In this series, I write about chick lit novels, focusing on chick lit outside the Anglo-American context. I started out calling this series Indian Chick Lit Hall of Fame, but I’ve realised that I’m going to be reading and writing beyond that geography, and just because these are novels are neglected by the Western world, doesn’t mean they don’t deserve a place in global chick lit listings.
The novel: Girls of Riyadh
Author: Raja Alasanea
Published in: 2007 (orginally in Arabaic, translated into English)
Publisher: Fig Tree (a Penguin imprint)
Claim to fame: A chick lit novel set in Saudi Arabia
I should have read this novel during my PhD, but not so surprisingly, I didn’t have time. Having read it now, I have mixed feelings about not having read it earlier. On the one hand, it would have enriched and broadened by analysis (I referred to a study on this novel, but didn’t end up reading it); on the other, it may have changed my entire focus.
Either way, I’m glad I got my hands on it because I LOVED IT.
I totally did not expect to love it, and that’s why I kept putting off reading it (even though given my PhD specialisation I knew I had to read it). I expected it to be a superficial brand-name-dropping Sex and the City sort of thing. It was not.
Yes, the four women at the centre of the novel – Sadeem, Michelle, Gamrah and Lameez – belong to the ‘velvet class’, the Saudi elite, and yes, within the first few pages, one of them refers to her dress being Badgely Mischka. But the book also has stunning poetry, religious verses, social critique and what we love best about chick lit – a reflection of the lives of young women, their struggles, their loves and their friendships.
Like all other chick lit novels, these women are single and the pressure they are under to marry is similar to Indian women. The difference here is that more than Indian chick lit, the question is ‘how’ and not ‘if’ or even ‘when’. Like Indian chick lit, though, there is a ‘love’ versus ‘arranged’ marriage dichotomy, except that despite their elite status and relative freedom, most of these women will have arranged marriages – or at least marriages that absolutely cannot go ahead without family approval.
How these women go about finding love, and how they come up time and again, against the strictures of their society, is the subject-matter of the novel. In her wonderful study of love in new Bollywood cinema, Sangita Gopal, points out how love has always been a trangressive force, possessing the capacity to upset the social order, and she shows how Hindi cinema contains this force by reconciling the individual and society. The transgressive power of love comes up time and again in Alsanea’s novel.
But how does this trangression even take place? Isn’t Saudi Arabia supposed to be one of the most repressive place in the world for women? Because, you know, what else would it be given that the women have to go about dressed head to toe in black, right? Okay, we know they are apparently shod in couture underneath, which they reveal only in the presence of women, but that only makes them weirder, right?
My first window into wealthy Saudi society Princess by Jean Sassoon would have me believe this. Fabulously wealthy, yes, repressed and ultimately terribly sad and not-so-latently barbaric – also yes. There is a little vignette in Almost Single along similar lines – exotic princess, rich but unhappy. The recent detention (assisted by our very own Indian coast guard if you please) of the princess from the UAE seems to confirm this view.
Of course, reality is a bit more complex, and Girls of Riyadh exposes this. We meet our protagonists at a wedding where, yes, the women are separated from the men (and again, this should not be utterly unfamiliar to us in India where Muslim communities are not the only ones to practice this segregation) but they are dressed to the nines and dancing seductively. Women dancing with abandon, and generally letting their hair down, again, should not seem so strange because isn’t this every farewell party in a convent school and generally, why we have girls nights out?
Yet, it is not exactly the same, and Alsanea doesn’t present it as so either. At the wedding, at some point the men came rushing into the room “like arrows” with the groom and the women hurry to cover themselves (this is apparently part of the ritual). Only the groom stayed, though, while the men went home leaving the women to continue the party late into a night (a reversal of expectations). Later, when the girls unique pre-wedding celebration (their version of a bachelor’s party – they eschew the Western form because in their community it would involve inviting everyone and including a famous Arabic singer, which would not only be expensive but also too cliched), they drive to a mall and are besieged by young men trying to pass them their numbers.
This is how young men and women ‘meet’ – the men hold up cards with their numbers, the women memorise them and call them if they so desire and their romances are conducted over the phone and if possible, the internet, often without meeting but very intense nevertheless. The behaviour of some of these men (e.g. following the girl in her car) might seem stalkerish but their advances are not exactly unwelcome, because it is the only way.
Did you notice I said ‘drove’ to a mall? But Saudi women aren’t allowed to drive, right? Well, as ever, women find a way to get around these things. Michelle, who is half-American, learnt to drive and because the cars have highly tinted widows (to prevent men peering into them), they have the advantage of making the driver invisible to the outside too. The point is not to say things are la la la – they’re not – but that people always find ways to circumvent repressive laws.
