Thursday, January 10th, 2008
By Mona Eltahawy
For all the entertainment value provided by so-called chick lit in the Western world–from Britain’s Bridget Jones’ Diary to the United States’ Sex and the City–fiction detailing the shopping and dating habits of young women can hardly be called revolutionary. It’s been around at least since Jane Austen’s 1813 classic Pride and Prejudice.
But in a country where “driving while female” is illegal, as is checking into a hospital without a male guardian’s signature, a gossipy romance can spark an explosion of political debate. That’s what happened when a Beirut publishing house first released Girls of Riyadh in 2005, by 24-year-old Rajaa Alsanea. It was initially banned in her native Saudi Arabia, but young Saudis quickly got their hands on it anyway. They lauded it online, while writers and columnists debated the book’s meaning and Saudi talking heads told the author she should disown it.
In the book, an anonymous narrator details the lives of four upper-class girlfriends, showing them flirting with boys, going to parties, and in one case, contemplating a relationship with a member of a different Muslim sect.
Ahmed al-Omran, then a 21-year-old student at King Saud University in Riyadh, managed to read Girls of Riyadh soon after its publication when his roommate smuggled in a copy from Bahrain, Saudi Arabia’s smaller and more liberal neighbor.
Making the most of their contraband, the two young men read the book together chapter by chapter. And contrary to the brouhaha that surrounded its appearance, al-Omran said he didn’t understand why people were shocked.
“What made the novel interesting and controversial are the issues it touched on, but to tell you the truth, I wasn’t shocked or surprised in the same way the media portrayed the reaction to the book,” al-Omran said.
“I understand that [those over 40] would probably be shocked to learn about the lives of younger people, like how they have fun and how they manage their relationships with the opposite sex in such a strict society, but for people my age, it didn’t carry that big amount of surprise because this is our life, this is how we go about it and how we try to deal with our issues,” he said. In the best tradition of pop culture everywhere, Girls of Riyadh opened a rift between the old and the young.
Girls of Riyadh is no literary masterpiece, but it is written in the language of the younger generation–”webese,” if you will. The book takes the form of weekly e-mails, which the narrator sends out to a list. Each post details the latest in the lives of its four protagonists. In addition to its clever nod to e-mail, the book makes reference to mobile phones and text messaging–all of which are widely used by young people in Saudi Arabia.
For the old guard, the articulation of young women’s desires and frustrations wasn’t the only shocking thing about Girls of Riyadh. It also let them in on just how many barriers to communication the Internet has removed. One of the characters sends and receives regular text messages from the man she is in love with, and another conducts an online relationship complete with Internet dating subterfuge–she uses a fake photograph for her profile.
As Saudi citizens become bolder, their government is trying to figure out how to let the younger generation have its say without releasing social forces so volatile they would turn society on its ear. In the city of Jeddah, the municipal government first tried to put a stop to graffiti artists, then changed course and put up designated graffiti walls.
As for Girls of Riyadh, authorities eventually lifted the ban on in-country publication. Andrew Hammond, author of Popular Culture in the Arab World, believes the novel is largely responsible for a “genuine independent flowering” in Saudi literature. “It has led to a sudden jump in the country’s literary output, and half of the novelists are women.”
One of those women used the pen name Siba al-Harz to write The Others, an account of “enforced” lesbianism resulting from the strict segregation of the sexes and guilt among young women in Saudi society. Considered more literary than Girls of Riyadh, it employs a sophisticated use of classical Arabic, and its publisher–the same one that published Alsanea’s book–calls it one of the best books by young Saudi women writers today.
“It’s received far less attention than Girls of Riyadh, maybe because it really was the real deal in terms of shocking polite society and questioning social norms,” Hammond said.
One Saudi woman, who requested anonymity, put her finger on the Achilles heel that both Girls of Riyadh and The Others have exposed.
“It caused chaos because our deep, private secrets became exposed to the outside world. This is an expected reaction–we are ashamed to admit to the world how hypocritical our people can be. I see this slowly changing,” she said.
Mona Eltahawy is a freelance journalist and lecturer on Arab and Muslim issues.
Published on Forbes.com