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  • Megan Biggs

Princess : a tale of women's rights

May 27, 2013

The book Princess, by Jean Sasson, is about a real-life Saudi Arabian Princess (who is called “Sultana” in the book, which isn’t her real name because if she gave her real name she would be unceremoniously murdered) who tells her life story through American writer Jean Sasson in the hopes that it will expose “gender inequalities” experienced by Saudi Arabian woman.

My impression of the country of Saudi Arabia before I read this book was “I think that country is really hardcore and I don’t ever want to visit there.” Luckily for me, turns out Saudi Arabia doesn’t allow tourists anyway. That’s the first definition of the word “unfriendly” in your Merriam-Webster.

They are an extremely affluent country, made rich by the wealth of their oil sands, a sort of Arabian Alberta, and they are deathly serious (I just made the worst pun ever) about keeping the laws of Islam. No other religion is allowed to be practised in Saudi Arabia.

I knew going in that what I would read would most likely be unpleasant. But I was still unprepared for the things, the very true things, that I read. Here is one example of the kind of story that Princess Sultana shares.

Sultana goes on a family trip to Cairo with her two sisters, her sister’s husband, her brother Ali (whom she hates) and her brother Ali’s friend Hadi, who she describes as a “pompous ass” (chuckle, chuckle). One night while staying at a hotel, Sultana and her sister hear screams coming from Ali and Hadi’s room. Sultana bursts in and finds Ali and Hadi holding an 8 year old girl down and raping her. They learn that the girl’s mother had sold them to the boys, and Sultana’s brother-in-law says there is nothing he can do about it.

Even though caught in this shameful act, Hadi and Ali acted as though nothing had happened. When I sneered at Hadi and asked him how he could be a religious man, he laughed full in my face. I turned to Ali and told him that I was going to tell Father he was attacking young girls, and he laughed even harder than Hadi. He leaned toward me and said, “Tell him. I do not mind!” He said that Father had given him the name of a man to contact for the same type of service. He smiled and said young girls were more fun, and besides, Father always did the same sort of thing when he came to Cairo.
I felt as though I had been electrocuted; my brain felt burned, my mouth hung open, and I stared at my brother. I had my first thoughts that all – ALL – men are wicked. I wanted to destroy my memory of that day and lapse once again into innocence….I came to dread what I would discover next in the world of men.

That is just one story in this book. There are many more. Sultana’s friend Sameera is locked up in a windowless, dark room without any human contact to starve to death because she fell in love with an American. Another one of Sultana’s friends is drowned to death in her swimming pool by her father for fooling around with foreign men. Sultana’s sister Sara is forced to marry a man who sexually brutalizes her so badly that she attempts suicide. It goes on and on.

People make excuses as to why womens’ rights are so ignored in Arab countries. They blame it on Islam. I am not an expert on Islam, so I can’t attack or defend it. I’m sure it’s got problems, and I’m sure it’s got strengths. The problem with that religion, as it is with Christianity and with, well, darn near every religion that’s every been or ever will be, is that it’s a human-made system for understanding God. That means we humans can, and will, twist it to suit our purposes.

In present-day society, not just in Arab society but also in North American, there is a huge, HUGE gap between how God/Allah views women, and how women are viewed. In North America, we call women sluts, we shame them for how they dress, we categorize them as one-dimensional characters, we disrespect and condemn them. In some Arab cultures, it can be even worse. Women are expected to obey, are treated as property with little worth, exist for the pleasure of men, are sub-human and expendable.

We should not get on our high horses and point the finger at Islam, even if the evidence is favourable. After all, it says in the Christian bible that women must submit to their husbands.

(Ephesians 5:22-23 – Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.)

This verse may be widely misinterpreted, but upon first glance it really doesn’t sound all that different from the Qu’ran.

