Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Book review: Princess by Jean Sasson, and the inculcation of fear in young Muslim girls - am I making a mountain out of a mole-hill? by Tulpesh Patel

I started writing a review of Princess, a biography of a Saudi princess written by Jean Sasson,  but, as the Lord does indeed move in mysterious ways, something happened at work very shortly after that prompted me to also turn this into a blog post.

First the book. Princess recounts the life of Saudi Princess, Sultana, from childhood in the 60s to her own motherhood in the 90s. It was lent to my wife by a friend, I casually started reading the blurb and found it so engrossing I was a couple of hundred pages in before I realised the time. This book is one of the most brutal things I’ve ever read and I can say with complete sincerity, unputdownable.

Sultana tells of ritual and absolute oppression by the men of the household and wider society. The men hold untold wealth and absolute power, able to deny or cover up their own offence or justify any/all behaviour as that sanctioned or encouraged by their faith or tradition. The women are denied education (save for reciting the Koran); forced to wear an abaaya (not unlike a burkha, but even more covering) from their first menstruation, which incidentally makes them eligible for marriage to whomever the father chooses usually for simple financial gain;  routinely mentally, physically and sexually abused and killed.

The treatment of women is so vile that it is actually difficult to grasp the reality of a woman’s life in this period. Most of this book reads like science fiction set in a whole other world; that it does so, makes the story’s impact all the greater. For someone raised in Britain without really a religious upbringing and only having ‘moderately’ religious friends, I did not know anything like it. Seeing women in a full burkha complete with a metal mask on the streets of Dubai is the closest I’ve ever come to such closeting of women.  To quote the book: “those who are free cannot fathom the small victories of those who live on a tether”, and this is simply the princesses response to the unprecedented decision of allowing her to see her fianc√© before she married him.

The second strand of the story, on the near limitless wealth of the Saudi royalty, is one less emotional and nearly as interesting. The princess astutely observes how the such wealth, and lack of drive that usually entails, is stagnating progress in oil-rich states; princes live on huge monthly stipends, and women are placated with more jewels, homes and finery than they know what to do with.

This book is a remarkable insight into the role of women in Saudi cultures, but what is also striking is how women hold their oppression and faith in tandem. Sultana praises Mohamed and turns to God and the Koran, which gave us Shariah and yet denounces her faith’s sanctioning of the maltreatment of women . The book begins with the caveat that it does not intend to offend Islam, but routinely demonstrates how, in actuality, what morals can be gleaned from the Koran are routinely ignored by men who’s urges and wallets are beyond control, and it is more truthfully used a manual for the oppression of women.

Princess is set in a period 40 to 20 years ago in Saudi Arabia. Since that time the world has become smaller and the ability of the followers of Sharia law to stifle human rights violations have become tougher than ever.  There are still, however, despairingly regular, prominent cases of female oppression, the most recent being the impending execution of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani  by Iranian authorities for alleged adultery.  The fact that these cases exists, and the international legal wrangling surrounding her proper defence, shows how tenaciously the (male) enforcers of the law have clung to old, repressive traditions and resisted fair, secular values. Daughters of Arabia, Sasson’s follow-up to Princess, concentrates on Sultana’s daughters and as an heart-wrenching and depressing as I know it’s going to be, I can’t wait to read it. 

Now on to what made me want to write more than just a review of the book. As part of my PhD I routinely perform cognitive assessments on children aged from 4 to 18.  On one particular occasion, just a week or so ago, I introduced myself to the patient’s mother, who was a head-scarfed Muslim, and immediately found that she was anxious about the assessments and asked if I was just me administering them. It isn’t unusual for parents or the children to be anxious about being left with strangers to do ‘tests’ in an unfamiliar environment, and we often let parents or guardians sit in the corner in order to help the child relax (as long as they don’t start to sign language answers, which has happened before). In this case, however, the patients were fine but it was anxiety solely on the mother’s part about my being male and left unsupervised with her daughter. Leaving your young daughter in the company of strangers is perhaps a legitimate fear, but this was a research facility in a hospital and was beyond the Stranger Danger stuff you usually teach to kids.

We are normally on a tight schedule on assessment days and run tests in parallel so the mother had to accompany the sibling for the physio tests in another department. She insisted that there be another woman in the room with me during the cognitive assessment and didn’t otherwise feel comfortable with it taking place. Despite the hassle, we acquiesced and managed to get a research assistant to sit in for the duration of each if the 90 minute assessments. It was a frustrating waste of resources to have the nurse just sitting there, but we needed to do our upmost to appease the mother because clinical research participants, particularly from ethnic minorities, are few and far between (an issue for a whole other article).

Having just finished reading Princess only a couple of days beforehand I suppose I was more sensitive of the situation than normal and although I know it has nothing to with me personally, and only a matter of my being male, it is still hard not to take exception to the insinuation.  My offence, however, is really a non-issue. What shocked me at the time was that , hard-line Muslim or not, this practice of not leaving a female with a man unaccompanied was still being practiced in the Britain in 2010.

I’m not sure of the root reason for this behaviour. I’ve heard and read different versions from as many sources, but it is categorically unhealthy: it treats men as unrestrained sex-obsessed fiends to be constantly feared, and women as weak, and constantly vulnerable; the girls were barely pubescent and yet they were made acutely aware of their sexuality and that I, men, should not be trusted.

