Last year, a group of conservatives in Saudi Arabia filed a lawsuit against a book they declared to be "an outrage to the norms of Saudi society." The book was too controversial to be published in Arabia itself, but pirated copies were smuggled over the border from Lebanon or sold for hundreds of dollars online. The book's author received death threats and a petition circulated to strip her of her state scholarship to study in Chicago.
It's probably not a situation you'd associate with Bridget Jones, but the book in question is self-proclaimed "chick lit"—albeit with a very political bent. Rajaa Alsanea's first novel, Girls of Riyadh, was only released this month in English, but its 2005 debut in the Middle East sparked both a storm of controversy and a flurry of new literature in Arabia. For months after its publication, conservative Muslims condemned the novel as contravening Shariah law, calling for a government crackdown on its distribution. But the book's popularity continued to spread, even while some critics tried to dismiss its success as a product of Alsanea's feminine wiles: "Rajaa has the looks, and so even when the product, i.e. the novel, is bad it sells and is selling like hot cakes," one disgruntled man told Arab News.
Alsanea's looks don't explain the flurry of debate, news and editorializing it has provoked (reportedly over 250 articles): The Iranian organization Homan claimed that "al-Sanie's frank and sometimes shocking insight into the closed world of Saudi women is making waves," while London's Independent newspaper called it "revealing, hilarious and chilling in turn." It has even become the subject of litmus-test questions in job interviews, and Alsanea herself received a supportive call from the Saudi royal family.
Much ado about a book on the love lives, sex and shopping habits of four rich Saudi girls. A modern epistolary novel, it's written as a series of emails sent to a Yahoo! group list serve by a mysterious, lipstick-wearing Saudi woman. In another world, it would be a trivial lip gloss narrative of life as a desirable young woman in Riyadh. But such a story can't avoid being political—and it turns out that chick lit is a convenient vantage point from which to critique Saudi society. Alsanea explores Saudi values in all their mundane invasiveness; this is a world where possessing The Nutty Professor on DVD is a political act, inviting social disgrace. And beyond the picayune restrictions lies blatant hypocrisy: the Saudi elites enforce dressing conventions at home and happily change into chic Western attire on the plane out of Riyadh.
Details form the basis of Alsanea's careful criticism: In an atmosphere where every action is politicized, and where convention always trumps personal preference, human relations are reduced to envy and power play-which makes chick lit the ideal genre in which to discuss such problems. A friend's wedding is not just a celebration, but a political battleground. While one character, Sadeem, garners praise for her help in planning the party (a suitable wifely quality), the more liberal Michelle draws "sharp looks" for refusing to cover up when the men enter. In short, this feminine world is a one straight out of Mean Girls-backbiting gossip, jealousy and personal politics-only the stakes in Riyadh are higher. It's not a question of high school popularity, but marriage and lifelong prosperity. Yet the basic tools-handbags and husbands-are the same.
The prose stays mostly light, even gratingly so at times. Hushed-up nose jobs in Lebanon, makeup tips, modest robes tailored to show off curves and designer-label hijabs are all part of the bitchy game that decides a girl's future. And even once the thumbprint is on the marriage contract (women aren't allowed to sign), the woes aren't over: How long, for example, is it appropriate to make one's husband wait for sex? One night after the wedding? Seven? Which unspoken code of behavior might be governing his actions, and will he punish you if you're wrong? Navigating this maze of requirements could mean the different between divorce—and thereafter possible confinement to the house—and a tolerable lifestyle.
It's hardly surprising, then, that courtship often manifests as a materialist status race. Alsanea expects a lot of her guys: money, height, prestige, culture, Barry Manilow-singing teddy bears, diamonds on Valentines Day, affectionate notes stuck on the fridge, and so on. And from the weak-minded puppets of familial authority, to abusive cheaters and pathologically suspicious control-freaks, the guys always disappoint. Flirting, officially forbidden, struggles through a variety of tortured avenues-instant messaging, "numbering" girls through tinted windows (that is, publicly displaying one's cell number in the hopes of getting a call), and the occasional covert café meet-up.
Despite her criticisms, Alsanea is cautious, which is probably why her book has received much support as well as censure. None of the book's main characters ever truly defy their families; most instead find livable compromises. And Alsanea is a moderate when it comes to method; she says that change is unachievable without a degree of respect for tradition: "There are a lot of people who want change in Saudi Arabia but they're not succeeding," she told Newsweek, "because they're not going through the right channels, or they're not doing it gradually. They're just screaming, 'We went this change and we want it now.'"
In that sense, Girls of Riyadh can seem disappointingly un-revolutionary. But it's a useful exposé of a social malaise—a community stranglehold so tight that it poisons individual relations and imbues personal decisions with intense social meaning. Which, to any Clueless fans, ("Why should I listen to you, anyway? You're a virgin who can't drive") makes chick lit a fitting place to start the discussion.
Juliet Samuel is reason's 2007 Burton Gray memorial intern.