Stacie's Reviews > Princess: A True Story of Life Behind the Veil in Saudi Arabia

Princess by Jean Sasson
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's review
Nov 06, 2008

really liked it
bookshelves: memoir, middle-east, female-authors

Jean Sasson and Princess Sultana struck up a close friendship during one of Sasson's many trips to Saudi Arabia. It was through this friendship that the Saudi royal asked Sasson to tell her story. She wanted to share with the world the experiences that made up her life and the lives of other women across Saudi Arabia.

What develops is a candid and sometimes horrifying tale of Princess Sultana's life; from childhood until after she's borne her own children. Although Sultana is part of the royal family, therefore initially somewhat shielded from the atrocities of life for women in Arabia, no woman is safe from the male-dominated culture.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the novel is the conclusions Sultana comes to that her culture has a dark side she was unaware of in her early years. As readers, we come to harsh realizations along with the innocent child Sultana. Although constantly confronted with the pedestal men are propped up on by her father's favoring her brother, it is at a much older age than most girls that she realizes the unabashed cruelty shown to women in her society and the passivity to which society views this cruelty. This is due to the pampered lifestyles of the royal family.

After Sultana's sister Sarah was arranged to marry a man three times her age, the true colors of Saudi culture became clearer to the young princess. The closeness of the two sisters made the stifling of Sarah's unique flame all the more difficult for Sultana to face. Sarah was the third wife of her new husband, whom she eventually divorces due to his sadistic practices. Divorce is a rarity in Saudi Arabia and can only be initiated by the man. According to Saudi law, the man must say "I divorce you" three times in front of several witnesses. That is all that is done.

Despite the quiet, complacent nature of the women around her, Sultana spends her life rebellious and outspoken, even as a married woman. As a teenager, soon after Sultana’s first period (menses, as the Saudis call it), her and her friends form a group they dub "Lively Lips." In this group, they imagine taking on the harrowing task of changing the Saudi landscape and its treatment of women. Their rules were as follows:

1. At every opportunity, let the spirit of women's rights move our lips and guide our tongues.
2. Each member should strive to bring in one new member per month.
3. Our first goal would be to stop marriages of young women to old men.

This was an extremely progressive concept for a group of teenage girls. And although well-intentioned, two of the girls in particular became careless in their actions with opposition to Saudi cultural rules. Wafa and Nadia took their rejection of social norms above and beyond anything Sultana had ever seen by placing prank phone calls of a sexual nature and meeting strange men in public and offering "to have some fun." Sasson writes: "I felt a hate for the customs of my land creep into my throat like a foul taste. The absolute lack of control, of freedom for our sex, drove young girls like Wafa and Nadia to desperate acts. These were deeds that were sure to cost them their lives if they were discovered."

Eventually, they were arrested when caught getting into a foreign man's van. Someone had reported them to the religious authorities. They were imprisoned, but because their hymens were intact, they were freed to their fathers who would decide their fates. Wafa was married off to a fifty-three-year-old religious man as his third wife. She was seventeen. Nadia's punishment was more dismal. Her father decided to drown her in the family's swimming pool.

Sasson shares many beyond-disturbing stories of the lives of women in Saudi Arabia throughout this book. This is not a book for the fainthearted. It is a book that, as an American, made me thankful for living in a country that shuns inequality among women and men. But it has also made me wonder why we aren't more aggressive as a powerful nation in pursuing rights for women the world over. If we can start a war in Iraq, based on the pretenses of saving people from an evil dictator, why not start a war against the oppression of women by their evil husbands and cruel laws?
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