Girls of Riyadh
by Rajaa Alsanea
These three volumes should all be required reading for anybody, inside or outside Saudi Arabia, who seeks an understanding of the unpredictable future of that strange country. Their authors are women--which in itself, given the notorious restrictions on women in the kingdom, makes them special--and all are Muslims, and have written less for a foreign audience than for their peers.
Each of these works belongs to a different and distinct genre. Girls of Riyadh is "chick lit" of an extraordinary kind, a volume relating the adventures of young Saudi women in search of love and self-definition. It is the kind of book that would seldom be read--much less be considered important--by Western policy experts; yet like other writings emerging from deep social crises, it illustrates the principle that the least pretentious chronicles of life under a tyranny may be the most revealing and significant. Girls of Riyadh could even be compared to the satirical classics of East European writers like Milan Kundera in providing a look at Saudi reality from deep inside the Wahhabi dominion.
Al-Rasheed's Contesting the Saudi State is composed in the idiom of social science, but is no less revealing of the oppressive but complex nature of Saudi Wahhabism as a state ideology, and of the global jihadist violence it has spawned. Ahmed's In the Land of Invisible Women is a personal, deeply affecting, and exhaustively detailed account of the author's experience as a female professional in the desert domain.
Rajaa Alsanea was a 24-year-old orthodontics student when Girls of Riyadh attracted vast attention with its publication in Arabic in Beirut three years ago. Its plot, a kind of Sex in the Wahhabi City, is based on emails sent by an unidentified female narrator, describing the lives of four close friends: Michelle, born Mashael, who is Saudi-American and educated in computer science; Sadeem, a management graduate; Lamees, a medical student; and Gamrah, a college dropout.
Lamees stands out because her family comes from the sophisticated commercial city of Jedda, in the more pluralistic Hejaz in the western Arabian peninsula, also the location of Mecca and Medina. But the four reside in the Saudi capital, built in the primitive district of Najd that produced Wahhabism and still flaunts a tribal arrogance, far from the Red Sea coast. To behave like typical Muslim and other young girls elsewhere in the world, they are constantly forced to overcome the obstacles imposed by the Wahhabi order. Such challenges include dating and falling in love, in addition to the one diversion on which there are no limits: high-end shopping.
As the book opens, the group is celebrating Gamrah's wedding to Rashid, a man preparing to take her to the United States, where he will seek an engineering doctorate, after a honeymoon in Venice. But Rashid is cold to Gamrah, refusing to consummate the marriage she has so romanticized. The tale then flashes back to events preceding the wedding, in which the girls of Riyadh are nothing if not ingenious in their struggle against the restrictions. On an evening drive through town in a rented BMW, Michelle and Lamees dress as boys and ride in the front seats, with their friends in traditional, all-concealing black abayas. When they arrive at a popular mall, they are crowded by young men who shower them with telephone numbers through the windows of their own vehicles.
The second of the quartet to get married is Sadeem, but her destiny is, like Gamrah's, blighted by Saudi male chauvinism. Sadeem is assiduously courted by her suitor, Waleed, but the couple's idyll is interrupted when Sadeem asks to delay wedding plans until after she has completed her university exams. To revive Waleed's enthusiasm, she engages in unspecified sexual play with him before the marriage, and the result is predictably disastrous: Waleed now considers her tainted, the wedding is abandoned, and when Sadeem returns to college, she begins failing her classes.
To emphasize, these stories would rarely excite the attention of journalists, academic experts, and other observers of the crisis in the Saudi kingdom, yet they provide a precious and thorough perspective on the human problems created by the demands of Wahhabism.
When Girls of Riyadh was first published in Lebanon, it was banned in Saudi Arabia, but as is frequently the case, copies were easily smuggled into the kingdom. A Wahhabi lawsuit was initiated against Alsanea, but in late 2006, after the reforming King Abdullah had ascended the throne, the case was thrown out. Soon another woman, a media figure named Aiza Ibrahim, produced an Arabic-only book titled Girls From Riyadh (rather than of Riyadh) that addressed Saudi social issues, but according to Saudi commentators, had nothing new to offer. Then another Arabic language book called Reflected Mirror was published, by one Sara al-Zamil to counter Rajaa Alsanea's work. Last year Wahhabi radicals called on the Saudi embassy in Washington to prevent English-language publication of Girls of Riyadh, which the extremists denounced as a defamation of Saudi womanhood. And this year the Arabic edition was removed from the Riyadh international book fair. Yet, in the end, a barrier to free expression by Saudi women had been abolished.
Rajaa Alsanea now lives in the United States, but her courageous and pioneering work has been neglected by the hive of commentators on the Middle East. Having just come out in paperback, it may perhaps get a second chance at the attention it unarguably deserves in the West.
Madawi Al-Rasheed's Contesting the Saudi State is an entirely different kind of work, but no less important. An anthropology professor at Kings' College London, Al-Rasheed has carefully traced the evolution of Wahhabi state ideology in the context of the atrocities of September 11, 2001. Her book includes many important and provocative arguments and disclosures.
Overly schooled in the obscurantist methods of the Western academy, she exaggerates the deviations of Osama bin Laden from Wahhabism, based on his defiance of current Saudi rulers. She correctly supports the claim that the history of Wahhabism and its involvement with the royal family is complex, but fails to grasp the dynamics of revivalism among adherents of radical ideologies. The paradox of al Qaeda's support for Wahhabi beliefs, combined with opposition to the Saudi order created by the Wahhabi sect, is hardly new in the history of totalitarianism. The same contradiction was visible in the movement that claimed the mantle of Jacobinism against the Jacobin rulers at the end of the French Revolution, and in Stalinist and Maoist efforts to "cleanse" the Communist bureaucracies of Soviet Russia and China by mass murder.
Al-Rasheed makes a similar mistake in attempting to explain the incoherent, inconsistent, and self-contradictory products of Osama bin Laden's mental confusion. Here, too, parallels with the Soviet experience are useful. Like the analysts who mistakenly believed that Maoism, Castroism, and the politics of Ho Chi Minh and the Sandinistas were different in some major way from Russian communism, Al-Rasheed assumes that major distinctions among variants in a single ideology may be deduced from minor divergences in the historical process. Nevertheless, Al-Rasheed's work is indispensable in its detailed description of Internet discourse, and related controversies among Saudi radicals, and deserves wide reading and debate.
Qanta Ahmed's chronicle is similarly valuable as a record of the daily struggle of a highly educated woman--a physician and leading expert on sleep disorders--of Pakistani origin, trained in the United States and employed in the Saudi medical system. Her experiences are pervasive, ranging from an encounter with Saudi fanaticism while examining an elderly female with pneumonia whose face is kept covered in black fabric while undergoing treatment, to her experience in hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. Throughout Ahmed's account, she relates the vexations of female life under Saudi rule: from insults for wearing Western-style clothing, even among women, and harassment by the mutawiyin, or religious police, to what by now should be the familiar abuse of marriage and divorce by Saudi men. As a pilgrim, she found her Islamic beliefs reinforced by the vibrant presence of Malaysian Muslim women, who embodied cultural pluralism and defiance of Wahhabi strictures.
All three authors are articulate in their defense of Islam as a faith. Alsanea and Al-Rasheed are proud of the Saudi people and their strength of character. As a physician, Ahmed has the additional virtue of a sharp eye for the health problems of the hajj , which seem to exemplify the deep problems of the entire society. The future of Saudi Arabia, if not of Islam as a whole, is in the details, and the books of these three Muslim women establish an inexhaustible catalogue of evidence.