Take this with a pinch of salt, as it deals with quite a delicate topic. The intersection of wealth and power is used as a weapon to keep people down, but often the real victims are either forgotten or hidden and instead, the marginal victims with the capability to broadcast their victimhood, gain prominence. In reading about stories like these, we should be critical of looking for the real oppressors and the real oppressed.
We’re back to one of those articles which trace a book. This time the intention is not to mooch off the writer’s structure, as I so often do, but to critique its perspective. ‘Writer’ here is used loosely and is differentiated from the term ‘author’ as I’m not entirely sure how much the person prefaced on the book had to do with the actual writing, as opposed to merely editing and having the book published. There is a key difference here because a lot can be lost in translation, perspective, geographies and yet it tries in vain to paint a picture of age-old oppression but crafted less for the world and more for one’s own self, and ill-fit for the eyes of anyone who’s lived outside the close quarters of the ‘writer.’
The book I’m referring to here is ‘Daughters of Arabia’ the second in the trilogy of books on the ‘Princess’ of Saudi Arabia by Jean Sasson. The first and second books [I haven’t read the third, my reference here is to book one ‘Princess,’ and book two, ‘Daughters of Arabia’] is written in the first person by Princess Sultana [a pseudonym] herself, and rose to major acclaim outside the kingdom, detailing to unbeknownst readers the degree of control meted out to women in Saudi Arabia. While the first book was written through the eyes of an adolescent Sultana, the second comes to us from a mother of three children.
Sultana, according to her antics is a fiercely ‘independent woman’ and a staunch advocate of woman’s rights within the highly discriminatory nation of Saudi Arabia. This sentiment is often used to relate the story to the readers and paint a ‘principled image’ of royalty. In reality, it egotistically misses the point. The tales of oppression is made pale when endured by a princess, sitting in her luxurious palace sipping on Turkish coffee served to her by migrant workers literally on a silver platter. By this sentence, it’s made clear where the rest of the book is going, and make no qualms about it, the book smacks of persecution in a bubble of luxurious oppression, which lacks context and nuance. Any reader who understands the convolutions of a society like Saudi Arabia should know better than to heed the complaints of a member of the royal family.
It would seem that Sultana has a very pigeon-holed view of oppression, and aims to play it out over two books. While the first book can be understood as viewing a male-dominated society through the innocent eyes of a little girl, the second book should give more credit to the mature eyes of the beholder, one who has experienced first-hand gender discrimination, and has the ability to be riddled from the oppression, but chooses not to. These reasons are then packaged with gold and silver, stamped with the official seal of the Al-Sauds [the ruling clan of Saudi Arabia, to which the princess belongs] and shipped off to unsuspecting readers to sympathize with the hollow cries of ‘royalty’ more and ‘oppression’ less.
To sum it up, the ‘Princess’ perched in one of her many palaces across the Middle East and Europe surrounded by luxury she inherited is oppressed.
What the Princess aims to convey through her book is the subjugation of women in Saudi Arabian society. What she misses, however, is the reason for this subjugation, which she claims is purely down to the cultural views of the male-dominated monarchy, which she never fails to defend when it is the source of her unearned comforts. In doing so, Sultana paints a dangerous precedent, that the subjugation of women in societies like Saudi Arabia is purely down to male-mindset, gleefully ignoring the role of culture, religion, economy, and class.
To view the Arabian society through a zero-sum lens, you would be unfazed in picking a winner and a loser. And if you do look in binary terms, the answer is quite simple — men win and women lose. However, if you adopt a more nuanced view, one which Sultana, either by design or by flaw fails to, you see a ‘spectrum of subjugation.’ At the ‘profiteering end’ are male members of the royal family, undivided in wealth and bereft in morals [at least as far as the equality of gender goes], much like Sultana’s brother Ali, who we were introduced to in the first book and who embodies the image of a silk-clad royal, discarding woman for pleasure and boy [not child] bearing. At the receiving ‘oppressed end’ is, as the theme of the books follows, a woman, but not just any woman, a non-royal, non-influential, non-Muslim [or non-Sunni Muslim], and non-Saudi Arabian [not just non-Arab] woman. This end of the spectrum houses the migrant non-Muslim women workers who are contracted to their royal employers, paid well in comparison to similar jobs in her homeland, but oppressed physically, mentally, and some even sexually beyond measure. Depending on the weightage applied to the ‘power attributes’ nationality, religion, culture, economic status and gender [Sultana is only deficient of one power attribute i.e. gender; she excels in everything else, being a Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabian princess] you can assign a place for every resident of Saudi Arabia on the ‘spectrum of subjugation.’ For argument's sake, let’s say the power attribute gender equals the other four, then, balancing out the attributes, Sultana would represent the mean of the spectrum, falling between the non-Muslim poor migrants and her brother Ali. While the Princess, through literature, aims to convey the persecution of the mean [herself] by the profiteering end, we so often forget that the more severe victims are the inhabitants of the ‘oppressed end,’ the variance.
