Saturday 21 August 2010


A blog post by Tulpesh Patel

I started writing a review of “Princess, a biography of a Saudi princess written by Jean Sasson, but, as the Lord does indeed move in mysterious ways, something happened at work very shortly after that prompted me to also turn this into a blog post.

First the book. Princess recounts the life of Saudi Princess, Sultana, from childhood in the 60s to her own motherhood in the 90s
. It was lent to my wife by a friend, I casually started reading the blurb and found it so engrossing I was a couple of hundred pages in before I realised the time. This book is one of the most brutal things I’ve ever read and I can say with complete sincerity, unputdownable.
Sultana tells of ritual and absolute oppression by the men of the household and wider society. The men hold untold wealth and absolute power, able to deny or cover up their own offence or justify any/all behaviour as that sanctioned or encouraged by their faith or tradition. The women are denied education (save for reciting the Koran); forced to wear an abaaya (not unlike a burkha, but even more covering) from their first menstruation, which incidentally makes them eligible for marriage to whomever the father chooses usually for simple financial gain; routinely mentally, physically and sexually abused and killed.

The treatment of women is so vile that it is actually difficult to grasp the reality of a woman’s life in this period. Most of this book reads like science fiction set in a whole other world; that it does so, makes the story’s impact all the greater. For someone raised in Britain without really a religious upbringing and only having ‘moderately’ religious friends, I did not know anything like it. Seeing women in a full burkha “complete with a metal mask
on the streets of Dubai is the closest I’ve ever come to such closeting of women. To quote the book: “those who are free cannot fathom the small victories of those who live on a tether”, and this is simply the princess’s response to the unprecedented decision of allowing her to see her fiancé before she married him.

The second strand of the story, on the near limitless wealth of the Saudi royalty, is one less emotional and nearly as interesting. The princess astutely observes how the such wealth, and lack of drive that usually entails, is stagnating progress in oil-rich states; princes live on huge monthly stipends, and women are placated with more jewels, homes and finery than they know what to do with.

This book is a remarkable insight into the role of women in Saudi cultures, but what is also striking is how women hold their oppression and faith in tandem. Sultana praises Mohamed and turns to God and the Koran, which gave us Shariah and yet denounces her faith’s sanctioning of the maltreatment of women. The book begins with the caveat that it does not intend to offend Islam, but routinely demonstrates how, in actuality, what morals can be gleaned from the Koran are routinely ignored by men who’s urges and wallets are beyond control, and it is more truthfully used a manual for the oppression of women.

Princess is set in a period 40 to 20 years ago in Saudi Arabia. Since that time the world has become smaller and the ability of the followers of Sharia law to stifle human rights violations have become tougher than ever. There are still, however, despairingly regular, prominent cases of female oppression, the most recent being the impending “execution of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani
by Iranian authorities for alleged adultery. The fact that these cases exists, and the international legal wrangling surrounding her proper defence, shows how tenaciously the (male) enforcers of the law have clung to old, repressive traditions and resisted fair, secular values.

Now on to what made me want to write more than just a review of the book. As part of my PhD I routinely perform cognitive assessments on children aged from 4 to 18. On one particular occasion, just a week or so ago, I introduced myself to the patient’s mother, who was a head-scarfed Muslim, and immediately found that she was anxious about the assessments and asked if I was just me administering them. It isn’t unusual for parents or the children to be anxious about being left with strangers to do ‘tests’ in an unfamiliar environment, and we often let parents or guardians sit in the corner in order to help the child relax (as long as they don’t start to sign language answers, which has happened before). In this case, however, the patients were fine but it was anxiety solely on the mother’s part about my being male and left unsupervised with her daughter. Leaving your young daughter in the company of strangers is perhaps a legitimate fear, but this was a research facility in a hospital and was beyond the Stranger Danger stuff you usually teach to kids.

We are normally on a tight schedule on assessment days and run tests in parallel so the mother had to accompany the sibling for the physio tests in another department. She insisted that there be another woman in the room with me during the cognitive assessment and didn’t otherwise feel comfortable with it taking place. Despite the hassle, we acquiesced and managed to get a research assistant to sit in for the duration of each if the 90 minute assessments. It was a frustrating waste of resources to have the nurse just sitting there, but we needed to do our upmost to appease the mother because clinical research participants, particularly from ethnic minorities, are few and far between (an issue for a whole other article).

Having just finished reading Princess only a couple of days beforehand I suppose I was more sensitive of the situation than normal and although I know it has nothing to with me personally, and only a matter of my being male, it is still hard not to take exception to the insinuation. My offence, however, is really a non-issue. What shocked me at the time was that, hard-line Muslim or not, this practice of not leaving a female with a man unaccompanied was still being practiced in the Britain in 2010.

I’m not sure of the root reason for this behaviour. I’ve heard and read different versions from as many sources, but it is categorically unhealthy: it treats men as unrestrained sex-obsessed fiends to be constantly feared, and women as weak, and constantly vulnerable; the girls were barely pubescent and yet they were made acutely aware of their sexuality and that I, men, should not be trusted.

I’m still wrestling with just how big a deal the whole situation was. It falls well outside the remit of my PhD but what I would really like to do is sit down with that woman and ask her why she really feels the need to shield her daughters from male company; what exactly she expects to happen and what might happen in situations where it is not possible to provide a chaperone. What might be even more interesting would be to probe the thoughts of the daughters and how they feel about men, perhaps, being children, they don’t really notice or care as yet.

Mostly I worry about the kind of message she is sending her daughters who are growing up in a liberal and permissive society. These girls are second generation immigrants subjected to an insidious way of making them fear men from childhood. Whilst it’s not quite full on Sharia law, it’s one of these traditions subsumed by it that are easily practiced behind closed doors and I imagine very rarely surfaces as a problem in the wider community, or comes to the attention of people like me who are acutely aware of it. “Daughters of Arabia
, Sasson’s follow-up to Princess, concentrates on Sultana’s daughters and as an heart-wrenching and depressing as I know it’s going to be, I can’t wait to read it.

Tulpesh Patel is a Neurosciences PhD student at Aston University working in collaboration with the Birmingham Children’s Hospital. He is also founder and Chair of the Aston Humanist Society

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