Gay teenagers, predatory lesbians, women drinking alcohol at weddings, husbands with unsavory sexual demands. With characters like that, The Girls of Riyadh is not your run-of-the-mill depiction of life in Muslim Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s most restricted and conservative societies. Though technically banned here, Rajaa al-Sanie’s frank and sometimes shocking insight into the closed world of Saudi women is making waves four months after its publication in Beirut. Local press commentators have asked the young Saudi to disown the book for besmirching women in the conservative kingdom and interviewers on Saudi-owned satellite channels have accused her of portraying its men as boorish bores.
But many young people using popular Internet chat rooms have praised Sanie’s debut novel for its honesty. Prominent writers have lauded the work as part of a new trend which, through focusing on the psychology of the individual, suggests that human needs come above the demands of society and religion. “I never imagined the reactions will lead to a big stir,” said Sanie, who wears the Islamic headscarf. “Men are not used to this sincere and frank dialogue. There is a minority in any society that resists any change – some of them are women.”
Mine field of taboos
Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, follows the austere Wahhabi school of Sunni Islam. Women must be fully covered and accompanied by a male relative in public. Mixing of unmarried men and women is forbidden and women are banned from driving. At first glance you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise from The Girls of Riyadh.
The book centers on four women from affluent homes who must navigate a minefield of rules and taboos on sex, marriage and social caste to get and keep their men. Those who fail face rejection and, like many of Saudi Arabia’s moneyed elite, retreat to foreign capitals to lick their wounds in more liberal surroundings. In one passage, one of the four girls returns from Los Angeles to find that “love in her country is treated like an out-of-place joke that you can have fun with for a while, before it’s removed from circulation by higher authorities.”
One girl allows herself to get close to a Shi’ite, despite urban myths that say members of this minority sect spit on food before offering it to Sunni Muslims. During a meeting in a cafe, the two are hauled off by the notorious Saudi moral police. “Poor Ali, he was a nice guy, to be honest. If only he hadn’t been Shi’ite, she could have loved him,” comments the novel’s narrator. In an early scene, women drink at a society wedding “since it deserved a bottle of Dom Perignon.” In another chapter, an effeminate teenager is beaten by a father ashamed of his homosexuality.
And when one of the main characters closes her eyes and prepares herself for what is meant to be her first night of wedded bliss, she is shocked to find her husband “doing what she never imagined.” She hits him, and the marriage is over. The text is peppered with references to popular culture, including a song by a Saudi singer which gives the novel its title, as well as verses from the Koran, in what Sanie says is a reflection of the diverse influences on young people.
“Society lives some form of ’paraphrenia’ and the conflict between traditions and modernity is the cause,” the 20-something Sanie told Reuters. “The reason for the double life is the fear of being rejected and stigmatized by society.” A land of stark contradictions, Saudi Arabia is a tribal society, swimming in oil wealth and a key United States ally that produced 15 of the 19 suicide hijackers behind the September 11 attacks. Sanie cites as an example the Internet, the latest of a series of modern inventions that have taxed hard-line clerics who fear the disintegration of Saudi Arabia’s Islamic social model.
Her narrator tells the story of her friends through fictive blog entries that provoke outraged reactions in a national cyber debate — exactly what happened when the novel came out. “Saudi Arabia has witnessed in just 30 years technological and infrastructural change that took other societies a century or two to achieve,” Sanie said. “It uses the latest technology, but continues to live with the habits and traditions of the previous century.”
Some Muslims argue that as the site of Islam’s holiest shrines, Saudi Arabia should remain apart from liberal trends elsewhere as a kind of Islamic Utopia where modern technology must be made to fit uncompromising rules of public morality. But many sense a new political climate since King Abdullah, a supporter of cautious reform, ascended the throne last year. The king has made the promotion of women in society a priority for the country’s economic development but has said any changes will be in line with Islamic principles.
Sanie says getting more women into the workplace will be key to social change. Saudi men prefer to marry teachers since their income reflects on the income of the family, she said. “This financial independence empowers Saudi women to express courageously their views in any dialogue.”