If, after reading the first two books, you shrug and say Sultana did all she could to better her life as a woman [read: royal princess] in Saudi Arabia, ask yourself this, ‘If she knew, in the first book, what she would become in the second, would she have changed anything?’ Sultana’s main aim with her life was, to parlay two antithetical themes, be a controlled change-maker, one that starts a half-baked revolution to ensure their own objectives are met, despite claiming to be the spearhead of the larger movement, with larger ambitions.
All Sultana wanted was to be wed to a decent-loving man, one who would take not more than one wife, love his daughter like his son, and treat her with dignity and respect, rare ideals for a man of royal Saudi descent, but nonetheless she got what she wanted. She tries to harden her advocacy stance by hearing the cries of women around her, and even tries [in vain, on most occassions] to help them, but so as long as her comforts are taken care of, she has no real desire to uplight the oppressed women. She fought for woman’s rights in-so-far as her marriage was concerned, not intending on pushing the envelope, seeking education, one worthy of building an independent and earned future to take a principled stand against gender discrimination. The problem is, this pure stance would be devoid of the gold, and silver platters and unearned palaces she craves, despite it being a true fight for the rights of women. To claim that the Princess can be a martyr against monarchical oppression, despite benefitting from her lineage, while sipping her Turkish coffee brought to her by routinely oppressed and harassed Filipino maids, while contracted migrant [and Muslim mind you] workers from other parts of Asia are scrapping through, is the epitome of hypocrisy.
Throughout the book, there is not one instance where Sultana actually achieves something warranted of a struggle for woman’s rights. Yes, she parrots stories about women assaulted at the hands of men, but does she do anything to seek justice, or even invoke a sense of justice?
Let’s look at the evidence. She fails at convincing her Eqyptian house maid’s daughter against having the genitalia of her daughter mutilated. Her older daughter Maha speaks out against the monarchy, culture, and religion, [the very sources of female oppression]and how does Sultana respond? She silences her and ships her to a psychiatric ward halfway around the world. She fails to lure her younger daughter away from religious fanaticism which will further the oppression against women, not fight against it. In fact, it was Sultana’s decision for her family to journey to Mecca that birthed this fanaticism in the first place. It was her son, acting against his mother’s better judgment who stole two passports, $1 million in ‘rainy-day’ money, absconded Fayza to her lover Jafr in Lebanon, and acted as a liaison between the eloped couple and Fayza’s family to secure their safe return to the kingdom. Sultana’s deeds throughout the book were done less to uplight the stature of women in Saudi Arabian society and more to protect her own stature as a beneficiary of the monarchy, and each of her deeds mentioned has lowered woman’s standing in society. The entire book is evidence of it.
If by the wave of a wand, Sultana had her way and could reshape Saudi Arabian society as she deemed fit, it would not be as advocates for human rights would want it. On reading the books, it would seem that such a ‘Princess-utopian’ society while placing the rights of men and woman on equal grounds, abolishing laws such as female guardianship, traveling overseas with a male escort, and the highly discriminatory marriage laws, these gendered-laws, would not be ‘equal’ for everyone. It would still persecute people on religious grounds [both intra-religions and inter-religions], follow strict religious code [despite her education in Philosophy], and place the monarchy over average citizens. Sultana would be unable to part with her luxurious, and migrants would still be bonded with no voice at all. No economic mobility, no ‘voice-for-the-voiceless,’ no religious equality, and probably no woman’s rights beyond the monarchy.
While the fault can be put on Sultana, the written voice of the princess, Jean Sasson could’ve used this story as a foundation for a novel of actual victory and escape against made-dominated oppression. Her story could’ve gone like this…
[Here I write in first-person as the Princess]
“Hurriedly, I packed the bags, as I commanded Abdullah and Maha to do the same without question. Thinking it to be another one of their mother’s bizarre requests that would be undone by the wave of their father’s hand, they reluctantly went into their respective rooms to do the deed. The contrasts between my two children, in their packing habits, were never clearer. While my son packed a bag full of white robes fit to be worn in any desert of the Gulf, not the skyscrapers-laden city we were setting off for, Maha, jumped on the chance to pack, shall we say, not the most ‘Saudi-appropriate wear,’ whenever we went abroad. This time, however, she packed, less like piling up Autumn leaves, but with precision and practice, almost as if she’d been planning an escape for quite some time.
I pulled out a maroon bag, embroidered over with a rose-like design below a golden handle. One of Saudi Arabia’s wealthiest businessmen, a friend of my husband, had recently got his daughter wed to a Parisian hotelier and wanted to make a celebration out of it. Royal participation would only boost the couple’s standing and the hotel’s prestige, hence we agreed to attend the reception, although Paris, isn’t the best in August, we would’ve preferred Milan. The businessman, not wanting to miss the opportunity to get in the good books of the royal family showered us with gifts, chocolates of the finest varieties, perfumes you could not get in Saudi, and silk scarfs and abaiyas, so smooth it felt like a baby’s oiled skin. Not wanting to leave gifts of this nature in our Paris villa, I coaxed Kareem despite his complaints of our massive luggage haul, to purchase this bag, from a cute little boutique near Sainte-Chapelle.