Men are the maintainers of women because Allah has made some of them to excel others and because they spend out of their property; the good women are therefore obedient, guarding the unseen as Allah has guarded; and (as to) those on whose part you fear desertion, admonish them, and leave them alone in the sleeping-places and beat them; then if they obey you, do not seek a way against them; surely Allah is High, Great. [4:34]

Transversely, the Bible and the Qu’ran are also shown to value women – in the Bible, we read :

She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue [Proverbs 31:26].

In the Qu’ran, men are implored by the Prophet Mohammed to value their females :

Whoever hath a daughter, and doth not bury her alive, or scold her, or prefer his male children to her, may God bring him into Paradise.

So you see, I have a hard time believing that Islam is 100% of the problem.

The Qur’an’s language about women is generally negative, and some of the instruction given to husbands about their wives is disturbing. However, what I read in “Princess” is the story of a culture who has taken these verses to an unnecessary extreme. There is no real basis in the Qu’ran for much of the shenanigans that go on in some Arab countries.

My question is, how did this gap happen? How did we get from there to here?

Theological misinterpretation plays a part, but it’s not the whole story. There’s something else going on.

First of all, the text is being used in a destructive way. This is something that both Muslims and Christians are guilty of. When we use our holy texts for something other than what they were intended, it wreaks a sick and vile reality. We can see this reality in Christian culture and in Arab culture. The manifestation may be different, but the effect is the same.

The second reason is a bit more complicated.

In Saudi Arabia, and in a lot of Arab countries, sexuality and the opposite sex are shrouded, covered up and caged to the point where they know basically nothing about each other. There is no such thing as platonic friends. Ankles suddenly become erotic. When you know absolutely nothing about something but are expected to, or want to pretend like you are an expert on a subject on which you know nothing, what do you do? You make stuff up. Completely untrue stuff. You let your imagination fill in the blanks. Don’t act like this isn’t true, I did it all the freakin’ time in Social Studies class. That’s the ignorance part.

The fear part comes from not knowing. Here is an old irish proverb : “The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.” That’s basic human nature. Abused women go back to their husbands seven times on average. Why? Because it’s what they know. Homeless people will often go back to a shelter rather than keep a place they’ve worked hard to get. Why? Because it’s what they know. Christians are afraid of death. Why? Because they don’t know what it’s like.

That fear, coupled with the ignorance, leads to hate. It makes hate easy, in fact. Blazes an ever-lovin’ trail right to hate’s door. And maybe you’ll take off your shoes and stay awhile, because it’s comfortable. It might be so comfortable, in fact, that you start taking divinely inspired scriptures and twisting their meaning so that you can justify cruelty, violence, and depravity. It leads to holding an eight year old girl down and raping her.

And perhaps, by doing this disservice to females, the males are disservicing themselves as well. These mistreated women have assumptions about men that are correct within Saudi society, but false on a larger scale. Sultana says at one point in the book that “all men are wicked” and that she came to dread what she would discover next in the world of men. That, to me, is incredibly sad.

I think of the men in my life. They are gentle, kind, they defend and protect me, they laugh with me and they hold me when I cry, they listen to me talk about ghastly topics like Gossip Girl and how menstrual cramps are ruining my life. They brush my hair, cook me dinner and they pick up my almond milk at the store. They tell me I’m beautiful when I’m not. They treat me with respect. They say that they're lucky to have me. I wish every woman could have that.

As to the question of women’s rights, our responsibility as Christians is not to bear the “white man’s burden”, and enforce upon others our own cultural and religious norms. We're not out here to convert all Muslims to Christianity.

I don’t know how to bring about concrete and healthy change in places like Saudi Arabia and Somalia. However, in the words of one Julie Andrews, “Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.” In this case, a good starting point might be allowing ourselves to be honest with how far we take things in our own backyard. I may not be able to rescue Princess Sultana or any of her friends, but I can stop denouncing other women, I can challenge media perception, I can try to see every woman with Jesus’ eyes instead of my own. In this way, perhaps we can show solidarity with our oppressed sisters overseas.

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