Hanan al-Shaykh's family background is that of a strict Shi'afamily. Her father and brother exerted strict social control over her during her childhood and adolescence. She attended the Almillah primary school for Muslim girls where she received a traditional education for Muslim girls, before continuing her education at the Ahliyyah school. She continued her gender-segregated education at the American Girls College in Cairo, Egypt, graduating in 1966.
She returned to Lebanon to work for the Lebanese newspaper Al-Nahar until 1975. She left Beirut again in 1975 at the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War and moved to Saudi Arabia to work and write there. She now lives in London with her family.
Al-Shaykh's literature follows in the footsteps of contemporary Arab women authors like Nawal El Saadawi in that it explicitly challenges the roles of women in the traditional social structures of the Arab Middle East. Her work is heavily influenced by the patriarchal controls that were placed on her by not only her father and brother, but within the traditional neighborhood in which she was raised. As a result, her work is a manifestation of a social commentary on the status of women in the Arab-Muslim world. She challenges notions of sexuality, obedience, modesty, and familiar relations in her work.
Her work often implies or states sexually explicit scenes and sexual situations which go directly against the social mores of conservative Arab society, which has led to her books being banned in the more conservative areas of the region including the Persian Gulf. In other countries, they are difficult to obtain because of censorship laws which prevent the Arabic translations from being easily accessible to the public. Specific examples include The Story of Zahra which includes abortion, divorce, sanity, illegitimacy and sexual promiscuity and Women of Sand and Myrrh which contains scenes of a lesbian relationship between two of the main protagonists. Arab critics also cite that al-Shaykh's work perpetuates myths and stereotypes about women's condition in the Arab World .
In addition to her prolific writing on the condition of Arab women and her literary social criticism, she is also part of a group of authors writing about the Lebanese Civil War. Many literary critics cite that her literature is not only about the condition of women, but is also a human manifestation of Lebanon during the civil war.
Scholars cite notions of the nation possessing a female identity and woman standing for nation in not only al-Shaykh's literature, but also in the works of her contemporaries including Evelyne Accad .