It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say I felt personally attacked as a woman when I read bits of “Princess” by Jean Sasson, who claims it’s a true tale of a Saudi royal’s life in the elusive Arab world. The novel is a jarring juxtaposition of opulence & oppression, where women in the royal family have excessive wealth at their disposition, but their freedom is limited to buying jewels & expensive clothes that’ll be hidden under their veils. They are nothing but glorified slaves, always under the thumb of their fathers, brothers, uncles and husbands; men who treat women like disposable property and rape minor girls to pass time.
The protagonist ‘Princess Sultana’ (a pseudonym) grows up being ignored by her father and resolves at a young age that she will fight for gender justice. While for the first half, the reader is lulled into believing that Sultana may champion women rights, she frustratingly does ‘jack shit’ (nothing) & settles into a lavish life of domesticity. Wouldn’t be a stretch to call her an egoistic brat who largely brags & rarely acts.
All the male characters in the book are like clones, varying in very little degrees. There is no dominant character that stands out, especially since everybody is shown to the reader through Sultana’s views. Their personalities are clouded in her judgement. Saudi Arabia is perhaps the leading figure, an overpowering presence, malevolent and maliciously prejudiced against the female populace.
The author’s writing style is quite plain and yet the book is a page turner. It’s the tragic/horrifying stories of women around Sultana that’ll keep you glued to this novel. A flashback story of how her older sister undergoes female circumcision in her teens made my skin crawl. I had to put the book away for a few seconds to chase away the graphic images bubbling in my head. The circumcision is about control – men see to it that a woman’s most sensitive region is crushed to ensure she doesn’t enjoy the act of sex to prevent infidelity. All shades of patriarchal hypocrisy is on shameful display in this novel through stories of several women, both ordinary and royal.
As a reader, at several points, I either despaired at their helplessness or was grateful for not being born in a land where women are puppeteered like pet dogs from their births till their deaths. That’s not to say all is hunky dory in my part of the world. It’s the kind of book that makes me appreciate all the strides women have made in a male-dominated society and serves a stark reminder that we as women constantly need to fight in whatever little ways we can to achieve a more equal world.