Moreover, on this excursion, a young man presents himself, and joins them by pretending to be a relative. So while apparently there are security guards who may question men who are with women, this is easily dealt with if the women are willing to say that that man is a relative. The whole rakhi brother syndrome, if you please.
And what of these men? As our protagonists meet and fall in love, they are often disappointed by the objects of their affection, who ultimately refuse to defy their families in the name of love. And while the narrator has no sympathy for these characters, the novel exposes that it is not only Saudi women who are trapped in their social system.
Apart from the young single women, I found myself drawn to the aunties, a category I’m increasingly fascinated with, now that I’m one myself. In a patriarchal society, some older women – such as the mother of a man who ditched one of the girls and Gamrah’s mother – wield a fair amount of power. There is Lameez’s mother, who stomps into her school and insists the principal stop picking on her daughter. And most intriguing of all, is the divorced woman next door who hosts their conversations and sometimes their rendezvous.
The treatment of divorced women caught my attention . The aunty next door is reviled more for the possibility of her son being gay, than her divorced status and she continues her job as a school teacher. When a man divorces a woman, this is almost accepted as par for the course by the family, and there doesn’t seem to be the possibility of them not taking her back (as some Indian women seem to face) although life becomes harder from her as she becomes a suspect person, a walking display of sexual possibility because of her limbo state – single but not ‘pure’ – and so her family must closet her till she is married again. Even if she is pregnant, it is taken for granted that she and her child will be taken care of by her family, and even her ex-husband’s family might show interest in the child. In some ways, it seems like the society makes provisions for divorced women.
Apart from the four protoganists, there is a fifth character – the narrator. The entire tale is apparently related in a series of emails and I initially found this is a little annoying. However, later, I realised that the purpose of the narrator was the reflect the comments of society on the story. Thus, she comments on reactions from both conservatives and liberals alike, and people from different sections of society, and responds to them. She notes that it is the women who respond most angrily to her story and the men most sympathetically, for example.
The narrator is also a critique of readerly fascination with the author and the reader’s tendency (a tendency especially pronounced in chick lit, which as realist fiction presents itself as a direct reflection of life) to identify the author with the protagonist or in the case of multi-protogonist novels, to guess “which one the author is.”
Throughout, it is clear that this is a religious society and that the women live according to their interpretations and engagements with a religious code. But it is pointed out that there are varying levels of engagement with religion and that this engagement is split along gender lines so that conservative men’s engagement takes different forms from conservative women’s. Our four protagonists are of a liberal bent, but even the most bold of them, might after marriage, decide on her own to adopt the hijab.
Finally, I happened to read some reviews of the novel in the West and I was disappointed, but not surprised, to see that what these Western reviewers took away from the novel was that it was not feminist enough, because basically the women did not throw off “Islamic fundamentalism” (when none of them were fundamentalist in the first place, so why or how would they throw it off?) or for the crime of seeking liberation in setting up a party planning business (failing to recognise how radical this step is, especially for a divorced woman). In his groundbreaking book Orientalism, Edward Said shows how the West created it’s self-image in contrast to an uncivilised and barbaric Other and how Western modernity – and colonialism and its ‘civilising’ mission – is predicated on this contrast. In the reviews of this novel, I see that Orientalism is alive and well.
Did I love this book simply because it is unfamiliar, as a friend once suggested might be why I enjoy watching any mainstream Hong Kong film?* Is it simply the novelty of the new? It is possible that I gave the book more leeway because of my pleasure in being immersed in an unfamiliar culture. Sure, the translation was not perfect – even the translator had problems with the final text, raising interesting questions about who owns a translation – but increasingly, I find myself favouring these imperfections that remind you that you are not in your same-old Anglo-American dominated context.
Finally, while many of us in India also like to think of Saudi Arabia as the weird Other and that we are “so much better off”, are we? I recall my encounter with a Saudi man on a flight. He was sitting next to me and we got chatting when I needed change to buy my Airport Express pass. On hearing that I was flying alone to meet my fiance and he would not even be meeting me at the airport, he said surprised, “I thought Indian women were like our women.” I paused and said, “There are lots of different kinds of Indian women.” My point was not that Indian women are much more liberated than Saudi women, but that there were in fact lots of Indian women living not dissimilar lives to Saudi women (yes, we have fairer laws in general, but personal life is still regulated by the different religious laws in India) and in fact, I could be the exception.
Let’s keep this in mind when we read the book, how we are more similar than we think, and how there’s work to do in our own backyards.
*This same friend also said he enjoyed the Twilight movies, so I might take his view of things with a pinch of salt.