Female-Led Book Clubs to Have On Your Radar

11 min read
Photographed by Amber Grey for MOJEH 22

With book clubs back on the rise, MOJEH meets the bibliophiles who have enhanced their social lives through literary groups, where they delve into new genres and discuss the stories they’re reading, together

A Palestinian family has been forcibly evicted from their olive-farming village, and is displaced to tents in the Jenin refugee camp in 1948. What follows is a gripping, intergenerational story about the members of this family as they undergo half a century of grief, loss, hope and resilience. This is the storyline of Mornings in Jenin by Palestinian author Susan Abulhawa, and last month, a group of young women gathered in the Green Community garden of Shiza Idrees to discuss the heart wrenching novel.

Shiza, the interior designer behind Studio Idrees, has been a long- time bibliophile, even designing her own home library with a floor-to-ceiling colour-coded bookshelf and ladder. She started her book club last year to bring women together and encourage reading, and the group is currently at 25 members, with a waitlist. Once a month, the women meet at her home, eat a homemade meal together and then discuss their chosen book. Candles, floral arrangements and charcuterie boards set the scene for the intimate space where small talk is replaced with intellectually-stimulating conversations about literature. “I felt that by going out and socialising in the traditional way, I was missing deep and meaningful conversations — and this definitely fills that gap for me,” Shiza tells MOJEH.

Besides Mornings in Jenin, her book club has read The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell, The Midnight Library by Matt Haig, Ikigai by Hector Garcia and Francesc Miralles and more. “We like to switch up genres; one month could be a self-help book and the next a historical fiction. We have a thirst for delving into topics we haven’t necessarily read on our own,” says Shiza.

Popularised by celebrities like Reese Witherspoon, Oprah Winfrey and most recently Dua Lipa, book clubs are on the rise among millennials and Gen Z according to a recent CNN report. In the US, book club event listings grew 24% from 2022 to 2023, while The Guardian stated a growth of 41% in the UK. New spins on the traditional book club setup include rotating restaurant experiences, ‘bring your baby’ events and even silent book clubs, where members get together to quietly read.

In the UAE, bookworms are witnessing a revival of the traditional, in-person model — and contrary to assumptions, these book clubs are not just excuses to network and socialise. Shiza says that she is a strict host and moderator, and that at least 80 per cent of the time is spent talking about the book. There are also rules to follow — the first and foremost being to actually read the book every month. “I get it, everyone is busy on tight schedules and not all books are made equal, but the purpose of this club is to push ourselves more in an intellectual meet-up, as opposed to the usual social ones we have,” she explains. She also urges members to be punctual, come prepared with questions, share their honest thoughts and stay on topic.

As we approach World Book Day, celebrated on 23 April, it’s clear that Shiza’s is just one of many book clubs welcoming aspiring — and existing — readers in the Emirates. Tamreez Inam, who is a member of the Foundation Book Club run by Emirates Literature Foundation, says that the local book club culture is thriving, and that being part of one helps readers become more open-minded. “Especially in Dubai where members are from all over the world, they share their cultural insights during a discussion, which leads to a deeper appreciation of a topic,” she explains. Tamreez is drawn to book clubs because they turn a solitary activity into a social one, which can be helpful when digesting heavier subjects.

During the pandemic, Leeds-based Sofia Rehman started her online ‘Islam and Gender’ read-along group, which focuses on books and academic texts that explore Muslim feminism. “These books have a lot to offer but are often difficult to read because of how specialist they are. By breaking it down into weekly chapter discussions, I aimed to make the reading easier to understand and process,” she tells MOJEH. Each session is recorded so that participants can catch up if they miss one, and after the group completes each text, Sofia organises a Zoom call with the author. Some members have been so inspired by the readings that they have started their own physical book clubs in the cities they live in.

Sofia also runs in-person book clubs, but believes there are benefits to the online model. “The greatest perk has to be the breadth of inclusivity it provides, allowing people from around the globe to join in the discussion,” she says. “This allows us to be challenged and have our considerations and horizons broadened beyond what our own personal experiences and contexts could have provided us.” Platforms like Patreon, Eventbrite, YouTube and Instagram have been instrumental to the literati community seeking to connect with fellow readers. When Sofia first announced her ‘Islam and Gender’ reading group on social media, she expected 10 or 15 people to sign up, with around half of them dropping out by the third or fourth session. “Fifteen minutes after I had made that initial Instagram post, I had over 100 people signed up,” she recalls.

The pandemic caused an increase in recreational reading, and the booming #BookTok niche on TikTok is reportedly driving more than half of total book sales from social media. Enthusiastic readers are taking bookish culture into new and uncharted territories while encouraging critical thinking within social settings. And at a time where our minds are all but consumed by our digital devices, getting lost in a book may just be the ultimate escape.

Join The Club

Inspired to launch your own book club? Start off by joining an existing one first. From facilitating physical meet-ups to online discussions, here are five book clubs to bookmark

Girl Gone International (Abu Dhabi Book Club)

Latest read: White Tears/Brown Scars: How White Feminism Betrays Women of Colour by Ruby Hamad

From the era of slavery in the United states to today’s modern workplace, Lebanese-Australian journalist Ruby Hamad explores how feminism, from a lens of white superiority, has been utilised to divide women instead of uniting females of all races. Join now

The Candid Book Club

Latest read: People Change by Sara Jafari

Following the success of her first novel, The Mismatch, British- Iranian author Sara Jafari returns with the tale of Shirin and Kian, who bump into each other at a party a decade after parting ways as 16-year-olds. Given a second chance at finding love, the two rediscover each other while overcoming their past — and buried secrets. Join now

Islam and Gender Read-along

Latest Read: Believing Women in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’an by Asma Barlas

Challenging widespread assumptions of the status of women in Islam, Asma Barlas examines how politics and patriarchy have manipulated religious scriptures to the detriment of women, and draws on scholarly work to offer refreshing and inspiring interpretations of the sacred text. Join now

Dubai Expat Book Club

Latest read: An Unlasting Home by Mai Al-Nakib

Set across the United States, the Arab World and India, this multigenerational novel follows the life of Kuwaiti philosophy professor Sara, who is accused of blasphemy — a charge that carries the threat of execution. As she is confronted with themes of censorship, home and identity, Sara traces her family’s past, uncovering stories of the women that came before her. Join now

Foundation Book Club by Emirates Literature Foundation

Latest read: Salt Houses by Hala Alyan

Helping to humanise an age-old conflict, this story follows the life of a family uprooted from Palestine in 1967, and then de- homed once again from Kuwait, causing members to scatter to Beirut, Boston and Paris. As they journey further from their homeland and assimilate in foreign cities, family bonds are all they have left of their heritage. Join now

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  • Words by Hafsa Lodi