabs in London, it is an interesting read which touches on the idea of ‘Arab-ness’ and some of the ways in which young British Arabs ‘do’ or ‘achieve’ this.

6. The Good Immigrant – Nikesh Shukla

Edited by Nikesh Shukla, The Good Immigrant is a collection of essays on what it means to be a person of colour in the UK today. It was one of the first books I read which so aptly summed up the experience of “good immigrants” and was an engrossing read – pulled together post-EU referendum hostility towards “foreigners” – which highlights the standards by which immigrants – first or second generation, refugees and asylum seekers – are either accepted into, or judged to be apart from, a dominant culture in which “the default is always white”.

7. The Atheist Muslim: A Journey from Religion to Reason – Ali M. Rizvi

Rizvi takes one for the team and does what most Muslims and humans dare not: question religion. Through personal experience, historical research and careful reasoning, Rivki thoughtfully reflects on what led him from his religious childhood in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to atheism as an adult. The Atheist Muslim is a supremely important and timely read that is emotionally and intellectually compelling.

8. Daring To Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening – Manal Al Sharif

An inspiring memoir by a Saudi woman who became an accidental activist, ultimately leading the charge for women’s right to drive in the kingdom after she was jailed for the crime of “driving while female.” It’s an insightful read into the reality of women’s lives in Saudi Arabia as well as the power of education and the “difficulties, absurdities, and joys of making your voice heard.” Al Sharif was described by Time Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world and this book is a great insight as to why.

9. Beyond Veiled Cliches: The Real Lives of Arab Women – Amal Awad

Written by Arab-Australian journalist Amal Awad, this book includes commentary from a number of Middle Eastern woman both in Australia and in the region, touching on everything from feminism, love, sex and shame, trauma, war, religion and culture.

10. Muslim Girl: A Coming of Age – Amani Al-Khatahtbeh

Written by founder of popular website MuslimGirl, A Coming of Age is an insightful read into growing up veiled and Muslim in New York in the years immediately following 9/11. The book discusses everything from Islamophobia and the political climate in the US to launching a website that became a cultural phenomenon. She was named in the 2016 Forbes 30 Under 30 list, making MuslimGirl the first Muslim company to be featured.

11. The Hidden Face of Eve: Women in the Arab World – Nawal El Saadawi

My favourite book I read in this process and perhaps in life, Nawal El Saadawi has become a steadfast inspiration of mine and I’ve since read as many of her works as I could get my hands on, including her supremely inspiring autobiographies (she’s almost 90 and she has two!). Much of El Saadawi’s observations remain as timely and relevant today as when The Hidden Face of Eve was first published, more than a quarter of a century ago. An imperative read into the oppression of Muslim women in a patriarchal world, El Saadawi courageously broaches taboo problems she came to know intimately through her experience as a physician practising in the Egyptian countryside and inner-city.

12. Bad Girls of the Arab World – Nadia Yaqub & Rula Quawas

Through a series of essays, Bad Girls of the Arab World touches on some of the intentional and unintentional “transgressions” which highlight the social and cultural constructs which define “proper” and “improper” behaviour, as well as the social and political policing of these divisions. All topics I found interesting to analyse in putting together my book.

13. Between Two Worlds: Escaping from Tyranny: Growing Up in the Shadow of Saddam
– Zainab Salbi

An insightful read into what life in Iraq as the daughter of Saddam Hussein’s personal pilot was like by the founder of  Women for Women International, an organisation that assists women around the world who are victimised by war.

14. On Identity – Amin Maalouf 

A beautifully written and important analysis on the notion of identity, one of the oldest questions of of humankind. Certainly, personal, religious, ethnic or national identity is one that has given rise to heated passions and crimes since the beginning of time. The Lebanese / French author outlines well balanced, insightful arguments which are particularly important in a climate of increased fracturing and fear of the ‘other’. One of my new favourite books.

15. American Radical: Inside the World of an Undercover Muslim FBI Agent – Tamer ElNoury

A powerful, important read that tells the true story of Tamer ElNoury (not his real name) who is essentially a Muslim Jack Bauer who joins an elite counterterrorism unit after September 11 with the express purpose of gaining the trust of terrorists in order to foil their horrific plans. As ElNoury identifies as Muslim, it provides a much needed narrative into what should be obvious: that religion and terrorism are two very different things, with the author making a compelling plea to resist wholesale bigotry: Rami Malek will be playing the role of Tamer in the upcoming TV series adaptation of the book.

Do you have any book recommendations for me? Let me know!

To read more about the inspiration and process behind The Greater Freedom: Life as a Middle Eastern Woman Outside the Stereotypes –out September 2019 – check out my post here.

The Greater Freedom was also selected by Bustle as one of 7 feminist non-fiction books to keep an eye out for this year. Check that out, and the great company it keeps, here.

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