The Saudi 'Sex & and the City'?

When Rajaa Alsanea's "The Girls of Riyadh" hit bookstores in the Middle East in 2005, it caused a furor. Referred to by some as a "Sex and the City" for Saudi Arabia, the book delved into the social, romantic—and sometimes sex—lives of its four female characters. Published first in Lebanon—and published in the United States this month—the book almost immediately made its way to Saudi Arabia, where it was denounced by religious conservatives as immoral and hailed by reformists as a much-needed condemnation of Saudi Arabia's restrictive society. Alsanea, 24 years old at the time, was propelled to stardom, making appearances on TV, receiving supportive phone calls from the royal family and an endorsement from no less a figure than the king's labor minister and close adviser, Ghazi al-Gosaibi.

"The Girls of Riyadh" explores the lives of four young women—Lamees, Sadeem, Gamrah and Michelle. Their stories are told by a narrator in a series of postings on an Internet chat room. The women, like their creator, are upper-class Sunni Muslims whose lives revolve around various romantic entanglements, shopping, school and struggling against their society's strict moral code. Alsanea wrote the book while in college, where she studied dentistry. Now living in Chicago, she is doing her residency in endodontics (root canal) and studying for her master's degree in oral sciences. She spoke to NEWSWEEK's Christina Gillham.

NEWSWEEK: How did you go from dentistry to writing a novel?
Rajaa Alsanea:
I knew that I was going to write a novel one day and I was just trying to choose the right time to start it. I started college but at the same time I knew I was so ready to start my novel, so I said, I'll just do both of them at the same time. The triggering point was when I went to college. It was the first time that I met Shiite girls, for instance, it was the first time I saw girls being told what to do or when to marry. It was just different from what I had experienced for 18 years. So I thought it would be wonderful to describe the Saudi families and the way they deal with their daughters and how each family has its own limits for their daughters.

Your family didn't have such restrictions?
No. Aside from the morals and the Islamic teachings, I didn't have any restrictions. I was brought up by a liberal family. They didn't force me to wear the hijab [the headscarf worn by Muslim woman]. I started wearing it two years ago by personal choice because I wanted to do it for God.

Was this typical of your friends growing up, to have this kind of liberal upbringing?
I would say that it's more typical in families who have been exposed to culture outside or Saudi families whose children studied abroad, for instance. Those children usually go to college in the States, and when they come back they kind of change the family traditions. Nowadays the Saudi government is sending a lot of students to study outside Saudi. It's very helpful. So when [these students] go back, they don't deal with women the same way, they don't use their male dominance as they used to, how they used to see their fathers and their grandfathers treat women.

So the Saudi government is supportive of its citizens going abroad to open their minds?
Yes. The government wants people to be exposed to other cultures. But the people who were raised in a very traditional way do not want to change. People are afraid of change, and the policy of the government is not to force any change on people. Saudi Arabia was a conservative country for such a long time; it will remain a conservative country until the people sort out their differences. Maybe that's why novels are such a big deal in Saudi Arabia now. They're trying to start this dialogue.

One Saudi reformist religious scholar said that if your book had come out even four years ago, you could have been sent to jail.
I think after King Abdullah became king [things changed]. He is very supportive of females. We describe him as a father and a very kind man. He's a very logical man. He's willing to change. We're not a multiethnic society. We are old and trace our ancestors to certain tribes. There is a foundation to Saudi society. You cannot force change in Saudi society. It has to happen on its own.

Wasn't your book banned?
No. To have any book sold in Saudi, you have to give it to the Ministry of Information for approval. I didn't think I would get it—everyone told me that it's a very controversial book and the Saudi government has never supported selling something like this. But when people started talking about the book, when newspapers were discussing it, when people all around Saudi photocopied the book or got an e-book from the Internet, or downloaded it on their cell phones a few months after it was published in Lebanon, I felt it was common sense to get the government's permission. And I got it. I felt the government wanted to give me a hint that they're not against this kind of book, they're not against change, they're just trying to protect the people from something that they would not want to read.

Why do you think the book caused such a stir?
A lot of people wanted somebody to start a change. And a lot of people are not willing to take that step themselves, but they're willing to give you all the support if you're willing to take the risk. But it's damaging to do something like that in Saudi. A lot of people were trying to spread rumors about me, talking about me in a bad way. Religious imams in mosques said I was doing things that weren't Islamic.

How did you react when you heard conservatives say you weren't being a good Muslim?
I thought I would be more angry, but the way I saw the people fighting for me made it all better … the way I saw how people hugged my mom and congratulated her for giving me support, and how they say they're proud of me. They know that I am a good Muslim. They understood that I was not trying to advocate the things I was talking about. I was trying to say we need more rights, and we need to decide our own lives for ourselves, instead of having our families decide for us.

The book focuses a lot on love, especially on what you call "premarital love," as opposed to love that comes after marriage, like in arranged marriages. And the narrator definitely believes that premarital love is the better way to go. Do you think that's how a lot of young Saudi women feel?
No. I can't base anything on statistics, but when I sit with girls and we talk about these things, they think that the way Saudi society is built, it doesn't give you rights as a lover, but it gives you all the privileges when you're a fiancée or a wife. Females don't get any rights at the end of a relationship and that's why females don't think that falling in love in Saudi is a good idea.

You've said that you weren't trying to deliver a message with your book, but you must have hoped to influence some kind of change in your society.
I wanted to influence some kind of change, but I wanted to do it in the right way. There are a lot of people who want change in Saudi Arabia but they're not succeeding because they're not going through the right channels, or they're not doing it gradually. They're just screaming, "We went this change and we want it now." I had to think a lot about the appropriate way to have this change happen.

Some have criticized the book because its characters are rich and spoiled and not an accurate representation of Saudi women. How do you respond to that?
It's true these girls are from the middle upper class, but if you think about it, you'll find that even though they're more liberal and have more rights than the lower classes, they still have their decisions made for them. So it's basically the same for all classes in Saudi because the traditions are the same.

What do you hope Western readers learn from your book?
I hope for a start they would just get an idea about how different the culture is in Saudi, yet that people in Saudi Arabia want the same things that people everywhere want—girls in Saudi want to live normally; they want to have the basic standards that everybody has. I want people to have a broader image of Saudi Arabia besides being a land of terrorism and the land where men beat up their wives, or where women cannot work or drive. These are intelligent girls who are just trying to live like any other girls anywhere.

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