Arrowhead Book Review: ‘Princess’ gives voice to Saudi Arabia’s women

In “Princess: A True Story of Life Behind the Veil in Saudi Arabia,” author Jean Sasson gives readers unprecedented access to what women’s lives are truly like in a country where women are granted almost no freedoms.

To spread awareness of the incredibly cruel and unjust laws and customs enforced on women in Saudi Arabia, Sultana took an immense risk to share her story with author Jean Sasson, resulting in a harrowing biography that can help to mobilize more action and support for women in Saudi Arabia.
To protect her identity, Sasson changed Sultana’s, and the other characters’, names.
Saudi Arabia sits on the Arabian Peninsula in the Middle East and is an incredibly wealthy country due to their large oil reserves.
However, wealth does not guarantee prosperity and happiness for all Saudi citizens, as women are legally considered and treated as second-class citizens under the dictatorship of men.
As shown in “Princess” and according to Human Rights Watch, Saudi Arabia “essentially treats women as permanent legal minors.”
Women’s freedoms are restricted under the male guardianship system, which dictates that a woman must at all times have a male guardian, whether that be her father, husband, brother or even son, that can decide what a woman can and cannot do.
For example, women are not allowed to obtain a passport or travel without the permission of their guardian.
This incredibly harmful dynamic is repeatedly shown in “Princess:” Sameera, a relative of Sultana, moves to London to pursue higher education, which is rare but she is able to do so because her father is more progressive.
After school, she moves to the U.S. with her boyfriend, yet her uncle, her new guardian since her father dies, demands she return to Saudi Arabia.
When Sameera returns, her uncle punishes her by subjecting her to the Woman’s Room where Sameera will live out her life in solitary confinement, a legal punishment defined in the Koran. All Sameera wants is to pursue a life of fulfillment, yet her uncle cruelly wields his totalitarian power over her as her guardian.
Another aspect of life explored in “Princess” for Saudi women is marriage and sex.
The book suggests that in Saudi Arabia, women’s only purpose is to 1) have as many sons as possible and 2) fulfill the sexual desires of men.
A woman’s virginity must remain intact before marriage, even though men can engage whenever they want.
To these men, this is not hypocritical because it’s seen as natural and is another way men can enforce their power and control over women. Sultana retells the story of a 15-year-old girl she met in the hospital who was expecting to give birth, yet was chained to her bed like a prisoner.
She was raped by multiple boys and condemned to be stoned to death because she was no longer a virgin and therefore violated God’s law, yet the boys got off free with no punishment.
Sultana writes of Hadi, her brother’s friend, who treats women disrespectfully, “He desired them, yet hated them and the system that left them free to do as they would. His hypocrisy was to me the essence of the evil nature of men.”
In “Princess,” readers see the piggish behavior of men repeatedly, as it is such a prominent part of women’s lives. Girls begin veiling in Saudi Arabia when they first get their period. The black veil covers their entire body, including their face.
In Saudi culture, this signifies their entrance into womanhood and that they are ready to be married and have children.
Though the purpose of the veil is to prohibit sexual desire towards women by men, Sultana writes that “men now attempt to catch a glimpse of a forbidden, suddenly erotic, ankle. With the veil, we Arab women become overwhelmingly tantalizing and desirable to Arab men.”