I had a wonderful month-long vacation in Dubai for the Holidays. I was impressed with Dubai’s stunningly modern cityscape and infrastructure and the cosmopolitan lifestyle that has made Dubai a true melting pot of the Middle East.
Because of this, I saw a country of contradictions. Where else can one see skimpily clad women alongside heavily veiled ones?
This juxtaposition had me intrigued. I have often wondered then how veiled women or those who have to wear abaayas feel or think about those who never wear them.
So, I just had to buy this book which narrates the true-to-life story of a Saudi princess—a fascinating perspective as it comes from a an Arab woman of note.
Author : Jean Sasson
First Release : September 1992
Publisher (this edition) : Bantam Books (1993)
No. of pages : 303
This is the true story of Princess Sultana (fictitious name) of the royal house of Al Sa’ud, the current ruling clan of Saudi Arabia. She tells of her privileged life of mind-boggling riches and of her real life as a woman pinioned by cultural fetters of gender prejudice.
Princess Sultana is a feminist, a woman who feels deeply about the indignity and the precarious situation of women in Saudi Arabia whose laws and fanatic customs demean, denigrate, and threaten their very lives. In the milieu of extreme patriarchy where severe punishment is meted for breaking social and religious laws, she is a rare voice, a courageous one, as she has risked her life to tell her story, anonymously, through the author, Jean Sasson.
She recounts her life—how it is like to grow up as a Saudi princess, what incidents she had witnessed and heard of— grave injustices, appalling torture and punishment done to women, some of whose only sins were falling in love with a non-Muslim or being unfortunate enough to have been raped.
If I was hoping to find some answer to my question on how veiled women feel about thier abaayas, I did get her opinion. Of course, this is only one opinion. There should be several, supporting or opposing ones. I’d love to hear about opposing ones.
Princess Sultana narrates that at the first moments of the first veiling were exciting. Veiling signifies a child’s transition to womanhood and is practiced as soon as the child reaches menarche.
“For a moment, I felt myself a thing of beauty, a work so lovely that I must be covered to protect men from their uncontrollable desires.”– p.111
But in the next instant, she envies the freedom of those only partially veiled. (She has to wear a full veil covering her entire face. I’ve seen women veiled this way in Dubai and frankly, the sight of a heavily veiled woman, who looks like a walking death shroud, did creep me out a bit).
“The novelty of wearing the veil and abaaya was fleeting, though. When we walked out…I gasped for breath and sucked furiously through the sheer black fabric. The air tasted stale and dry as it filtered through the gauzy cloth. I had purchased the sheerest veil available, and yet I was seeing life through a thick screen. How could one woman see through veils made of thicker fabric? … my heart plunged to my stomach when I realized that, from that moment, outside my own home I would not experience life as it really is in all its colour…”
“I stumbled over several children of a bedouin woman, and looked in envy at the freedom of the veil. Bedouin women wear veils that fell across their noses, leaving their eyes free to examine their surroundings. Oh how I wished to be a bedouin! I would cover my face gladly if I could only leave my eyes free to see the inifinite changes of life around me.” — p. 111
Perhaps then, veiled women do feel a certain envy toward those who never have to wear them. The object of envy would be freedom—freedom to express one’s individuality through their own choices of make-up and fashion; freedom from restrictive clothing; freedom to revel and have confidence in one’s own body. These are little freedoms which most women take for granted. I have sensed sometimes these women’s longing to have the social confidence Western and most Asian women have, an inherited assurance owing to totally different cultural views.
However, I am straying from the subject —which is a review of this book.
Princess is indeed all of these — shocking, fascinating, heart-breaking, outrageous, thought-provoking, unbelievable. It is mind-boggling to think how ideas and acts, presumed to be medieval, be alive and and accepted in this day and age — the age of information. The book is simply written, far from being a literary work of note in terms of writing style; but Sasson does convey the story coherently and sequentially well.
For Filipinos, it would be of interest to know that Princess Sultana makes a lot of references to our “kabayans”, overseas workers who form a significant part of the labor force in Saudi Arabia.
This book is so interesting that it may spur one to read Jean Sasson’s other novels, all of which deal with women in the Arab world.
My Mark : Outstanding