Girls of Riyadh – Rajaa Alsanea
Original title: Banat al-Riyadh
Rajaa Al-Sanea, an unknown 26 year old is a saudi girl who went to the USA to conclude her studies in dentistry. She wrote a remarkable book about the lives of a group of females living in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. For some, her book is a “Sex and the City” of the Arab world. For others, she should shut up. First published in Beiruth, Lebanon, Girls of Riyadh was banned from Saudi Arabia (of course!), but became a huge success anyway. Translated into English in 2007, the book delivers to Western societies a little bit about the lives of women in a country where they are not allowed to travel alone or to drive, for example, and have to wrap themselves up to go outside.
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The book concerns four girls – Lamees, Michelle, Gamrah and Sadeem – members of the Riyadh upper class and their conflicts about religion, love and social behaviour. The novel will guide you through their lives and let you know how they deal with constraints on freedom, authority, passion and the hope of finding a good husband. You will laugh and feel angry at the same time. You will discover, for example, that Saudi women know a lot about fashion trends, that they love luxury brands and that they have, probably, the same concerns as we have in our everyday lives: marriage, kids, work, career… The novel also tells us about the prejudice against non-Islamic women (Michelle is half American half Saudi and she loses the love of her life because of this) and how the Internet generation tries to circumvent the strict separation between women and men. They attempt to make friendships and embark upon desperate escapades to get to know each other better before getting married to absolute strangers.
With a fine and very subtle criticism, Al-Sanea provides a profound critique of what she calls “(…) a crooked society that raises children on contradictions and double standards”, its values and contradictory culture. “A society where one guy divorces his wife because she’s not responsive enough in bed to arouse him, while the other divorces his wife because she doesn’t hide from him how much she likes it”! says Michelle, referring to what had happened to Sadeem, who was left by her husband because she slept with him after the signing of the marriage contract. Michelle is the most brave and rebellious character, she criticizes everything and does not feel like she fits in the Saudi society. For her, Saudi men are “(…) slaves to reactionary customs and ancient traditions even if their enlightened minds pretend to reject such things! That’s the mold for all men in this society (…)”
These four women are well educated, they have degrees and travel overseas. Even so, they have to negotiate everything, from their going out to shop, to their career and love life. Four different women – one more religious, another more passive than the other – that somehow don’t know how to find their place within their Islamic traditions after their exposure to Western cultures; a life in between.