Friday, July 11, 2008


On a recent trip to the dentist, my mother’s dental hygienist told her that I should read Jean P. Sasson’s memoir Princess: A True Story of Life Behind the Veil in Saudi Arabia. And I did.

Sasson wrote Princess on behalf of a Saudi Arabian princess—called Sultana in the book—who culturally, and in fear for herself and her family, could not write the book herself. There are two sequels which I have not read.

Published in the 1990s, Princess is an exposé of Saudi Arabian society. Although the book is over a decade old, I understand that not a lot has changed during that time. Just yesterday, I heard a news report on women’s rights in Saudi Arabia—the only country in the world that prohibits women from driving.

One of the unfortunate results of the “war on terror” has been a rise in anti-Muslim sentiments in the United States. I have heard several people blame Islam for the oppression of women in countries like Saudi Arabia. Reading Princess, though, I feel strongly that the problem rests not with the religion itself but with man’s interpretation of that religion.

The men in Sultana’s life use religion to serve their own needs. They pervert it to please themselves and only follow the precepts that suit them. Among the royal family, according to Sultana, alcohol consumption is rabid. Women are forced to veil themselves, and female circumcision is still common to ensure female “chastity.” On the other hand, men are free to indulge their sexual “needs” with prostitution, rape, and young sex slaves.

The portrait Sultana paints is shocking and disturbing to a Western audience. Female servants are routinely physically and sexually abused. Wives are considered little more than chattel, and daughters are married off for political and economic gain.

Yet, Sultana is not always a sympathetic or relatable character. She lives under a repressive regime, but that is not the only reason she is out of touch with the rest of the world. Sultana is a product of a royal family with too much money and often acts like a spoiled brat.

In one scene, she unflinchingly destroys an original Monet painting when she is angry with her husband. At another point, she takes her children and furtively travels all over the world in a private jet to force her husband to accept her will. She has reason to be angry with her husband, but most women do not have the means to take refuge in French chateaux.

In some ways, Sultana’s great wealth seems to buffer the effects of the misogyny surrounding her. This is not to say that women are not oppressed in Saudi Arabia or that Sultana’s tale isn’t interesting or enlightening. Overall, though, I would rather read about and sympathize with the sufferings of the average Saudi woman.

1 comment:

notaconnoisseur said...

Of course it is destroying the Monet painting that really gets to me. How could anyone do that?