Woman shocks Saudi world with “The Girls of Riyadh”
By Andrew Hammond
RIYADH (Reuters) – Gay teenagers, predatory lesbians, women
drinking alcohol at weddings, husbands with unsavoury sexual
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
“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.”
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.”
MINEFIELD OF TABOOS
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
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 ‘paraphernalia’ and the
conflict between traditions and modernity is the cause,” the
twenty-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 hardline clerics
who fear the disintegration of Saudi Arabia’s Islamic social
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.”