Girls of Riyadh, Don’t Drive

‘Girls of Riyadh’ is worth a read. It has flaws and many critics, but the facts remain:

  • It was written by a Saudi Arabian woman
  • It was banned
  • It caused an uproar in Saudi Arabia
  • It went further and shook up the wider Arab world
  • It remains extremely popular in the Arab world

The author, Raaja al-Sanea left Saudi Arabia and moved to Chicago, because the book was causing such havoc in her life. An older article on al-AKhbar, says that she is now a practicing dentist, but still answering questions about her book: its artistic value, the lifestyle it represents, whether the book is feminist and more.

I find it interesting that in the article, she says she prefers to think of her book as “humanist”. She sounds uncomfortable with the title “feminist”. As the hubbub around #WomenAgainstFeminism shows, she is not alone.

At bookstores in Dubai, the book is consistently on the top selling shelf, in 2nd or 3rd place. It has been called the “Sex and the City” of Saudi Arabia.

The book has been criticized for not being literature with a capital “L”. It is gossipy and girly. On Good Reads it gets a 3/5 rating. A lot of the criticism stems from the fact that the girls are obsessed with finding a fairy tale love, a shallow and immature pursuit.

It’s true that the book revolves around four women looking for love. And they often have a naive view. At the same time, one has to remember that these women live extremely sheltered lives, segregated from the male population. One of them does become a Dr., but it is very clear in the book that a women depends on a man for her existence in the Kingdom.

This dependence is not due to a character flaw, like immaturity or weakness. A women can do very little without male permission.

She also depends on her good reputation as a chaste woman. She is being constantly watched and judged by other men and women and these judgements control her fate.

The book has an intimate feel being in the voice of 1 woman. Although it is about Saudi Arabia, I felt like it gave me some insight into Emirati, or Gulf culture as well.

To marry for love is what the Girls of Riyadh want, but their families choose for them and are more interested in a ‘good match’. A good match comes from the right tribe, from the right family, and means to take care of the woman.

In terms of the characters being obsessed with marriage, I know many teachers here that have worked at local schools and by 16, 17 the girls’ talk is all about getting married. I’m sure there are women who have other dreams, thoughts, and desires. I’m sure they wonder about the meaning of life, existence, truth and everything else. The character Michelle, who moves to America and then Dubai, does care about a lot more than just boys.

The reality is Emirati and Saudi girls are destined for marriage, in their late teens/early twenties, and they usually have very little to no choice over who the person will be. The men often don’t have much choice in their marriage either as its arranged by parents, aunts and uncles.

Women in the Emirates do have more freedom than in Saudi Arabia. In my neighborhood, I met a completely covered  woman while waiting to cross the street. I could tell she smiled by the crinkly in her eyes as she told me, “I love it here. I can be out and take a walk and cross the street by myself. In Saudi- never. Dubai, I have freedom.”

Women here can drive. In the book, a woman dresses up like a man to take her friends for a ride. Last year, women in Saudi Arabia defied their culture and took to the roads, posting on social media. It prompted a Saudi Arabian comic make a great satire

Is the book perfect? No. Is it a full picture of life in the Kingdom? No. Does it convey an experience to which many young people in the Kingdom can relate to? I think so.


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