Conceived at the hands of a young Saudi woman named Ahd Niazy, Jahanamiya is an online magazine that seeks to serve as a collaborative space for Saudi women writers, featuring contributions from artists and writers in neighboring countries. The magazine is issued on a seasonal basis in both English and Arabic, with the Spring issue about to hit the racks.
According to the website, the magazine was established “to counter orientalist stereotypes of Middle Eastern women”, and in particular Saudi women, whereby “Jahanamiya stands to reject the simplified western narrative of Saudi women’s lives and experiences”. In its issues, the magazine seeks to strengthen the Saudi population’s interest in the richness and diversity of its own culture.
Niazy, who is studying creative writing and intercultural studies in the US, tells Raseef22 that while news and stories about Saudi women are common in the Arab and international press—whether analyzing their conditions or critiquing their lack of rights—rarely do we hear from Saudi women themselves. Thus was born the idea for the project, calling on the Arab world above all to reconsider the stereotypes and generalizations surrounding Saudi society, and particularly Saudi women. The magazine offers a unique opportunity to acquaint people with Saudi culture firsthand, through the eyes of its female population.
In its first three issues, Jahanamiya searched for one-word titles on issues closely tied in to Arab and Saudi culture. In its first issue, published in Summer 2015, the magazine kicked off with the titular topic of Arabic Coffee, reasoning that coffee has a long history in Arab heritage that continued to today. Indeed, coffee serves multiple purposes and significations in Arab culture: as a greeting during a friendly meeting, as the drink served while giving condolences, and during all occasions that draw together family and friends.
What distinguishes the magazine is the entirely-female participation, comprising women from various different background. Though the majority of them are not specialized in literature or journalism, they nonetheless harbor a passion for the project which pushed them to pen their own stories. Among the team members are a dentist, a housewife, a college student, and an artist. The group comprises a wide age range, giving birth to a diverse spectrum of female voices and experiences from an unconventional viewpoint, and in unexpected forms. Consequently, the writings and artwork are characterized by a sense of youthfulness and simplicity in the narrative and dialogue they produce.
In its second issue, the title Ismik (Your Name) was selected. The idea behind it, according to Niazi, was “for each of us to stand independently, while simultaneously opening up to share our personal stories and celebrate our lives and existences”. In an effort to express respect for each one of them, in the absence of limitations, this issue of the magazine resulted out of a response to the traditional sensitivities associated with women’s names in Saudi Arabia, wherein they are generally referred to as someone’s mother, sister, or daughter, rather than by their own names. The latter remains taboo, as though denying women the right to be independent wholes, unreliant on a male support.
Throughout the issue, the artworks and literature focus on fundamental questions of identity, and women’s relationships with their physical appearance and characters. In one short story, titled Nights of New, by Layal Niazy, issues of the culture of fear and isolation are addressed through the story of a young woman getting ready in front of a bathroom mirror for a clandestine night out with her friends, after her family has gone to sleep. Other contributors discuss another issue that has been ingrained in the Saudi and Arab collective psyches; that of the association of names with lineage, which in turn determines an individual’s familial background, social status, and inheritance, thereby determining the individual’s personal value and life trajectory.
In another poem in the same issue, Maha Rukun invites readers to eviscerate the boundaries and connotations inherent within a name, demanding a world in which people are introduced by their characters. She condemns the qualification of people as saints or sinners based on the few letters that make up their name, insisting on resisting profiling, in a quest to unshackle people from the chains of identity, lineage, nationality, and race.
On Impossible Loves and Relationships
The latest issue of the magazine, Awlad (Boys), delves in women’s relations with men. The contributors to this issue provide a look into the experiences of Saudi women scrutinizing their relationships with their brothers, fathers, sons, and even lovers.
“Saudi women have a complicated relationship with men, to say the least.” Thus begins a short story titled Different Species. Saudi culture raises girls to have total respect and trust in their fathers, brothers, grandfathers, and uncles, while simultaneously instilling suspicion and fear of other boys and men. However, the short story, like other works in the issue, remind us that romantic relations are difficult and complicated in Saudi Arabia, as they are everywhere else in the world. These relations are always governed by social pressures and expectations, as well as personal histories and people’s relationships with their own selves, which develop and metamorphose through these relationships.
“Jahanamiya is an opportunity to visit the interiors of Saudi homes, and the interiors of Saudi women, to get to know each other up close, and dispel the fears and oversimplifications and misunderstandings,” Ahd Niazy tells Raseef22. “Doubtlessly, the magazine is directed at readers all over the world, but it’s also a conversation between Saudi women themselves.”
Niazy says that presenting the contributions in a setting where they can be discussed and scrutinized allows the magazine to also operate as a mini-workshop for creative writers. Moreover, it brings her closer to the women artists and writers, introducing them to each other, as well as to the differences and diversity within their society.
“Change begins with personal stories,” Niazy says passionately, noting that “all the women who contribute to Jahanamiya give up their time and stories for no financial reward”, whereby the main motivation is the mutual faith in the inherent power of stories and telling them, as well as sharing experiences, “to push society toward positive change.” According to her, women’s stories “make [them] stronger, and provide [them] with momentum”, which women need in Saudi Arabia, and all over the world. She moreover affirms that “readers’ interactions with our personal stories is capable of creating an openness to the other, and promoting a more nuanced understanding of life.”
In the next issue, the magazine promises more creativity around the idea of “movement”, taking a step in a new direction that addresses Saudi society via contemporary artistic trends. The topics covered by the upcoming issues will be formative in creating a unique identity and clear course for the magazine. While some of the artists and writers in previous issues are well known, most of the work showcased in the magazine is experimental. As such, Jahanamiya provides a distinctive opportunity to view life, the future, and creativity through the eyes of Saudi women.