Girl trouble

<strong>Girls of Riyadh</strong>

Rajaa Alsanea <em>Penguin, 303pp, £12.99</em>

ISBN 1594201218

Girls of Riyadh, O girls of Riyadh,

O gems of the turbaned fathers of old!

Have mercy on that victim, have mercy

On that man who lies prone on the threshold.

Bored young women from wealthy Saudi families chronicle their unhappy love lives: it hardly sounds like a winning formula. But Girls of Riyadh will tell you more about one of the world's oddest and most closed societies than a library of books and articles by supposed western experts.

When I visited Riyadh last year, I spent time with the young men who hang out in the coffee shops of fashionable Tahliya Street. They knew all about Girls of Riyadh, which stirred up a storm when it came out in Arabic in 2005. Its frank depiction of the frustrated lives of Saudi women and the rank chauvinism of Saudi men, predictably aroused the wrath of religious conservatives. A group of Saudi citizens filed a lawsuit against its young author, Rajaa Alsanea, alleging that she had slandered Saudi society. (She herself was safely ensconced in the US, where she is studying to be a dentist.) But the case was eventually thrown out and the book, although officially banned, was widely available.

Is it an accurate portrait of Saudi youth, I asked a young blogger? It was a true picture of a certain type of young Saudi, he replied, gently implying that not everyone belonged to the velvet elite. And, like many young liberals, he mocked the contradictory claims of conservatives that, on the one hand, "Our young people don't behave like that" and, on the other, "Even if they do, it's haram [forbidden] to wash such linen in public."

Now that the book is available in an excellent English translation by the author and Marilyn Booth, we can judge it for ourselves. Written in the form of long, gossipy emails, it chronicles the lives of four young women from well-to-do families - Gamrah, Sadeem, Michelle (a nickname) and Lamees. In superficial ways, they are just like you and me. They play Monopoly, watch American movies on TV, quarrel over the remote control, are obsessed with their mobile phones and, yes, eat Burger King Double Whoppers. (What startled me in downtown Riyadh was to find branches of Debenhams, Harvey Nichols, Marks & Spencer and Woolworths, from which flocks of black-clad women darted out into their waiting limos.) But the real shock is to discover that shopping and fast food and videos are just about the only forms of entertainment in a country where cinemas, theatres and discotheques are banned and the sexes strictly segregated.

The young men at least have football and fast cars. For the young women, like Arabian versions of Jane Austen heroines, there's only marriage - thinking about it, watching your friends do it and, eventually, for better or for worse, experiencing it yourself. The four girls of Riyadh, each in her own way, rail against "a society that paralysed its members . . . a society riddled with hypocrisy, drugged by contradictions". Contrary to the popular impression in the west, the main instruments of repression are not the state or the religious police (although the latter put in a brief appearance). They are the family patriarchs and matriarchs who jealously guard the honour of their young women, who approve or block marriages, who stigmatise a divorced woman (even when ditched by some appalling man) and regard homosexuality as "an illness worse than cancer".

Girls of Riyadh is highly readable without being great literature. Some readers will be exasperated by the self-obsession of the Saudi me-generation. But it is a wonderfully vivid social portrait of stifled lives, and one that shows there is now a brave new generation of Saudi women no longer ready to suffer in silence.

Roger Hardy is a Middle East analyst for BBC World Service

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Pink Planet