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A Review of

Princess: A True Story of Life Behind the Veil in Saudi Arabia

by Jean P. Sasson

 

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Summary

This book claims to tell the "true story" of a princess in Saudi Arabia, filled with many anecdotes of misogynistic treatment she and other women in her family endured at the hands of men. But is it indeed a "true story" or is it fiction/hoax? Cover

 

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Fact Sheet

Title

Princess: A True Story of Life Behind the Veil in Saudi Arabia

Author

Jean P. Sasson

ISBN

0-380-71918-5

Publisher

Avon Books in the U.S., Bantam in the U.K.

Category

Non-Fiction: Near Eastern Culture

Rating

StarStar

Number of Pages

233

Published In

1992

 

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Description

The book supposedly tells of the life of Sultana (not her real name), a granddaughter of the al-Saud warlord who brought most of the Arabian peninsula under his family's control at the dawn of the 20th century. Even though she is a member of the royal family, Sultana is bound by a strict society that she says defines women as nothing more than vessels for sexual relief and breeders of children for the men.

Princess depicts how even royal women are beaten, executed, and enslaved by their fathers, husbands, and brothers. It tells of a Filipino woman who came to Saudi Arabia to take a job working as a housekeeper in a private home, only to learn upon arrival that her duties also included providing daily sexual release to her employer and his two sons. It's the story of a young woman who was stoned to death for bringing dishonor upon her family – she had been raped by her brother's friends, who then lied and claimed she had enticed them.

However...

I'm skeptical. Some of these tales (such as Filipina housekeepers finding out that their jobs contain "duties" that are not what they expected) actually are consistent with things I've heard from other sources. But I find it very difficult to believe that the narrator of this book was a real person telling her own life story. It's not credible that such a book, with such details, could be published without everyone in the family immediately knowing who did it. The fact that the book is extremely one-sided in its view of Saudi royal family life raises my suspicions – people's lives are rarely so one-dimensional. And finally, it doesn't seem likely to me that a member of the Saudi royal family would confide such intimate details of her life to a foreigner and make them available for publication abroad.

There are factual details that add to my suspicion, such as the book's claim that women are not allowed in mosques. The fact is that Saudi mosques have separate sections set aside for women. A real Saudi princess would have known this and would not have made such an error.

There was also a lawsuit involving this book. Another woman claimed that Sasson had plagiarized her manuscript. There was an article in the New York Times about the lawsuit in 1995, and another in the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs in 1996. Although I have not conducted the legal research to determine how the lawsuit turned out, I'm thinking that the ruling must have been in Sasson's favor. Otherwise, if Sasson had lost the suit, I would expect that the courts would have required her to discontinue selling it.

 

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Is It Right for You?

 

You Will Probably Enjoy This Book If...

  • You are comfortable believing that Muslim women are badly treated by their society and you want to read something that will agree with your preconceptions.

 

This Book Probably Isn't Right for You If...

  • You prefer books that seem balanced, exploring both the good and the bad in a person's life experience.
  • You would find it depressing to read a book that provides a relentless sequence of stories about women being mistreated.

 

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What I Liked, What I Didn't

 

What I Liked:

  • The author has a knack for knowing how to provoke an emotional reaction in her readers.
  • Although I question the credibility of some of the "facts" in this book, I am glad there is some exposure of the limitations that women must endure in this restrictive society, such as the requirement that they have written permission from a male family member before being allowed to travel outside the country.
  • Sultana's story is told in plain, easy-to-read English. You don't need to be a scholar to understand this book.
  • The book contains a large amount of historical information explaining how Saudi Arabia emerged as a nation and developed the political structure that governs it today.
  • There are interesting insights into how this society has managed to endure and what has happened when people have tried to change it from within.
  • The book weaves all this information into the story of Sultana's life, so that it unfolds as part of her story. It teaches a great deal about the Persian Gulf region without coming across as a dry textbook.
  • I find it very helpful that this book includes several reference resources: a map of Saudi Arabia, a brief guide to facts about the country, a map identifying neighboring countries, a genealogical chart showing the al Sa'ud extended family, an appendix detailing passages from the Koran that relate to women and family life, an appendix with information on the laws of Saudi Arabia, a glossary, a chronology of significant events, and an index. I referred to these materials several times while reading the back, and went back to them later.

 

What I Didn't Like:

  • This book is depressing. It paints a picture of a society where the prospects for women are very bleak. Don't read it at a time when you are emotionally fragile.
  • Its deep negativity regarding Arabian society makes me suspicious – I would expect more of a balance between negative and positive if the book was truly trying to portray how life really is for women there.
  • Some factual errors make me question the subtitles claim that this is the "true story" of a real-life person.

 

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Conclusion

I'm skeptical about the subtitle's claim that this book is the "true story" of a member of the Saudi royal family. There's a very sensationalist tone, and there are a number of small errors that undermine the credibility of the work - errors I wouldn't expect a real Saudi princess to make.

However, even if it were 100% true and there really were a woman who experienced these things in her immediate family, I'd suggest that the existence of one drama-filled family does not automatically mean that an entire society behaves that way. I'm sure we are all acquainted with dysfunctional families in our own societies whom we do not think are representative of how the rest of us live.

Yes, Saudi Arabia has some real issues with respect to how it treats women and foreigners (especially non-Muslims). But I don't think this book is the right tool to use in educating ourselves about it.

 

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Disclosures

There is nothing to disclose. I have never had any contact with anyone associated with this book.

 

Contact Information

Web Site: www.jeansasson.com


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