Last year a group of fundamentalist Muslims in Saudi Arabia filed suit against an author whose novel, they declared, was "an outrage to the norms of Saudi society." The book was too controversial to be published in Saudi Arabia itself, but pirated copies were smuggled in from Lebanon or sold for hundreds of dollars online. The author received death threats, and a petition circulated to strip her of her scholarship to study in Chicago.
The book is chick lit. Rajaa Alsanea's first novel, Girls of Riyadh, was only recently published in English by Penguin, but its 2005 debut in the Middle East sparked a storm of controversy. The pro-gay Iranian organization Homan praises "al-Sanie's frank and sometimes shocking insight into the closed world of Saudi women" for "making waves," while London's Independent calls the novel "revealing, hilarious and chilling in turn." Meanwhile, fundamentalists condemned the novel for contravening Shariah law. Alsanea, now a 25-year-old dental student at the University of Chicago (though she plans to return to Saudi Arabia), says she simply wrote about the people she saw around her. She has also received a supportive call from the Saudi royal family.
The book describes the sex and shopping habits of four rich Saudi girls. A contemporary epistolary novel, it's written as a series of emails to a Yahoo! listserv by a mysterious Arab woman. In another world, it would be a trivial lip-gloss narrative of life as a desirable young woman. But in Saudi Arabia, such a story can't avoid being political. Alsanea explores her culture's values in all their mundane invasiveness; this is a world where possessing a Nutty Professor DVD invites social disgrace. Beyond the picayune restrictions lies hypocrisy: The elites enforce a strict dress code at home, then change into chic Western attire on the plane out of Riyadh.
In an atmosphere where every act is politicized and convention always trumps personal preference, human relations are reduced to envy and power play. That makes chick lit the ideal genre for critiquing Saudi society. 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 wedding party (which displays a suitable wifely quality), the more liberal Michelle draws "sharp looks" for refusing to cover up when the men enter. It's a lot like the world of the Gossip Girl novels—backbiting, gossip, and jealousy—only the stakes in Riyadh are higher: not high school popularity but marriage and lifelong prosperity. Still, the basic accoutrements—handbags and husbands—are the same.
Hushed-up nose jobs in Lebanon, makeup tips, modest robes tailored to show off curves, and designer-label hijabs are all part of the game that decides a girl's future. And even after 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 difference between divorce—and thereafter possible confinement to the house—and a tolerable lifestyle.
It's hardly surprising, then, that courtship often takes the form of a materialist status race. Alsanea's characters expect a lot from their guys: money, height, prestige, culture, Barry Manilow–singing teddy bears, diamonds on Valentine's Day, affectionate notes stuck on the fridge. The guys, who range from weak-minded puppets of familial authority to abusive cheaters and pathologically suspicious control freaks, always disappoint. Flirting, officially forbidden, struggles through a variety of tortured avenues—instant messaging, flashing your phone number through a tinted window, the occasional covert café meet-up.
Despite her criticisms, Alsanea is cautious, which is probably why her book has received support as well as censure. None of the novel's main characters really defies her family; most find livable compromises. Alsanea has argued that change won't be achievable 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 want this change and we want it now.'?"
In that sense, Girls of Riyadh can seem disappointingly unrevolutionary. But it's a striking exposé of a social malaise, and it has launched hundreds of debates in a country where free expression is rare. An apparently shallow medium—the chick lit novel—turns out to be a fitting place to start the discussion.
Juliet Samuel was Reason's 2007 Burton Gray memorial intern.