World Book History #1: The Girls of Riyadh

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s capital city. Credit: ujahabdul

Rajaa Alsanea’s The Girls of Riyadh is one of the most famous modern Arabic novels. First published in Lebanon in 2005 and immediately banned in her home country of Saudi Arabia, it’s certainly had its fair share of controversy.

Following the lives of four young women struggling with notions of romance and life in privileged but suppressive Riyadh society, it immediately inhabits a world unfamiliar to us here in the West. Observations of Islam and Arabic writing via the Qu’ran are at a dangerous fever pitch in 2019, so the book is certainly as relevant now as it was then, if not more so.  

Within the last few years we’ve seen a proposed travel band on Muslims in the USA. We’ve seen the increased prevalence of the far-right anti-Islam group the EDL here in the UK (though thankfully they now seem to be more forced onto the fringes).

We’ve seen would-be British Prime Minister Boris Johnson say that women in full burqas resemble ‘letterboxes’. Though Saudi Arabia lags behind other states still in terms of equality, all of those assertions have been made without any insight into everyday life for these women.

US President Donald Trump, whose Muslim travel ban made headlines around the world. Credit: Gage Skidmore

In the World Economic Forum report for Global Gender Gap parity in 2018, Saudi Arabia was ranked 141 out of 149, which is higher than previous years. Progressive attitudes towards women in Saudi Arabia have been incredibly recent.

Some of the changes, as further outlined by this article, have only occurred in the last five years:

  • The first university that women could attend, the Riyadh College for Education, wasn’t opened until 1970
  • It wasn’t until 2015 that women could legally vote and get elected to government
  • Until 2018, there was a driving ban for women.

The Girls of Riyadh doesn’t shy away from or deny some of the seemingly bizarre restrictions that dominate Saudi law. But the main philosophical sticking point of the novel is living within one’s means within the world around you. It’s something that all humans have to contend with, and especially women. It’s easy to think of the UK and US as egalitarian utopias, but the rise of fourth wave feminism has had to fight on many a hill.

Women in the West want to be successful, independent and stable, just like women in Saudi Arabia. By bridging that gap, Alsanea reduces the idea that the way Arabic women think, behave and exist is alien. The issues the four female protagonists deal with are issues experienced by most women; the societal parameters in which they operate are merely different.

There has been some controversy around the book’s misrepresentation following its translation from Arabic to English. But Alsanea herself has always been happy with the end result. In an interview with Penguin Random House in 2008, she said: ‘there aren’t many books Arabic books translated into other languages and that’s why people know so little about us’.

True enough, the translation has been a certified smash. It’s a bestseller across Europe and the US. But as more dangerous rhetoric becomes enabled, nuance is glossed over. Even if you think you’re well-informed but still find Islamic society mysterious, The Girls of Riyadh would at least provide you with an insider’s perspective.

The Girls of Riyadh is available from all good book shops and Amazon. Open your mind and bridge the cultural gap today.