May 31, 2006 Special Dispatch No. 1179

Saudi Author Zaynab Hifni Talks About Women, Sex, and Taboos in Saudi Society

May 31, 2006
Saudi Arabia | Special Dispatch No. 1179

The following are excerpts from an interview with Saudi author Zaynab Hifni, which aired on Al-Arabiya TV on May 19, 2006.


"Whenever We Go Near a Taboo - The Taboo of Sex, of Religion, or of Politics - We Always Highlight it"

Interviewer: "Why is there sex in all of your stories and works? In four or five works there is a lot of sex..."

Zaynab Hifni: "I don't know why whenever we go near a taboo - the taboo of sex, of religion, or of politics - we always highlight it emphatically."

Interviewer: "Because it's a taboo..."

Zaynab Hifni: "Because it's taboo. Ultimately, if you read... Let's go back to our ancient heritage. For example, Wallada, daughter of [the Caliph] Al-Mustakfi, said: 'I am fit for high positions, and am going my way with pride, and bestow my kiss on he who craves it.' If a poetess said these things today, I think they would stone her."


"Why has sex become such a sensitive issue with us? Sex is in our meals, in our food, and in our drink. Why shouldn't we use it to achieve a noble cause? Why not? It is a part of our lives."

Interviewer: "So you think sex should not be a prohibited subject."

Zaynab Hifni: "Of course not."

Interviewer: "Do you think it should be a common thing that people discuss freely?"

Zaynab Hifni: "Rest assured that... Let me go back to our religious heritage, or rather, our religious law. 'Aisha would sit with the men, and the Prophet Muhammad would say: You can learn half of the religion from her."

Interviewer: "That hadith is unreliable."

Zaynab Hifni: "An unreliable hadith?! I believe in that hadith, because it appeared in the collection of Al-Bukhari or of Al-Muslim, I think."

Interviewer: "If it had, it would not be considered an unreliable."

Zaynab Hifni: "I think it appeared in one of the two."

Early Islam had "No Taboo About Sex Like We Have, Unfortunately, in Our Society"

Interviewer: "OK, but this is an unreliable hadith that did not appear in either source."

Zaynab Hifni: "Let me tell you something. Our problem is that everything in favor of women we consider an unreliable hadith, whereas any hadith that favors men - like the one that says, 'Women are lacking brains and faith' - is considered a 100 percent reliable hadith. Why? Because it harms women. This doesn't make sense."


"The Prophet's companions learned from 'Aisha how she treated the Prophet, down to the most explicit sexual details. The same was true with regard to Umm Salama. Why do we always place constraints? Such constraints did not exist in the days of the Prophet and his companions."

Interviewer: "Do you think that what 'Aisha taught the Prophet's companions about the Prophet's relations with his wives is similar to the use you make of sex in your stories?"

Zaynab Hifni: "I'm not comparing myself to 'Aisha. I'm saying the degree of freedom that existed... There was no taboo about sex like we have, unfortunately, in our society."

Interviewer: "So you think sex should be taught at school, for instance?"

Zaynab Hifni: "Why not?"

Interviewer: "I mean, sex education?"

Zaynab Hifni: "Of course."

Interviewer: "From what age?"

Zaynab Hifni: "It could start at the age of 12, in junior high school. Why not? I am sad to say that when I wrote my collection of short stories, Women at the Equator, a friend said to me: 'I'm not familiar with the things you wrote.'"


"I Feel a Deep Sadness Inside, When I Remember... The Days I was Forbidden to Write and to Travel"

Interviewer: "You've been living in London for several years. Why do you live abroad?"

Zaynab Hifni: "For personal reasons."

Interviewer: "Did you leave Saudi Arabia because of a problem with its society?"

Zaynab Hifni: "I have a problem of... How can I put it... I'm going to cry. Do you mind if I cry?"

Interviewer: "Feel free. The truth is we wouldn't want, in front of everyone..."

Zaynab Hifni: "I don't want to ruin the mood on your show, but the truth is that I feel a deep sadness inside, when I remember what I went through, in the days I was forbidden to write and to travel, the days of Women at the Equator."

Interviewer: "You were forbidden to write and to travel?"

Zaynab Hifni: "Yes."

Interviewer: "Because of your book?"

Zaynab Hifni: "I was under tremendous pressure. That period greatly affected me. I won't lie to you, to this day, when I enter King Abd Al-'Aziz Airport, I feel pressure in my chest. But I hope I will get over it one day."

Interviewer: "Do you think the restrictions imposed on you were unjustified?"

Zaynab Hifni: "Of course. There was no justification."

Interviewer: "Zaynab, there is a question that always comes up: Do you think that you reflect society through your bold literature? Don't you think that society rejects this type of literature? You said that the critics see what the people want, and applaud it. This means that you are not popular..."

Zaynab Hifni: "That's true, but ultimately..."

"Critics Ignore This Type of Literature [Out of] Fear"

Interviewer: "You do not reflect society."

Zaynab Hifni: "We do reflect society. How can you say we don't? On the contrary, I think that the fact that the critics ignore this type of literature stems from fear. It is like stomping on cancerous growths, but being afraid of telling someone that he has cancer. This is just like our Arab custom of saying: 'Let him live out whatever time he has left.' How can he live his life? He must confront it. If we had warned him about the cancer from the beginning, the cancer might not have spread. It might have died out."


"In the days when Women at the Equator came under fire, many intellectuals called me and said: 'Bravo, you were wonderful in your book.' I said to them: 'People, write it in the newspapers,' but they said they couldn't: Isn't that a double standard?"


"I don't have a problem with religion or even with the veil. But I call for rationality, I call for women to..."

Interviewer: "How can you say you don't have a problem with the veil?"

Zaynab Hifni: "I don't view women who wear the veil as reactionary. But I'm sad to say that the problem of some veiled women is that they look down upon women who don't wear the veil."


Interviewer: "How do you view veiled women, or the veil itself?"

Zaynab Hifni: "I respect it. I consider it to be part of our precepts, but I believe that ultimately, it is a matter of individual liberty. But I'm sad to say there is a strange phenomenon in our Saudi society - women who do not wear the veil are viewed as if they will not enter Paradise. No, the decision of what will become of her is in the hands of Allah."


"Consider Me... [From] the Days of the Prophet's Companions..."

Zaynab Hifni: "Consider me as if I am of the days of the Prophet's companions..."

Interviewer: "To consider you as being from the days of the companions?!"

Zaynab Hifni: "I mean that you should consider me as being from the days of the flourishing Islamic culture, when all our authors and all the philosophers would write in a very bold way. I am following in their footsteps."

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