I’m still wrestling with just how big a deal the whole situation was. It falls well outside the remit of my PhD but what I would really like to do is sit down with that woman and ask her why she really feels the need to shield her daughters from male company; what exactly she expects to happen and what might happen in situations where it is not possible to provide a chaperone. What might be even more interesting would be to probe the thoughts of the daughters and how they feel about men, perhaps, being children, they don’t really notice or care as yet.

Mostly I worry about the kind of message she is sending her daughters who are growing up in a liberal and permissive society. These girls are second generation immigrants subjected to an insidious way of making them fear men from childhood. Whilst it’s not quite full on Sharia law, it’s one of these traditions subsumed by it that are easily practiced behind closed doors and I imagine very rarely surfaces as a problem in the wider community, or comes to the attention of people like me who are acutely aware of it. 


  1. Sorry to tell you, but the book PRINCESS you've read, which made you write this blog, is not fact but 100% fiction! Jean Sasson is the 21st Centuries NR. ONE HOAX author and soon to be unveiled as such. She started to fool the world with her first book of lies THE RAPE OF KUWAIT. For this harmful propaganda book of manny lies Sasson was well paid by the government of Kuwait. Realising how easy it was to get away with writing lies and getting paid for it , Jean Sasson then boldly got hold of the autobiography a european woman, who was married to a Diplomat from Kuwait wrote, and made it her own to write a trilogy about a Saudi Arabian Princess who in reality does not even exist. Looking at yourself as a sample, you can easily tell, how very harmful it is to spread invented lies and sell them as none fiction. Mind you, the publishers who publish this trash are well aware what Sasson is doing, but the lovely money those lies bring in is much more important to publishers than the truth. So they carry on selling Sasson's endless lies to unsuspecting, duped readers which is a crime. But the truth shall out!

  2. Hello Tulpesh Patel, that's the 2nd message I leave for you. Since you've read hoax author Jean Sasson's "Princess" trilogy, I wanted you to know that there is a new expose book on Jean Sasson and her hoaxes, especielly the "Princess" books.
    Kind regards.
    Friederike Monika Pavlik, author of "THE PHONEY PRINCESS"

    1. I have read your book, it is a bunch of lies and garbage. You are not a writer or an author, you're someone that has an axe to grind. All of Jean Sasson's books are educational and everyone will be able to take something from them. No one will gain any perspective from your book because it is nothing more than hate.

  3. The Princess books have changed my life. Prior to reading them I had no idea that women were oppressed so badly in this part of the world. Since reading them I have read all of Jean Sasson's other books. Most recently I got her new ebook "Desert Chick in Saudi Arabia" that was about her travels in the Kingdom. I really enjoyed this book. Thank you Jean for making a difference in people's lives and in caring so much about women's rights.

  4. Jan B. BS artiste. You're one of plagiarist-hoax author sociopath Jean Sassons individual employees who's job it is to scan the net for negative reviews posted under her fake-hoax books and to insult the writers of those negative reviews.
    Apropos Jean Sassons silly poorly written "American Chick in Saudi Arabia" autobio booklet which did'nt sell at all. It is a joke, a compleet fabrication! As expected, in it she is once again excessively lying and for ever selfinventing herself as someone very important, but this time she had to cut it short because she seems to have run out of inventing fresh lies to make it to a whole book. She is the trademarks of meglomaniacs and Sociopaths. Cheers!

    1. Your lies and your hatred and your utter jealousy must be eating you up inside. Jean Sasson is everything that you are not: honest, talented and lucid!

    2. I just read your books on the recommendation of a friend. I am writing my life story and she wanted to alert me that I should look out for editors, publishers, writers, judges, and even the court reporters or stenographers! I decided to take her advice and read your book THE PHONEY PRINCESS. It was a big lesson for me. I don’t think I will hire an editor. And, when I deal with the publishers, I will tape record all sessions. If I ever have to go to court to protect my property, I’ll do the same thing! And, forget those stenographers! Do you think all of them would take rolled of dollar bills from defendants in order to change around the record they are supposed to be making? I tell you, your book was an eye opener. I will quote so others can know what you think happened: “I saw her from the corner of my eyes reaching for her sunglass case on the table. She said to Gretchen (the stenographer), “Come, I’ll show you my new sunglasses. In quick succession the two women left the room. Why did they have to leave the room to look at sunglasses? Who says there wasn’t a rolled up bundle of dollar bills hidden inside the case?”
      Oh my goodness. I bet you are right. I bet that rich author gave the stenographer thousands of dollars to try and throw the testimony!
      I’m sorry this happened to you, Monika. What a disappointment.

  5. To Monika, why have you also accused other authors of sealing your work?

    You accused Deborah Moggach and a writer named Sylvia.

    Why does this keep happening with you?

    What happened?

    Why didn't you go to England to pursue the allegations against Ms. Moggach? What happened in that case

  6. I've just read the book 'Princess' by J Sasson, it doesn't quite ring true but I can't put my finger on why. It may be the author's easy way of writing that reminds one of the Mills & Boon's genre.