In Conversation with Yousra Imran

Hijab and Red Lipstick, Yousra Imran’s debut novel, won the Hashtag Publishing prize in 2020.

Yousra is half-English and half-Egyptian. She grew up in London and moved to the Arabian Peninsula when she was fifteen. Her book focuses upon the culture shock she experienced on moving to a more restrictive society where her father had almost complete control over her life. In her writing, she raises issues around patriarchy, mental health and the empowerment of young women. She sees herself as a feminist Muslim and is passionate about defending human rights. She now lives and works in West Yorkshire.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Hijab and Red Lipstick and wanted to find out more about the book and the woman behind it.

Congratulations on the book. How does it feel to be a published author?

Amazing! It did not really sink in until I had a copy of the book in my hand. I attended a book launch, but of course it had to be online. I am very lucky to have had my debut novel published so quickly.

When did you start writing?

I have always enjoyed writing. In primary school I liked writing stories and poems and I entered secondary school writing competitions. My writing was put on hold when I moved to a Gulf state at age fifteen. Although I went to a British school, the focus was on listening to the teacher and passing exams; quite different from my experience in London. There were no extra-curricular activities and I missed the opportunity to be creative.

After university I came back to writing by taking on work as a freelance journalist. Then three years ago I started working on my novel.

How did you come to win the Hashtag writing prize?

I approached Hashtag with no expectations. The only competitions I had entered before were at school. I was really surprised when I won the prize and landed a publishing deal. Hashtag have been great at enabling me to make my dream become a reality.

Is the book based upon your own experiences?

It is not an autobiography but I drew upon the experiences of myself and friends in the Gulf. We all experienced the impact of a patriarchal society. We had to struggle to find our voices in our families and wider society. At the same time I have made it clear that there were individuals, friends and teachers, who did not accept these cultural norms.

To me the book said a lot about the dangers of authoritarian parenting in any society. Would you agree with that?

Yes. Although I speak from the unique perspective of my dual heritage and much of the book is about the situation of women in the Gulf, there are themes about teenage rebellion and the need for communication that will be understood by everyone. I know that some people in the Muslim community will find the issues I raise challenging. For me, it was important to show how if young people are prevented from developing natural friendships and relationships they may end up in situations where they are in danger and there’s an impact on their mental health.

Friendship seems to be an important theme in your writing.

The character of Heba was key to the story. She showed how young people can support each other and that not all Gulf families put unreasonable demands upon their daughters. Friends are important for mental health and can provide support in situations when families are not always able to do so.

Who do you hope will read your book?

Anyone from age sixteen upwards. There are some difficult themes and scenes involving sexual abuse in the book and this is made clear in a note to the reader. Although it is marketed as a young adult book, I think adults will also be attracted to read it. It will give readers insight into life in the Gulf (Yousra has provided a useful glossary of Arabic terms) and will encourage all readers to think about the importance of cross-generational communication and the status of women in society.

Do you have plans to write another book?

I have started a second book but this year has been very busy for me, so I have not got very far. I am hoping my next book will be a crime novel and aimed at an adult audience. For now, I am taking pleasure in the small things in life such as gardening and being settled with a home, husband and job. I will continue to draw upon past tumultuous experiences of the Gulf in my writing.

Leeds Living