The Magazine

Pierce the Veil

The women of Saudi Arabia are finding their voices.

Sep 8, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 48 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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Girls of Riyadh

by Rajaa Alsanea

Translated by Rajaa Alsanea and Marilyn Booth

Penguin, 304 pp., $14

Contesting the Saudi State

Islamic Voices from a New Generation

by Madawi Al-Rasheed

Cambridge, 332 pp., $30

In the Land of Invisible Women

A Female Doctor's Journey in the Saudi Kingdom

by Qanta A. Ahmed, M.D.

Sourcebooks, 464 pp., $14.99

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

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.