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Last Updated: Thursday, 27 April 2006, 15:08 GMT 16:08 UK
Saudi novel breaks sex taboos
Heba Saleh
By Heba Saleh
BBC News, Riyadh

A controversial novel written by a young Saudi woman is breaking taboos in the Kingdom's conservative society.

Banat al-Riyadh, or The Girls of Riyadh, speaks openly of sex, lesbianism and young women's desire to lead freer lives.

The author, Rajaa al-Sanei, is a 24-year old dentist from a conservative Saudi family.

Her book has angered some people in Saudi Arabia, but it has also attracted praise for its honesty.

Rajaa al-Sanei
Author Rajaa al-Sanei writes openly about life in Saudi Arabia

The four young women at the centre of the novel challenge Saudi Arabia's strict social and sexual conventions.

Under the country's Islamic law, women are meant to be covered and accompanied by a male relative in public. In this extract two of the heroines are shown dressing up as men.

"Mashael put on a pair of baggy trousers with many pockets and a large jacket which covered her body, concealing every sign of femininity.

"As for Lamees, she donned the white robe of a man, complete with full headgear. Her tall, athletic body gave her the appearance of a handsome young man"

The novel is full of popular references and shows the modern side of Saudi Arabia.

"The girls' first stop was the famous coffee shop on Thaliya Street," al-Sanei writes in one passage.

"The young men realised the shaded windows of the X5 car concealed a valuable catch. They surrounded the car from every direction.

"They either shouted out their numbers or held them up written on big signs that had been prepared in advance so that they could be seen clearly by girls in passing cars."

Conservatives say the novel smears Saudi society. But the Minister of Culture, Iyad Madani, says it reflects the way many young people in the Kingdom actually live.

"It connected with the new generation because it was based on how our young people use their mobile phones to create relationships."

The internet and satellite TV channels mean Saudis are no longer sheltered from outside influences.

It is not just conservative hardliners who are critical of the book. Hani Khoja produces a youth television programme, he has many reservations about it.

"The lesbian aspect of it, the gay son - that's not been talked about before. Obviously it happens... but to say it in public doesn't show the other rich elements of Saudi.

"I don't think it's a very balanced portrayal of Riyadh".

The authorities only allowed the book to go on sale in the last few weeks, but it shows the government is willing to confront the country's hardliners in order to liberalise a few more aspects of life in Saudi Arabia.

Have you read Banat al-Riyadh? What do you think of its treatment of subjects rarely discussed in public in Saudi Arabia?

Your comments:

I love it. Very funny and SO true. This is the kind of literature we need now in the Gulf and the Arab World. It is quite honest and contemporary. Talks about what life is like for the vast majority of young people in the Gulf now. But it fails to talk about the expats (and their families) in the Gulf and Saudi, which far outnumber the local population. We need more young writers like her.
Ahmed, Abu Dhabi

The kind of topics that seem to come up today which try to show modernism are in fact quite the opposite. If anyone thinks that such literature is progress then they are sadly wrong!
Mohammed Ali Mirza

This novel is wrong especially in a state that condemns this sort of behaviour. If she wanted to talk about these issues she should go to another country!
Mohammed Khoshkhoo

The problem with the book is that it's being marketed as being reflective of the facts on ground when it's far from it.
Mohammed Ansari, Dammam, Saudi Arabia

Nowhere in the Quran or Hadith does it say that a single woman has to be escorted by a man! The prophet's wife ran her own business after and before she was married to him. Rajaa should be proud of her book.
Kabir, USA

I am a Saudi and I do not see this as such a shock. It could be because I am from Jeddah, which is the most liberal city in Saudi Arabia. The events she talks about do happen here and people have to start dealing with these issues, agree with them or not.
Maha, Jeddah, Saudi Srabia

Very overrated, linguistically poor, and it's not difficult to 'break taboos' in a country like Saudi Arabia. But better than nothing.
Alaa Shehabi, London

It is a daring novel in which the young writer seeks to explore an unexplored side of the capital of Saudi Arabia. She reveals realities that so many people know about or at least hear about, however they dare not mention it. She enjoys a courage to expose hidden questions and to travel on untrodden path. I can see in her a Saudi Arabian Henrik Ibsen and Virginia Woolf?
Said I. Abdelwahed, PhD, Gaza - Palestine

I've not read that book, but I can deduce one or two things out of it. First many Muslims are slowly but surely overlooking our religion, which is a complete way of life. Instead they are trying to "modernize" Islam and failure is in their next stride. We are taught that even if a Muslim commits obscene acts he/she should try as much as possible not to broadcast it abroad and hopefully and secretly seek repentance from God.
Ramadhan K. Adam, ELDORET. Kenya

I lived in Saudi Arabia in my childhood and during some teenage years. What is written in the book is exactly how things were. The parties, drinking, lesbians, close friendships, gaps between ways of thinking, etc... Rajaa is great, i have so much respect for her, she told the truth in a very loving manner to her country.
Alia Zein, Damascus, Syria

I lived in Riyadh many years. Banat al-Riyadh is an excellent portrayal. Someone had to start and Rajaa (to her great credit) did. The more such social issues are brought to the open, the sooner individuals understand them and the society start to change or improve them. Allowing the book┐s sale in Saudi Arabia is a very positive sign.
Omar Zein, London, UK

I don't reckon this should be published in such a fashion which can harm the society and country's prestige, if you are really concerned, work in concrete way for the betterment of society not being selfish and earn publicity out of weaknesses of your own people. It's a nice way of gaining attention and fame.
Zaki Hassan, KSA - Jeddah

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