August 21, 2017

Online Writing Platforms: Tackling Taboos

Takween, a creative writing platform in Kuwait. (Buthaina AlEssa)
by Mai Alfarhan

“If you don’t condemn homosexuality in traditional print outlets, you’re not going to get published.” This is one of the many reasons that led Shaikha Al-Bahaweed, a writer from Kuwait, to start writing for online writing platforms Manshoor and Raseef22. These writing platforms are becoming more popular every day in the Gulf due to the controversial subjects they feature. Manshoor, founded by a Kuwaiti journalist, and Raseef22, managed by a group of Arab intellectuals, offer what traditional print outlets cannot or are afraid to offer: frank discussions about gender, sexuality, social inequality, politics, and religion. This openness to alternative viewpoints has made such online platforms especially attractive to youth in the Gulf.

Manshoor and Raseef22 are part of a broader trend of online publishing in the Gulf established to address the “cultural revolution” that emerged in the wake of the Arab Spring. Shaikha Al-Bahaweed started her writing career before the emergence of these new online outlets, working as a journalist for the Kuwaiti Altaleea newspaper for several years before shifting to writing solely for online platforms. Her legal background informs her work as she addresses violence against women, Kuwaiti women in politics, feminist movements in Kuwait, homosexuality in the Gulf, and homophobia.

AGSIW: How do online writing platforms like Raseef22 and Manshoor differ from traditional print outlets?

Shaikha: There are two things that differentiate online platforms from traditional media outlets. First, the level of freedom is always higher in online platforms when compared to traditional newspapers and magazines. People who manage these online platforms are mostly youth, which allows them to understand and be open to new ideas and subjects that are not traditional and thus give us more space to write. I’ve learned this difference as a result of my experience working for both traditional and online platforms. I used to be a writer for the Kuwaiti Altaleea newspaper, where I was in charge of the legal section. There was good breathing space for me to write freely and I was on good terms with the staff, but with the online platforms that I write for today, I am finding it easier to communicate my ideas to the younger staff leading these platforms.

Second is the fact that online platforms allow the use of multimedia, such as pictures, videos, or hyperlinks, instead of writing long sentences to explain any given scene. In addition, online platforms provide more credibility to the written work because writers can and are actually encouraged (Manshoor for example) to provide sources. This is tremendously helpful for readers who wish to check the accuracy of the information they are reading. I would say that given these fruits of online writing platforms, they are more lively than print outlets.

AGSIW: Are print writing outlets an obstacle to writers who seek to address taboo subjects?

Shaikha: Yes, indeed. The press in the Gulf is comprised of separate entities that form groups one against the other. You can’t write in a manner that goes against the interests of the people who own the newspaper. With new online platforms like Raseef22 and Manshoor, there are no governing politics that underlay publications. These two platforms are not as politically or religiously driven as newspapers and magazines – you can tell by looking at the variety of topics covered. No losses will be incurred by the people who manage Raseef22 or Manshoor if I write about a topic of a sensitive nature. As a journalist, my job is to criticize issues in our society and I am only able to do so without the fear of upsetting owners.

AGSIW: I’ve noticed that your articles that discuss taboo subjects receive considerable attention and sometimes praise from readers on Twitter and Facebook. Is this reflective of the dearth of articles about gender and sexuality?

Shaikha: Gulf – and Arabic content more broadly – sorely lacks writing of this nature. But lately, from 2011 onward, I would argue that there has been a cultural revolution. The wave of the Arab Spring changed how a lot of people think, intellectually speaking. People are hungry for articles that criticize certain taboo issues in our society and this hunger reveals what we lack in this respect. We need writers who will produce works that enrich Gulf and Arab content.

AGSIW: What response were you met with after writing about “the silenced homosexuality” in Gulf societies?

Shaikha: When I first wrote about homosexuality in the Gulf, I expected a harsher response from Gulf audiences, but I was surprised to find many welcoming responses. Lately, people have become more open to discussing sexuality and other taboos. There is a real change happening in how people think in Gulf societies. That being said, I was cursed multiple times for my writing, which is something that I had expected. But overall, the interest and praise my pieces received outnumbered the number of insults. I am very pleased with how our Gulf readers reacted to my writing on homosexuality and how they are engaging with them and asking more questions.

AGSIW: Creative writing platforms are emerging in the region with sites like Takween, the creative writing platform in Kuwait, and other similar initiatives in neighboring countries. Do you think that these platforms are actually encouraging youth in the Gulf to write more openly?

Shaikha: I think these new writing platforms have the ability to create young writers. I would add to that the emergence of new bookstores founded by young Kuwaitis. I am noticing that these places are attracting the young crowd. Saying that young Gulfies are not into reading books is false. A lot of writing is coming out of our region, especially from youth. And whenever there is an abundance of writing, it signals that there are plenty of readers.

AGSIW: What piece of advice do you have for young writers in the Gulf?

Shaikha: If you’re a writer, you shouldn’t fear, and if you’re afraid of criticism or prosecution, you should not write. It is normal that you will get attacked for your writing, but this shouldn’t mean that you should go writing with the purpose of triggering anger from people. There is a fine line between offering pieces that are bold versus pieces that are provocative. Knowing the difference between the two requires writers to read a lot and write a lot as well. Only through practice will you be able to find this balanced space.

Writing is like playing a sport – the more you practice, the better you’ll get. The minute you stop writing, you’ll become slower and be short of breath. I feel this on so many levels because we, as millennials, are used to writing short text messages and communicating through a few characters, which makes writing long, thorough pieces challenging at times.

To read Shaikha’s latest work, visit her page on Manshoor and follow her on Twitter.

Mai Alfarhan is a research associate at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.