American author Jean Sasson’s depiction of the life of a princess in the House of Saud that rules the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Princess: The True Story of Life Behind the Veil in Saudi Arabia, is a nonfiction account of the tribulations endured by that nation’s female population. Saudi Arabia, a country that this educator has visited several times, is the amalgamation of once-competing Arab tribes united by the warlord-turned-king Abdulaziz ibn Abdul Rahman ibn Faisal ibn Turki ibn Abdullah ibn Muhammad Al Saud (yes, that was his full name). Abdulaziz fought under the banners of both unification of the disparate tribes of the Arabian Peninsula and, more importantly, and of Islam. King Abudlaziz bin Saud, however, was following a path established centuries earlier by the founder of the Al Saud, Muhammad bin Saud, the inheritors to whose crown would forge an alliance with an ultra-orthodox religious leader named Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab. This latter figure remains as important to the history of the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as do the sons and grandsons of the nation’s founder. Because the two holiest sites in Islam are located in the western-most provinces of the Arabian Peninsula in Medina and Mecca, whoever ruled the region was responsible for the preservation not just physically but spiritually of those two holy sites, and that meant acknowledging the legitimacy of the more orthodox interpretations of Islamic scripture and law. The Al Saud knew that their ability to claim to be the legitimate rulers of the land that includes those two holy sites was contingent upon the acceptance of that rule by followers of Abd-al-Wahhab, known today as Wahhabis. To this day, then, there is a certain tension between the ruling family, the so-called House of Saud, and the more austere practitioners of Islam represented by the Wahhabis. The royal family can go only so far in efforts at liberalizing social policies in the kingdom without antagonizing the Wahhabis and risking internal dissension that would delegitimize the House of Saud’s claim to be the rightful protectors of the mosques at Mecca and Medina.
All of this background is presented for a reason. Jean Sasson’s biography of a Saudi princess, known in the book by a pseudonym to protect her identity and, by extension, her life, occurs against a backdrop of the conservative Islamic influences of the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia. The strict interpretation of the Qu’ran practiced by the Wahhabi-inspired clerics of the kingdom view women as special creatures the protection of which must include the most conservative of customs. Those customs, as we know, are draconian, including the requirement to wear robes to conceal their feminine contours and veils to conceal their faces. Women are not allowed in public without an attending male to whom they are related, either through blood or marriage, and are forbidden to drive. Sasson’s subject, “Sultana,” provides a first-hand perspective of what life for a female in this conservative Islamic environment entails.
The subservient role of women in Saudi society (and, Sasson makes clear in an updated prologue that the plight of women across the Middle Eastern Islamic world is pitiful) is the subject of Princess, and Sasson’s narrative reflects the perspective of this particular Saudi princess, “Sultana.” A good indication of what is to come is provided in the book’s opening chapter, in which “Sultana” describes her introduction to this male-centered world into which and her sisters, and their sole brother, were respectively born:
“My first vivid memory is one of violence. When I was four years old, I was slapped across the face by my usually gentle mother. Why? I had imitated my father in his prayers. Instead of praying to Makkah, I prayed to my six year old brother, Ali. I thought he was a god. How was I to know he was not? Thirty-two years later, I remember the sting of that slap and the beginnings of questions in my mind: if my brother was not a god, why was he treated like one? In a family of ten daughters and one son, fear ruled our home: fear that cruel death would claim the one living male child; fear that no other sons would follow; fear that God had cursed our home with daughters. My mother feared each pregnancy, praying for a son, dreading a daughter.”
As “Sultana” continues, her and her sisters’ fears materialized, resulting in her father’s decision, consistent with Islamic custom, to take another wife. Her father would eventually marry four times – Muslim men, under the conservative interpretation of Islamic scripture that dominates Saudi society, are allowed four wives – before finally being rewarded with additional sons. Such is the value placed upon males. As Princess continues, “Sultana” provides the story of her life, intermingled, as would be both necessary and expected, with the history of Saudi Arabia, a land where women are stoned to death or decapitated for the “crime” of having sex with someone other than her legal husband, and a land where denunciation of Islam is similarly punishable by death. Sasson’s book is “Sultana’s” story, told in the first-person; it is, actually, an autobiography, and one that tells in often excruciating detail the facts of life for girls and women in this socially austere and very often hypocritical society (many members of the royal family frequent alcoholic beverage-serving establishments in more cosmopolitan nearby locales like Bahrain and Dubai). “Sultana’s” story is a fascinating sociological critique of a society very opaque to many outsiders, and the depictions of the routine treatment of women are disheartening.