Girls of Riyadh, Rajaa Alsanea

Nahla Ink Stars – 3 out of 5​!


Reading this collection of emails on the lives of four young Saudi girls, I was consciously trying to note down the scandalous revelations and confessions that had made them the talk of town five years ago when they were first distributed in Arabic via a yahoo group on the internet. To be honest, I didn’t find much to agree with what the back cover said or what the early reviews had proclaimed that this book was a dangerous exposé on the secret lives of the elite velvet class in Riyadh.

Throughout my avidly looking into the plot and characters, I found it hard to guess what was so foreign, alien or so unexpected that I would sigh and nod my head to: “Wow! Here is something I really didn’t know.”

Could it have been the mention of homosexuality early on in the book that is a taboo subject in a Muslim country? But the boy and girl in question never graphically manage to consummate their leanings or desires. So what was the big revelation in that? We all know that in Saudi Arabia we are dealing with a closed religious system where homosexuality is deeply frowned upon and that which leaves mothers like the sweet Um Nuwayyir feel that they must bear it as a burden with shame.

So was it the fact that three of the girls had experienced deep crushes and loves that did not end in marital bliss? Or the shock that they had to conduct these relationships in secret and through ingenious ways of communication? For despite the presence of a prying social police and legal segregation, it is only human and natural for boys and girls to want to have contact with the opposite sex – no matter what obstacles you put in their way. And therefore in Saudi it comes as no big surprise that the youngsters take full advantage of the mobile phone networks, the internet for chats and email and even daring, from time to time, to arrange for a tryst at a top secret location.

So was it perhaps the admittance in the book of sexual contact between one of the girls and her fiancé? Maybe. But then we all know that on the religious front, she was already married to him and it was halal for her to consummate her vows - even if she hadn’t gone through the official wedding. So this did not shake me either. For nowhere in the book do we get a clear confession by any one of the girls that she had had premarital sex without legal sanction – even if, reading between the lines, this was physically possible for any one of them to attempt to do so. Not even the Westernised Michelle dares to go this far!

So if you are okay to accept this – that in so far as scandal there really is none for the cynical critic, then I can tell you what is truly good and valuable in this book. For it does accurately reflect the deeply worrying double standards that young Saudi women have to endure in their country at the hands of a patriarchal system that is all but shut in terms of social change. You see how the male can generally act and do what he wants with a free license to love and make promises even when he knows that he is not going to be able to keep to his word. Whereas the young girls, when they naively believe and put their faith in this type of love, end up being severely burnt. 

For in choosing whom to marry, the Saudi man will follow the wishes of his family and conservative clan’s dictates instead of fighting for the one his heart adores. He does this for he desperately seeks to gain the approval of his elders and to retain his social and financial status and position. In some way, this particular male is just as much a victim of the tribal code as the female. 

However, more worryingly, there is also the chauvinist character that we read about - who will plunder and wreck a woman and leave her with unresolved anguish and pain. Moreover, he compulsively distrusts the girl who merely allows herself the liberty to be romantically involved with him in the first place! And here comes into play the whore versus Madonna theme that runs throughout the tale. 

For the saddest fate is that of the young divorced Saudi female –who is presumed guilty and unlikely to ever be proven innocent again. Her crime? She trusted a cunning and selfish male who tested her purity and chastity with sexual play and then threw her away. So who would want her over a virginal bride in front of a highly judgemental and unforgiving public at the end of the day? 

And yes, it is a sign of a highly hypocritical society where, on the one hand, the male experiments on many levels with it doing nothing to tarnish his reputation nor put a stain on his honour. But for the woman who ventures out to do the same - will be dealt the heaviest of social blows. This in turn explains why a girl’s relatives (both father and mother or other guardian) will do all in their power to actively guard her virginity and ensure that she never falls into temptation lest she brings them all shame. 

Does the book do anything to promote any kind of change? Not really - not as much as it could have done. Although to start with, the writer mentions the need for Saudi culture to reform itself from the inside and the outside, the subject is then abandoned for the sake of what particularly happens to each of the girls. In fact, I detected a sweet innocence and naivety on the part of the writer herself. For her world, although very well portrayed, does nothing to make her or her characters personally challenge the political situation and social circumstances that they are in. Sadly, in the end, all the four friends do bow down, to some extent or other, to the tight standards and rigid expectations that their culture imposes and will continue to impose on them for many years to come.