Girls, Uninterrupted


 
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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 Saudi girl.

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 Shariah.

'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 circulation.

'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.

 


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