PrincessWhen I was twelve years of age, a woman in one of the small villages not far from Riyadh had been found guilty of adultery. She was condemned to die by stoning. Omar and our neighbours’ driver decided to go and view the spectacle.A large crowd had gathered since early morning. They were restless and waiting to see the one so wicked. Omar said that just as the crowd was becoming angry with impatience in the hot sun a young woman of about twenty-five years of age was roughly pulled out of a police car. He said she was very beautiful, just the sort of woman who would defy the laws of God.The woman’s hands were bound. Her head hung low. With an official manner, a man loudly read out her crime for the crowd to hear. A dirty rag was used to gag her mouth and a black hood was fastened around her head. She was forced to kneel. A large man, the executioner, flogged the woman upon her back fifty blows.A truck appeared, and rocks and stones were emptied in a large pile. The man who had read off the crime informed the crowd that the execution should begin. Omar said the group of people, mostly men, rushed towards the stones and began to hurl the rocks at the woman. The guilty one quickly slumped to the ground and her body jerked in all directions. Omar said the rocks continued to thud against her body for what seemed to be an interminable time. Every so often, the stones would quieten while a doctor would check the woman’s pulse. After a period of nearly two hours, the doctor finally pronounced the woman dead and the stoning ceased.”

Princess tells the story of “Sultana”, a Saudi Arabian princess. It is a true story, although a dangerous one to tell, and so some names and other details have been altered to protect the identities of people who might otherwise suffer for the truth that has been told. The book is written by Sultana’s American friend, Jean Sasson, using her diaries and notes – and was approved by her before publication. It is written in a simple, matter-of-fact style which underlines the power of what is said. There is little hyperbole in use, although it could have been forgiven much. It is very much from the same school as My Forbidden Face.

Sultana lives an unbelievably privileged life as a royal princess in the incredibly oil-rich country of Saudi Arabia. There is unlimited wealth at the disposal of her family, and she lives in complete luxury. But she, and all her friends, are in chains. Sultana is clearly proud of her nation’s history and tells wonderful stories about some of the Saudi women that she knows, and about the servants who look after her. She praises King Faisal (who died in 1975) and his wife Iffat for their efforts to advance women’s rights. There are good things for her to talk about in Saudi Arabia.

But there is a dark side to her life, and to the lives of all the women in her country, which is too black to speak about openly.

In this book, Sultana’s story, we hear of the way in which Sultana and her nine sisters are utterly subordinated to their one brother, who is spoiled and cossetted and becomes cruel while they are taught submission and obedience and subordination right from the cradle – taught to be grateful for crumbs of education or attention, and to expect nothing but what a man (father, brother, husband) may choose to give them on a whim. Much the same applies to Sultana’s mother and her three co-wives.

We learn about veiling, which stamps the child a woman, renders her a non-person, ready for marriage as soon as her menses starts. We hear how Sultana when first veiled longed to be a Bedouin woman so that she could go about with her eyes uncovered, at least, and not trip over things.

We hear about forced marriages between pubescent girls and old men, about a suicidal young bride who is saved from returning to her brutal, sadistic, old-man husband only by strenuous efforts which even then almost fail to protect her. And even then, she is saved only because he agrees to divorce her – by saying “I divorce you”. For there is little or no idea of divorce for women.

There is circumcision – slowly going out of fashion but still common. There is Halawa (ritual stripping of all body hair other than head hair and eyebrows, carried out on a bride’s wedding day). There are gifts of bloodied wedding-sheets to mothers-in-law.

There is the terrible hypocrisy of men who preach godliness and chastity while using pornography, and while using (foreign) women and girls as whores – whether they consent or no. There is the less terrible but equally hypocritical behaviour of men who claim to be compassionate, enlightened and in favour of women’s rights, but who uphold the Saudi system and in particular their right to take additional wives for the purpose of making sons.

There are the vile, appalling punishments meted out to women convicted of any offence, especially any offence against modesty or decency – such as speaking to foreign men, showing a face or any other flesh in public, having sex outside marriage, or being raped. Women are stoned. Women are drowned in family swimming pools at the hands of their fathers or other male guardians. Women are flogged. Women are locked up in “The Woman’s Room” – a windowless, soundproofed room where they live out their days in solitary confinement, food shoved through a narrow slot in the door. At best, a disgraced wife will be divorced and shipped home to her father. At best, a disgraced sister or daughter will be married off as the third wife of some ignorant, violent hick in a small, dust-choked town, out of the way.

The picture of Sultana is of a furious woman, helpless, and imprisoned. She fights tooth and nail for what dignity she can, and to do what she can for her children. But she is trapped. You feel angry that she can do nothing. Yet what can she do?

This is Sultana’s modern life. This, it seems, is Saudi Arabia.

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