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The Sunday Times

July 8, 2007

Sex and the Saudi girl

The writer who brought chick-lit to Arabia tells about passion behind the veil


Lesley Thomas


Saudi Arabia has a new minister for women. She’s 25, likes designer labels, lipstick and cars. Rajaa Alsanea is, of course, not in government, for in her country it’s not really the done thing for females to air their opinions. They are not allowed to drive, let alone have employment or voting rights.

Alsanea, however, has captured a vast constituency. She is a bestselling author, the only chick-lit one from the Arab world, and as such she has become a sort of spokeswoman for 21st-century Saudi women. Her book, Girls of Riyadh, about to be published in Britain by Fig Tree, tells the stories of four middle-class young women searching for love and just a little bit of fun in a suffocating culture.

It’s hardly Jilly Cooper – the references to sex are coy with lots of talk of yearning and disappointment – but with tales of the girls drinking (very small sips of Dom Pérignon) and – gasp – sitting in the driver’s seat of a car, it caused a scandal. This is a country, remember, where a woman might be stoned for kissing a man in public.

Alsanea has received death threats by e-mail and many tried to suppress her book. At one point, black market versions of this Arabic version of Sex and the City changed hands for £300.

“I didn’t think about breaking any taboos or being a rebel. I wanted to describe how people find ways to get around some of the traditions. Young women I know want to be modern, hip, stylish and fall in love, the same as women everywhere. I was never trying to cause a scandal,” she tells me over tea at the Dorchester hotel in London.

Alsanea is modestly and fashionably turned out in expensive, loosely cut jeans, a white fitted jacket and a coordinating white, silken hijab. There are a couple of lightly Wagish touches – a diamond watch with a pink strap, a Gucci bag and a French manicure – but she is a class act.

In an American accent she speaks softly, in perfect English with impeccable sentences: “I started writing when I was 18 and I knew I wanted to be a published author. I have been blessed with a very supportive family and we were encouraged to express ourselves.” Her father, who worked for the information ministry in Kuwait, died when she was eight and Alsanea and her five older siblings were raised by her mother in Riyadh: “As I got older, I wanted to write something I would enjoy reading. I just wrote about what I saw around me – what the girls I knew were like.”

After her book was eventually published in 2005, young women began to see Alsanea as their mouthpiece: “At one point I was getting 1,000 e-mails a day. Women who were divorced, women who were married in an arranged way and didn’t like their husbands; those who were struggling with their families were reaching out. Girls came up and hugged me and wanted to take pictures with me. All of a sudden I felt it was my duty to take care of these people.

“I knew that no one had really written about modern life in Saudi but – perhaps because I was young – I didn’t think it would be sensational.”

It’s hard to imagine this smart and beautiful girl ever being naive. Last year she was voted the Arab world’s premier intellectual by Elaph, the online magazine. All her siblings are either physicians or dentists and she is a graduate student in dentistry, arguing that there is no money in being a Saudi writer (I suspect she is an exception to this rule). She was savvy enough not to send her manuscript to the Saudi information ministry, where all books must be vetted before publication. Instead, she got her brother to take it to publishers in more liberal Lebanon.

When she didn’t hear from them immediately, she boldly sent her book to her favourite writer, the poet Ghazi al-Gosaibi, a former UK ambassador and now a Saudi government minister: “He is an idol of mine and when he called me to say he liked the book I was, like: call me back in five minutes. I need to freak out.” It was his endorsement that prompted the buzz across the Middle East and the book deal. And it was only then that she let her family read her work.

“My brother was worried for me.

He asked whether I really wanted to publish it under my own name. He thought it might affect my chances of marriage, that there would be men who wouldn’t want to marry me.” She raises an eyebrow – precisely threaded to Hurleyish perfection – and shrugs: “I just thought, hey, I wouldn’t want to marry them, either. It’s a good way of weeding some out.”

Alsanea is no man hater: “A lot of men don’t really stop and think about what life is like for Saudi girls. My brothers were all raised to respect their sisters and their opinions but my book was still a revelation for them. Fathers have been influenced by it and have started discussing marriages with their daughters more. I got an e-mail from one man who married his daughter to a guy that she didn’t like. Now she is divorced and has two kids. She gave him the book as a gift. He said he hadn’t realised what he had done to her and now she has full choice over her life.” When her book hits the shelves in Britain this week, western readers will get a peek at what’s going on behind the veils and under the burqas. Disappointingly, the scenes are not too dissimilar to a western hen party: bitching, belly dancing and gossiping about men. The atmosphere seems far from warm and sisterly. Girls obsess about bodies and eye each others’ “front bumpers” and “back bumpers” with envy.

You’d think that one advantage of being forced to cover up in public would be a freedom from a looks-fixated culture. Yet these women want nose jobs, they want liposuction, they want gym-honed booties and are highly competitive with it. In modern Riyadh it seems that hell isn’t other people, hell is other women.

“Women want to look good for themselves, not just for men,” says Alsanea. “All women show off to one another and like wearing designer clothes. I’m not showing a whole new world. In a lot of respects Saudi women are just like everyone else.”

A London cosmetic surgery consultant told me that Saudi women were increasingly interested in surgery and were travelling to London, Geneva and Paris for laser hair removal, Botox and permanent make-up. Her “intensely private” clients want tummy tucks and liposuction after pregnancies, while younger women seek rhinoplasty and breast enhancement.

To Alsanea this is no particular big deal: “We have access to television and the internet and we do want some of the things that western women have. I’m not saying it’s right.”

Her own recent experience of western life hasn’t, she says, been altogether appealing. She is halfway through a postgraduate dentistry course in Chicago: “When I started in the States, my sister said to me, ‘Rule number one: smile at everyone 24/7’. She said because I was wearing the hijab everyone would think I was a terrorist. I took her advice – grinning at everyone like crazy.”

Although not all the women in her family wear the hijab, Alsanea and her sister decided three years ago to cover their hair: “I decided to show my conviction to my faith.” Her experiences in America, she says, have strengthened the resolve.

“I cling to it more. This is my identity and people have to accept it. I feel I have to prove that a Muslim woman dressed like this can still be confident and you can have a decent conversation with her and she can speak for herself. She’s not shy. She can do anything that another girl can do.

“In the West the associations with Saudi Arabia are oil and [Osama] Bin Laden. It’s just not how we see our lives. We feel so ashamed when there is a terrorist attack and it’s a Saudi. When I arrived here last Saturday, the bomb at the airport [the incident at Glasgow] happened that day. I don’t want us to be linked to that.”

Despite the traditionalists’ furore over Alsanea, she is ultimately a good Saudi girl: “We have to separate religion from tradition in Saudi Arabia. God didn’t say women couldn’t drive cars or that divorced women should be treated badly by society. The government does not force change on the Saudi people. If families are willing to change, then the laws will too.”

She has taken a few driving lessons on the sly and rather fancies owning a Mini Cooper, but this does not mean that she wants to live anywhere other than Saudi Arabia.

“If I stay in America, then I am a coward and I don’t deserve the things that God has given me. I should go back and help to change things. It’s my duty.” Besides, she adds: “My mum wants me to become the first Saudi female minister.” From where I’m sitting, it looks as if she already is.



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