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July 31, 2012

An Arab Princess

Book Review

Title: Princess
Author: Jean Sasson

This book is supposedly a true life story told to the author in secret, by a princess of the royal house of Saud. Before drawing your conclusions,  be warned that the author has been accused of sensationalism. Check out another Review as well. What follows below is my own commentary after reading the book.

The backdrop is an oil-rich country where forced marriages, sex slavery and honour killings are normal. The theme is the subjugation of women - sanctioned by society, law and religious bigotry. Not even women of wealthy and royal families are exempt in this uncompromisingly stern, patriarchal country. The Princess states “And so it comes to be that women in my land are ignored by their fathers, scorned by their brothers and abused by their husbands.”

Princess Sultana describes how she grew up in luxurious palaces in Jeddah and Riyadh, the youngest of ten daughters and a lone brother Ali, the pampered heir to their rich and autocratic father. Not only does the princess see and experience the extraordinary bias against women, she realizes very early the futility of fighting back. . Witness the harsh punishment that five-year-old Sultana receives for eating an apple that Ali wanted. Neither her mother nor her older sisters and aunts are ever permitted to question male authority. Maids from the Philippines and other third-world countries fare much worse. The book has so many graphic instances of the sufferings inflicted on women that one wonders whether the author is playing too hard on the readers emotions.

As she grows up, the rebellious Sultana struggles to break her invisible shackles. There are rare, sweet instances of minor triumphs. The princess writes “Those who are free cannot fathom the value of small victories for those who live on a tether.”

There are lighter moments too, when the princesses play pranks over the phone or dress up in the latest Parisian fashions under their drab black abayas and veils. The scene is hilarious when the ladies from her prospective husband’s family come to inspect the princess. About halfway through the book, comes the opulent fairy-tale wedding of Princess Sultana and her royal cousin Kareem.

In the second half of the book, the princess describes her life as the wife of a fabulously wealthy Saudi prince who dotes on her. She has children and mellows, seemingly content to live the indolent life of luxurious domesticity. Till Prince Kareem suddenly announces that he has chosen a second wife. Although the practice of taking three or four wives is commonplace in her country, for Sultana “never, never had such a consideration entered the realm of possibility”. Her fiery nature demands an immediate divorce. Kareem counters that she will have to leave without her children. How the impasse is broken and Princess Sultana boldly achieves a hard-won victory comprises the denouement.

The story ends with the Iraq war, the presence of American troops in the country and the failed attempt of Saudi women to drive cars. In Saudi Arabia, social change will take a long time.

Read this book to know what it means to be a woman in a rigidly conservative Arab society. Unabashedly one-sided, it reveals horrifying glimpses into the degradation and brutalization of women. Narrated in the first person by Sultana, a Saudi princess, the story revolves round her life and struggles to overcome oppressive societal norms which prevail in Saudi Arabia.


| PC | said...

There are 2 follow up books also . Daughters of Arabia and Desert Royal

Marianne de Nazareth said...

I felt really ill and annoyed at times while reading the book, but speaking to a group of women scientists from the ministry of Egypt, they clearly told me that the tale could be true of many women in Saudi.

However they reminded me that the book has been written a while ago and a lot has changed and moved forward for women there they said including going abroad to study and as we know now to participate in the Olympics!

Rhoda said...

@Marianne, it is true that some things have improved, but *a lot* ? They are still not allowed - among many other restrictions - to drive or go without the veil!

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