Developing voices a world away

Women in Bahrain and Jordan build community of writers and explore artistic identity through IWP distance-learning course

By Christopher Clair, Iowa Now

Mehr Ul Ain Mushtaq loves putting her thoughts down on paper—she always has. Her father, whom she considers her mentor, was often amused by whatever stories his daughter would write and read out loud to him. During his daughter's formative years in Saudi Arabia, he encouraged Mushtaq to carry a pocket dictionary; as he would often say, “You can never learn too many words.”


​Graphic from Iowa Now. Illustration by Austin Smoldt-Sáenz, Marketing + Design ©2015.

Mushtaq went to college for business, and continued to nurture her writing passion. She sent articles concerning trends and social issues to news blogs and magazines; when her words were published on a regular basis, she realized her true calling, and there was no looking back.

“I love expressing oneself in the depths of words, and the level of contentment I have felt working as a journalist is incomparable to anything else,” says Mushtaq, 28, who lives in Bahrain. “Writing feature stories and local reporting led me to living life to the fullest; getting into the realm of creative writing was like fitting the last piece of the puzzle.”

Mushtaq was one of nearly 20 female participants in Manama, Bahrain, and Amman, Jordan, to take A Room of One’s Own: Developing the Authorial Voice, a distance-learning course offered in the spring by the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa.

Taught by Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate Naomi Jackson, the course focused on issues of artistic identity while fostering the participants’ authorial voices and building a community of women writers. It featured weekly live video classes that brought together the participants in Amman and Manama. A course website provided readings and writing assignments and hosted individual online workshops of students’ writing assignments.

“The students in my class are fiercely talented, widely read, intellectually open, and poised to transform the world around them,” says Jackson. “Teaching this class made me confident that the next generation of women writers from Bahrain and Jordan will have a significant impact not just on the literary landscape of the Middle East, but on the larger world stage.”

A previous IWP distance-learning course taught to male and female university students in the Middle East inspired A Room of One’s Own. Susannah Shive, IWP distance learning coordinator, noticed that the female participants in that particular course seldom chose to use their video screens to contribute to live discussions in the online video classroom—instead, they spoke to everyone by using their microphones or by typing their comments into the classroom chat box.

“Those are, of course, entirely valid participation choices, but it reinforced my conviction that perhaps aspiring female writers in various regions would benefit from the experience of a space dedicated to discussion of their writing and development of their voices,” Shive says.

The IWP worked with U.S. Embassies in Jordan and Bahrain to arrange the course dates and structure; those embassies reached out to local universities to recruit students. The University of Jordan students, who were all classmates, joined the live classes from their home personal computers. The students in Bahrain were joining the course from a number of schools and hadn’t worked together before, so they gathered in person in a classroom space provided by the U.S. Embassy in Manama.

“There was no hard-and-fast prerequisite with regard to writing experience or past exposure to literature written in English—only a strong interest in exploring a diversity of published work by women authors and a commitment to the writing process,” Shive says.

Mushtaq had moved to Bahrain from Saudi Arabia due to limited university options in the latter. She praises her father’s decision to make the move—a decision she credits for developing her personality and broadening her social stance. She participated in contests, speeches, and events, which “led me to find my voice, which surely helped me realize how expressing one’s self is so fulfilling.”

From the moment she learned she would be part of A Room of One’s Own, Mushtaq was overcome with excitement. Through the course, she became familiar with acclaimed work in a number of genres, including pieces by Shirley Jackson, Jamaica Kincaid, and Naomi Shihab-Nye. She loved what was called the “imagination station” portion of class, where Jackson would ask the students to create a short piece based on the discussion in process.

“There was immediacy to it, and through this exercise I noticed how we had all grown in expressing our thoughts so confidently and in such creative ways,” Mushtaq says.

The students’ devotion to the course—an extracurricular activity at the end of a long day of school and work—was apparent, with Shive characterizing the sessions as very lively.

“Naomi and I were delighted to see that each woman seemed to feel fully comfortable participating; I think the ‘room’ of their own did indeed provide a space where they felt very free to express themselves fully,” Shive says. “Naomi worked consistently with each participant to make sure that every voice was heard. It was an incredibly rewarding experience. I looked forward to seeing everyone each week, and I miss our class sessions now that the course has concluded.”

Following the eight-week course, Mushtaq gained confidence but also realized the global scope of fascinating writers. She continues to read and explore ways to feed her writing skills—she now carries a journal with her at all times in order to record thoughts and ideas when they arise.

What she has gained from A Room of One’s Own might just propel her toward her goal of a published novel.

“The opportunity to participate in this workshop has brought me a step closer to becoming a novelist,” Mushtaq says. “I’m closer to the point where my children can point at my work through a bookstore’s window and exclaim, ‘Look, Mommy’s book is here, too.’”

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