The Girls of Riyadh:
You Don't Know How Lucky You Are

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Reem Al-Faisal
Arab News- 10 February 2006

A few weeks ago a friend called to tell me about the latest cultural storm brewing in Saudi society: A book entitled 'Banat Al-Riyadh' (The Girls of Riyadh) by Rajaa Al-Sanea. My friend wanted to know my opinion of the book. Discovering I hadn't read the novel yet, he began informing me enthusiastically of the groundbreaking subjects the book has tackled, such as gender issues, and class and regional differences. My friend applauded the writer's courage in challenging the social taboos of Saudi society and exposing many of its dark secrets, which the society has refused to confront to this very minute.

My friend objected to the harsh and unjust criticism that the writer has received in the Kingdom. At the end of the telephone conversation with my friend I too was enthused and eager to read the book. I took the opportunity to buy the book, banned in Saudi Arabia, when I was traveling outside of the country.

I started to read the book enthusiastically, eager to discover this writer that has shaken the foundations of our society. I proceeded to acquaint myself with the five young women of the book. (Yes, there are five women, not four; everyone seems to forget the narrator.) At first I felt interest and some sympathy for the difficulties these women faced, knowing full well that the writer is only using these young and superficial girls to go deeper into the ills of our society and delve into the dark heart of Arabia. However, as I read about one flirt after another, and young women facing their first broken heart, abuse, betrayal, and even divorce, I realized that what the book was addressing was not so much the problems unique to Saudi culture, but issues that confront all rich, pampered kids everywhere in the world. Several pages later and I began to dislike these young girls with their superficial intellect and slight souls.

We do get a spattering here and there of the difficulties hidden in Saudi society, such as the simmering dislike and contempt between the different regions, especially among the western Hejazis and the central Najdis; the long-suffering of the Shiite minority inflicted upon them by the rest of society.

She also exposes some of the problems faced by most Saudi women as being nothing more than chattel, victims to the whims of their male masters ' they like to call them guardians but we know better. If the male who controls your destiny is God-fearing and knows Islam well then you are fine, but if he is a limited man taking tradition and Islam to mean one thing then your life is a tragedy and you have limited room for maneuvering.

The young women of the book do face certain difficulties, but these are tempered by the many opportunities and luxuries they have. They can basically do everything a girl of her class in the world can do. Many of the women outside of Arabia would cut their arm off to have the so-called limited luxury these women enjoy. How many Saudi women have the choice to go and spend a few weeks in London all expenses paid after a divorce, or are sent to study in San Francisco to mend a broken heart? How many women not just here but in the rest of the world get this kind of family support?

Anyone who feels for these poor girls should go tell that to the woman living in a small town in the south of Arabia; the woman whose husband just divorced her to marry his third younger wife; leaving the woman with three small children to take care of, forcing her to move back in with her father, who, for his part, isn't too happy to see her return with four more mouths to feed; and her ex-husband doesn't really care about the kids or her and there isn't a way to force him to live up to his responsibility; and she can't find a job since 90 percent of women of working age can't find a decent job anyhow.

So forgive me if I don't cry my heart out for these women whose greatest tragedy in life is that they haven't received red roses on Valentine's Day.

This is an amusing book, no more, no less. The immense controversy the book has caused is its best quality.

I write this article because I'm disappointed in the book. I read it expecting it to be more than it is and I hoped that finally a writer dared to speak out for the oppression of the Shiites, or the abuse of women, or of simply the little injustices and mundane cruelties we observe in our daily life and just pass them by with an aching heart and a silent tongue.

Saudi Arabia is not a utopia even though we insist obtusely that it is. Oh, how I wish my land was a utopia of happy citizens, but I would settle now for a society that faces its ills with dignity and tries to correct them.

As for those clueless girls in Riyadh: You don't know how lucky you are.

*(Reem Al-Faisal is a Saudi photographer. She is based in Jeddah.)

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