Putting the origins of the bag in the back of my head, I met my children in the garden. Unbeknownst to me, we were basking in its reflection of the Saudi sunset for the last time. If I knew this was the last time, I would’ve spent it with my family; Abdullah telling a story about his recent romantic encounter, causing Amani to launch into a religious tirade, much to the displeasure of her older sister. Kareem would’ve urged me to intervene in our children’s quarrels, knowing full well, I will more likely escalate it, than calm the nerves.
We signaled our Eqyptian driver to get the car. At this anxious time, we didn’t care if it was the Mercedes or the Porsche, something that could get us to the airport fast would do, but, as everything in Saudi Arabia, air conditioning was a must. Much to my relief, and his gendered, religious and cultural dismay, he was unaware of the news which would soon destroy not only our household but our connection with the royal family and the entire kingdom’s reputation.
In no time we were at the King Khalid International Airport, hurrying the steward to take our ten bags, unsuspecting at the punishment we were running from. Maha and I donned our veils with Abdullah at the front, who would, for the final time act as our male escort leading us, not only out of Riyadh but out of the kingdom for good. Without Kareem’s exclusive access, and not intending on arousing suspicion, we did not use the private jet. We still took the first-class seats and lounge access, to keep up our fleeting royal reputation. I couldn’t help but worry myself about what would come down on my husband and closet confidant and sister Sara, once our absconding came to light.
The sparkling champagne, which usually cheers me up, did so little to lift my mood. Maha and Abdullah were curious about the haste in which we left but thought it no different from some of my other eccentricities which more often than not manifested in an immediate ride to the airport. But this time, we weren’t departing our Cairo villa, or our Jeddah palace, for our Riyadh home, but we were waving our luxuries goodbye one by one, in search of escape to equality. I knew it was worth it. The reason for our hasty departure was not revealed, for if I did, I was sure there would be a backlash, more so from my son than my daughter. I told myself that Maha somehow knew what I was risking was more for her future than for my own. Knowing what Abdullah did for Jafr and Fayza, I’m sure he would understand. In time he did. Never would my children see their father again, and their soon-to-be religious fanatic sister would decry their very existence, and hate the sight of her own mother, unveiled in the land of kafirs.
As we were escorted to our seats, I gazed at the clear Riyad night sky for one last time. Airport skies, despite being covered in a thick cloud of perpetual smoke, give you a tearful departure or a resounding welcome. Our leaving was teary for the heart but freeing for the soul for I knew, once we exited the airplane, we would be in a land where women are not treated as second-class citizens, banned from living their life, forced to cover their face and body, and treated as either child-bearers or sexual tools, but in these lands, free from the sands of tradition, culture, religiosity, and royalty, the woman is indeed free.”
Sultana and her children would arrive in a country where women’s rights are not only heard but strengthened through a strong legal system, economic mobility, and sovereign protection. She would use her philosophy background, well-traveled knowledge, and bi-lingual fluency to secure a university position, while her children receive mixed-gender education in modern society.
Who knows where this story will take her? Perhaps within the walls of the state’s parliament where she can fight domestically and internationally for the rights of women everywhere. Sultana's journey along the way from Princess to ‘Princess no more,’ would be a true tale of the struggle for woman’s rights against all forms of patriarchal oppression, one that would be fitting of a book.
To be clear, I’m not arguing that princesses in Saudi Arabia are not oppressed, they are very much so. They are being held back by culture, religion, and the monarchy. The world, in 2020 knows this, largely because it is broadcasted throughout the globe, even more so than the other forms of oppression routinely carried out in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. What is often hidden is the persecution of not just gendered minorities, but also religious, ethnic, and economic minorities.
Princesses who have the inclination and ability to break out of the oppressive monarchy, seek education, earn a living, and fight for equality should absolutely do so if they wish. This would be true defiance of male-domination and a principled struggle for equality. But by using the thin veil of oppression to write books, claiming to be a staunch advocate of woman’s rights while enjoying holidays to the Swiss Alps, Paris or Monte Carlo, sipping on Turkish coffee, or having multiple palaces in multiple countries, all paid for by the oppressors, is deceitful.
Perhaps then, the title of the first book is apt; Sultana is, and will always be a ‘Princess,’ and hence she will never be a defender of woman’s rights in Saudi Arabia. If the Princess truly wants to take a principled stand against the oppression of woman by the Saudi Arabian society, one which is rooted deeper in its monarchical, cultural, and religious roots than anything else, the only remedy is to shed the royal title and become a ‘Princess no more.’