Bairnwick Center Explores Issues of Gender and Society in Girls of Riyadh Club

by Phillip Davis c’19

The Bairnwick Women’s Center will be hosting a discussion book club for Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsanea, which aims to “delv[e] into the intrigue of Saudi Society and the lives of women,” as the event’s poster puts it.

“I learned about the book from some more experienced people while I was studying in Jordan,” said WICK resident Kathleen Kelso, who will be directing the book club. “After that experience, it was kind of hard not to be concerned with the state of women’s rights in that region,” she furthers.

The novel, which is popular in the Arab world despite being banned in its author’s home country of Saudi Arabia, tells the story of four young Saudi women from different social, political, and ethnic backgrounds as they face issues of gender and individuality in a largely univocal society in which exploration of these issues is often “under tight control,” as Kathleen put it.

Given recent developments in Saudi Arabia, such as their role in the war in Yemen, their increasing (largely religiously motivated) hostility towards Iran, their recent election of 21 female candidates to municipal positions, and the power they hold as a main member of OPEC, it is increasingly important to understand the desert kingdom in a complex way.

“In the west, Saudi Arabia is shrouded in mystery — we think of sheikhs and veiled women,” comments Kathleen, adding that she hopes this book’s portrayal of “tangible people” will help dispel these destructive stereotypes.

Girls of Riyadh, she says, presents its characters not just as products of their social position, but also as real individuals with hopes and insecurities, while still dissecting the influence that factors such as muslim faith and an emphasis on respect for authority, both of which are very important in Arab and especially Saudi culture. “Part of what the book does,” comments Kathleen, “is to show the difficulty in drawing a distinction between ‘straight-up sexism’ and cultural difference.”

Additionally, the Alsanea’s style is conversational but still intricate, taking the form of fictional e-mails in which she tells her critics that their opinions and expectations matter far less than the women and girls for and about whom she writes. While some controversy surrounds the stylistic integrity of the English translation of the novel, which was never meant to be read outside of Arabic, her energy and her passion still come across clearly.

The Girls of Riyadh book club meets at 7 PM on Wednesdays, starting February 10th. The first meeting will be over chapters one through ten.