Rajaa Al-Sanea's daring new novel lifts the
veil off Saudi society,
exposing another side of the Muslim world's most conservative society
By Noha El-Hennawy -Egypt Today- March 2006
EVERYBODY RESENTS my daring writings and blames me for broaching taboo
subjects we are not accustomed to discussing openly, especially [given
the fact that] I am a young girl. But is there not always a first time?
Did anyone imagine that pacifist preacher Martin Luther King would be
able to emancipate the blacks from racial segregation? I may face the
same problems as King, who was imprisoned half a century ago at the
beginning of his struggle against the wrong beliefs of his society,'
says Rajaa Al-Sanea, the author of Banat Al-Riyadh (Girls of Riyadh), a
novel that has whipped up a storm of controversy since it was first
published in late 2005.
In her first book, the 25-year-old Saudi woman lifts the curtain off the
secret society of Saudi girls, exposing a new image of a community that
has always pretended to be the beacon of modesty and Islamic morality.
The heroine of the novel is an anonymous young Saudi girl who created an
e-mail list and sent weekly letters to Saudi internet users over the
course of six years, recounting the love stories of four friends, all of
them members of the Saudi aristocracy. Early in the book, the author
shocks the reader with an exotic picture of an underground society where
girls drink champagne, dress like men and drive around dating guys in a
country where women are forbidden from holding driving licenses, let
alone mixing with the opposite sex in public.
Al-Sanea, a recent graduate of the College of Dentistry at Riyadh's King
Saud University, explains that her novel is based on real observations
she made at college.
'When I enrolled in university, I heard stories and learned about many
eventsthat made me choose them as a subject for my novel,' the author
says. 'I chose, however, four fictitious characters from the different regions of Saudi and narrated the stories through them.'
One of the e-mails starts with this passage:
I will recount events that take place in our houses and tell you about
the feelings that we ' girls ' experience when we pass through those
events. I will not tackle what crocodiles [men] have in mind because,
simply put, I don't know enough about their crocodile-like nature.
Honestly speaking, they do not fall within the scope of my interests or
my areas of expertise. I am speaking only about my female friends. And
if any crocodile feels like speaking on behalf of his friends, let him
write to me and tell me what happens in their quagmires.
At first glance one may jump to the conclusion that the author is a
devout feminist, using her work as a venue to promote the cause of women
in a society that is steeped in patriarchal norms. But a deeper look
leads to a rather different conclusion: Al-Sanea is not simply
sympathizing with an underprivileged segment of the Saudi society, but
seems to be targeting the legacy of paradoxical but deep-rooted
traditions that victimize both sexes. By constructing disappointing love
stories, Al-Sanea highlights some of her nation's controversial norms,
such as the resentment of cross-cultural marriage and the disdain for
divorced women, among others.
The novel begins with the wedding of Qamara, who moves with her husband
to the United States, where the latter finished his undergraduate
studies and is now pursuing a PhD in e-commerce. Once there, Qamara
finds out that her husband is cheating on her with a Japanese woman.
When she confronts him, he shocks her with the truth that his parents
refused to let him marry his Asian girlfriend and forced him to marry a
Michelle, one of the four characters, is victimized by the same Saudi
tradition. As she was born to a Saudi father and an American mother, her
boyfriend could not convince his parents to allow their marriage.
Michelle is the most rebellious character in the novel and moves out of
Saudi Arabia to study in her mother's country. There, she falls in love
with an American. This time, the fate of the relationship is sealed by
Michelle's father, who refuses to marry his daughter off to an American.
Frustrated by her luck in love, Michelle becomes more vocal in her
criticism of the Saudi society, openly resenting the Saudi perception of
how Shariah should be implemented.
Al-Sanea herself claims her novel is a critique of traditions, not
'I respect my religion. I am a faithful Muslim and proud of it. Shariah
is an important part of Islam that should be respected,' Al-Sanea says,
'but there is confusion here. What the novel speaks about are traditions that are not part of our Shariah and have simply hampered our way of life to the point that they have resulted in the miseryand suffering of people in our society.'
Although the novel was applauded by a number of leading Saudi and Arab
commentators for its originality, it stirred a storm of criticism for
'misrepresenting' Saudi society and defaming Saudi girls. Some critics
contended that Al-Sanea should change the title of her novel to 'Girls
from Riyadh' as the current title carries a sweeping generalization that
offends all Saudi women. Others went a step further, questioning her
loyalty to her country.
'I want to draw the attention to one important point: the work shattered
an idealistic and imaginary figment that existed in the minds of those
who criticized the novel: an inhumane image that does not compare to our
reality. Such individuals lack the sense of what literature means,' Al-Sanea
contends. 'What I crossed were merely social taboos, not religious ones. This is a very important clarification. There is a difference between time-honored traditions that cannot surviveour moderntime and those eternal values upheld by religion.'
The question of 'Shariah versus tradition' is clearly manifested in the
case of the character Sadeem. Unlike her friend Qamara, whose mother
advised her to resist her husband on their first sexual intercourse to
show him how modest she was, Sadeem, whose mother had passed away, had
nobody to teach her the trick. And so, shortly after having completed
official and religious procedures necessary for a valid marriage, Sadeem
allows herself to have sex with her husband, Waleed. Although she is
driven by a desire to charm her husband, this incident leads the latter
to divorce her, finding her too sexually bold for agreeing to sleep with
her husband before the wedding party.
Sadeem, who is fully convinced that she has committed no sin, can't
understand where her husband is coming from. Here, the author spots a
paradox by showing how some traditions ' even those incompatible with
religious practice ' guide behaviors in a society that claims to be the
perfect guarantor of the Islamic way of living.
The book was first published by a Lebanese publishing house in September
2005. In less than four months, it went into its third printing.
According to Al-Sanea, English and French translations of her novel are
expected to come out late this year.
The novel has been circulating in several Arab countries, but has yet to
appear on the Saudi market. According to some news reports, pirated
editions are circulating in a photocopied and e-book forms. Al-Sanea
affirms that there is no official ban imposed on her novel, but that the
Saudi government has not decided yet on whether to approve its
'It is not banned. For any novel to be circulated in Saudi, permission
needs to be granted by the Ministry of Information and Culture,' says
Al-Sanea. 'To receive such permission, a request must be filed. The request was filed only recently and I await the result.'
Several outside observers have wondered how Al-Sanea managed to get away
with her work in such a conservative society without being harassed.
'On the contrary, I was never harassed.In fact, every dayI receive many
calls and e-mails from people who thank me for being able to connect to
reality in a society [shrouded in] mystery. It has shed light on an
important aspect of the society and created an important dialogue that
hopefully will result in a fruitful outcome,' says Al-Sanea.
For the same observers, the fact that Al-Sanea has not faced any
harassment so far shows that a genuine change toward openness must be
emerging in a society deemed closed for centuries.
Back to Top
' Arab World Books