Gender Segregation in Saudi Arabia in Novel

The best-selling and controversial Arabic language “chick-lit” novel Girls of Riyadh (2005) describes the frustration in upper class young women’s and men’s interaction. The 25-year-old author says classes don’t interact except for servants and their employers, nor do Shiites and Sunnis. The narrator reports, “Any fledgling love relationship, no matter how innocent or pure, was sure to be seen as suspect and therefore repressed.”[1] Even married couples don’t socialize; husbands find it embarrassing to be seen with their wives shopping or eating at a restaurant.[2] Young men try to get their phone numbers to young women they see in malls, driving on the street—giving business cards through an open window, or meet briefly at weddings when they can quickly look each other over when the groom and his friends briefly join the bride and her friends. Their main way to interact is on their cell phones and on the Internet chat sites. All but one of four of the college-age friends are frustrated in their search for love because they’re not acceptable to a boyfriend’s family, one husband is in love with a foreign woman who his family would never permit him to marry, and one looses her fiancé’s respect for having sex with him before the wedding ceremony.

Above all else, it’s important to preserve one’s reputation as a good girl, similar to India. Even after being legally engaged, some families only allow one “viewing” for the young couple to interact except on the phone, but some of the girls managed to sneak visits. Lamees, the only friend who happily marries her love, met him in one of the few places men and women are allowed to interact, in a hospital where they are medical students. The secret of her success is she plays hard to get, making a list of what she will not do such as be open about herself because “an open-book girl is no challenge.” Being “vague and mysterious” induces him to propose marriage. Marriage seems to be the young women’s main goal, with no interest in global issues like politics except for scandals.[3] The narrator’s favorite show is Sex in the City. She does frequently quote the Koran, showing the importance of Islam in the characters’ daily lives. The novel shows the restraints on young men and women who find ways to connect electronically.

[1] Rajaa Alsanea. Girls of Riyadh. Penguin, 2007,p. 88.

[2] Rajaa Alsanea, p. 245.

[3] Rajaa Alsanea, p. 65.


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