We are always told never to judge a book by its cover, but I find it very hard not to jump to conclusions when I see certain pictures. There are specific images that work really well on covers to help them sell (of course there are others that do not sell). An example that comes to mind is the “White People Almost Kissing” book jacket that author Nicholas Sparks uses on almost every novel he writes. It can be expected that these images will vary from author to author, especially in different cultures. In Arabic literature, there are also “go to” types of images such as “Tiny Men Walking” or “Women Looking Out Over Water”; One in particular, though, has been used often – “Saving Muslim Women”.
It’s understandable that book covers help us choose a book (it’s natural to go to what intrigues you), but with this type of consistent marketing there is no room for choice. The “Saving Muslim Women” book covers not only become repetitive, but it may also change the way and perspective from which the book is read. The meanings and themes in one novel are almost never exactly the same as another sitting right next to it; however, the covers give that perception. While most of the novels cover sexual abuse, there are other aspects of a Muslim woman’s life that have been written about as well.
Lila Abu-Lughod, author of Do Muslim Women Need Saving?, explains that these types of books were “published by trade presses, reviewed widely, and adopted by book clubs and women’s reading groups, a lurid genre of writing on abused women – mostly Muslim – [which] exploded onto the scene in the 1990s and took off after September 11.” One of the more notable “memoirs” written in this genre is the story of Hannah Shah in her novel The Imam’s Daughter (this is one of the more brutally honest novels out there). Even so, English translations of Arabic novels were virtually nonexistent until the 20th century, so it makes sense that Americans may have a narrow view (if one at all) of Arabic literature. Why is it, as observed by myself, that Americans are more likely to pick up an Arab based novel, but not read an Arab based news article? Is it possible that they only think in terms of fictional work that is becoming increasingly popular?
As I have learned from research, writing in the Middle East can be dangerous and potentially deadly if seen as a threat by publishers or censorship reviewers. Even though previously banned books may now be reconsidered, censorship plays a large role in what can be written about. Sex, religion, and politics are typically topics that get a novel in trouble; this is no surprise then that books about the lives of Muslim women may be controversial. It has been said that the books have “reduced Muslim women to a stereotyped singularity, plastering a handy cultural icon over much more complicated historical and political dynamics”.
Since the reading culture is not a large part of some Middle Eastern regions, it can be especially hard for Arabic literature to grow. It is odd that this “Saving Muslim Women” theme is one of the only ways the focuses of the brilliant novels and memoirs about Middle Eastern life, particularly because struggles and abuse are discussed heavily in other cultures as well. Why was this particular topic chosen to be the focus, especially in America? There are so many other ways to portray subject matter – even comically! – And having the same book jacket over and over could potentially reduce the impact of the book if it is solely on a particular struggle. There are plenty of Middle Eastern based novels to read – even more so if they’ve been banned! “Saving Muslim Women” is not always an applicable focus for Arab literature; we are learning there is much more to their lives than that.
References: Why So Many “Saving Muslim Women Book Covers?”, Do Muslim Women Need Saving?, Nicholas Sparks Books Have One Thing In Common, Six Banned Middle Eastern Books You Should Read, Hannah Shah, Don’t Judge Books By Their Cover