Princess: A True Story of Life Behind the Veil in Saudi Arabia by Jean Sasson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Every once in a while I try to read something that is “deeper” than my usual smutty romance selections. This was one of those books. I listened to the Audible version and I could not pull myself away from the plight of Princess Sultana Al Sa’ud and the other women from this story.
Her story offered a poignant look at what life is like for women in Saudi Arabia. Even the wealthiest and most “privileged” women are not spared the cruelty of the misogynistic and oppressive culture. Women are treated as property to be “owned” and managed by men. They are traded like cattle and punished for perceived infractions in cruel ways.
From birth, girls are treated as second-class citizens, a disappointment to their family and inferior to all males. This was highlighted by Princess Sultana’s accounts of growing up with a spoiled and sadistic younger brother. No matter what he did, she would always be wrong. Time and time again, she was forced to be subservient to him, no matter how egregious his behavior was.
Sexual abuse is also rampant in the world that Princess Sultana described. Young girls are forced to marry much older men, while older wives are forced to take a backseat while their husbands forsake them for their younger brides. Young or old, there is no bright side for the wives.
While the girls “virtue” is fiercely guarded — their body sacred until such time as their father or other male guardian decides to gift it to another — the boys and men engage in a variety of depraved sexual acts. One especially disturbing scene tells the story of a trip to Egypt where Sultana’s brother and other men commit acts of extreme sexual violence. It was absolutely heartbreaking and terrifying.
More than anything, I couldn’t get past the unfairness of the situation. These women had no power or control in their lives. It is so far removed from the life I’m luck enough to lead that it was unfathomable to me.
The indifference and cruelty of the men also took me aback. The often barbaric punishments they doled out seemed to be the norm. The life of the females was valued so little that they could be extinguished with scant more concern than one would have when swatting a fly. It was unimaginable to me.
Not surprisingly, this book was pretty depressing. The life lead by these women was grim, even as they tried to make the most of the little joy they could find in the absence of the men. Much of the content was upsetting and discouraging.
That being said, I still think that this is a book that everyone should read. It will anger and sadden you. However, turning a blind eye to atrocities like the ones that play out on the pages of this book does not make the reality go away. Raising awareness is important in order to facilitate change — and change is necessary. Yet again, I am reminded of how blessed I am for the life I was born into.