Q And A With Yousra Imran

Earlier this week we published a book review of Hijab and Red Lipstick and today we caught up with its author Yousra Imran to learn more about the woman behind this ground-breaking novel.

1) Hijab and red lipstick is your debut novel, why did it take this length of time since you first started writing to publish a book?

So I actually wrote Hijab and Red Lipstick soon after moving back to the UK from Qatar in early 2018. As soon as I settled back in I started writing. It took me 6 months to write the first draft. Qatar is not a country with a strong publishing scene for books in English and books there are censored – a book of my nature would probably be banned there. I worked as a freelance journalist there since 2008 and quickly came to realise that the press is also heavily censored and many topics – especially the taboo topics I cover in my book – are simply not allowed to be written about there. So I had to wait until I moved back to the UK to write it.


2) How did the idea of the novel came about ?

I lived in Qatar between the ages of 14 and 29, the most formative years in a young woman’s life. All the years I spent there both myself and my female friends were constantly told that it was ‘Eyb’ or shameful to talk openly about our personal lives, to talk about social problems, and to talk about or criticise the negative behaviours of the men in the society. This all impacted both my mental health and the mental health of many of my female friends very heavily. During my darkest times, I promised myself that if I ever moved back to the UK I would write our stories and tell the world what it was like to live in a highly patriarchal society that operates under the guardianship system. And so that is what I did.


3) You have stated before that HIjab and Red Lipstick is not a memoir but a novel, yet it resembles a huge chunk of your own life, in reality how close is it to your own experiences?

All the things I wrote about in the novel happened in real life but I changed names, dates, certain details, and locations to protect the identities of others and for safety reasons. I toyed with the idea of writing a memoir at first but I was worried about it having consequences for friends and family still living in Doha. So for this reason I call it a semi-autobiographical novel. I would still like to write a memoir in the future as I feel I still have a lot of experiences to share.


4) You portray many Arabs in a negative light, especially Palestinian and men from the Gulf, how was your book received by Arabs and in particular people from Qatar?

I realise that the main criticism of Hijab and Red Lipstick is the way I portray men, that I was harsh, but I’m afraid to say what I wrote is the truth about the way men in Qatari society behaved, talked, and treated us girls and women – I did not hold back or sugarcoat my words. One thing I have noticed is that people are a lot more judgemental when Arab women write, and don’t hold male Arab writers to the same level of judgement. Nawal El Saadawi was very critical when she wrote about Arab men in both her novels and non fiction works and I was inspired and motivated by her work. Since a young age many Arab girls, myself included, are taught that it’s shameful to highlight the flaws and any bad behaviour of our male relatives and men in our communities. I decided that they should no longer get away with this, it’s time to speak up and highlight the way their controlling, coercive, and sometimes abusive behaviour impacts the lives of girls and women. However there are also positive and kind male characters – Heba’s father, and Sara’s favourite professor at university are two positive and kind male characters. I’ve actually had a positive response from many Arab readers, especially women, who tell me it’s as if they are reading the story of their own lives. I have made it clear and continue to make it clear that this is one type of experience and not all Arab women are brought up in the circumstances I had. 


5) Why did you make the two sisters be subjected to sexual assault and rape?

Because it happened to both me and my sister – I am no longer scared or ashamed to talk about what happened to us. And it happened to many of my friends – and I get many private messages from Arab women who read my book confiding in me that they were sexually assaulted or raped in the Gulf and did not receive justice.


6) After two years since the book publication, what has changed for you and if you had the opportunity to rewrite it what would you add or remove?

Since publication I feel it has further helped my activism when it comes to women’s rights in the Arab World and helped me connect with other people who write about the same topics. If I was to rewrite it, perhaps I may delve deeper into the context of why the male characters behaved the way they did – the socio-economic and political factors behind it. But bear in my mind this is a YA book – written for a younger audience. 


7) what has your family made of the book? Especially your father

The female members of my family have been supportive of the book, whereas not all the male members have been, which I expected. My father had mixed feelings about the book which I again expected but when I explained to him why I had to write it – the need to address what happened to me and many other Arab girls and women I grew up with – he started to understand. 

8) What is next for you?

I was recently included in an anthology published by Saqi called We Wrote in Symbols: Love and Lust by Arab Women Writers. I am working on my second novel, a British Muslim romance, and I also plan to write a collection of short stories.