The Girls of Riyadh

By Signe

A couple of weeks ago I found myself at the bookstore. I’m often there, although I don’t always buy something I always browse around, look at frontpages and read blurbs. Sometimes I put the book back on its shelf, and other times I simply have to buy it. This was the case of Rajaa al-Sanea’s, “The Girls of Riyadh” (2007). My interest in this book began because it seemed like a forbidden glimpse into a world that I know nothing of, and I found that to be almost addictive, and I just had to turn another page (don’t you love that feeling as well?)

The book is about four Saudi girls. However, the form of the book suggests that the reader is not merely reading a story, but rather that this story is real. One unnamed narrator, starts an e-mail service in which she depicts the everyday life and struggles of her four friends. She talks about university, parents, clothes and men, but instead of falling victim to the ever-famous stereotypical female stories (we all now them), the writer manages to tell truly honest stories about life. I think what is important to emphasise here is that these stories are apparent in all societies, and I know that I can certainly identify myself with these women, but it’s also crucial to understand that we, and especially being western females, must not fall victims of universalism. Thus, the fours girls’ stories are very much part of Saudi society, and so they cannot be directly translated to a more western idea or notion.

al-Sanea also translated the book originally published in Arabic to English, which gives an indication of just how important it is to translate stories correctly. I also have a vested interest in this subject because I’m writing my bachelor thesis on Orientalism, and so for me personally, the book opened my eyes in quite different ways, I suppose. Have you guys ever read something for fun, and then realised how it could be applied in social theories? I love when that happens!

My favourite part of the book was the description of sex and relationships (and for the naughty, I don’t mean actual descriptions of sexual acts–I find that they’re often hard to translate on paper …). First of all, al-Sanea describes how because of technology, men almost track down women to get their phone numbers and how chatrooms are blooming, and so, for the Saudi girls it’s not only important to find a man, but it’s also important to flirt and to talk. It’s interesting how these technologies become such a huge part of finding a partner, and although everybody does it, it’s still presented as a secretive thing. As these relationships emerge, it’s apparent that many of the girls marry young, but none of them are particularly happy and they all struggle in these re-defined relationships. Arguably, because it’s so easy to pose as another through mediums of communication rather than meeting people in real life, and because of the structure of the society the latter is not an option unless there’s a clear intention of marriage. So, I find that al-Sanea does something rather amazing, as she touches upon these relationships and how they’re formed and how they turn out, as a response to the sex segregation. I also found the idea of sex interesting. One character (I will not name her) legally marries a man (there’s a tradition for a legal marriage, a period of waiting and then the official wedding) and has sex with him because she wants to and she can’t stop, and afterwards the ‘husband’ leaves her, divorces her, but more importantly enables her to overcome this divorce-taboo. Thus, she emerges as an incredibly strong woman, and I think this is a pattern that we can all identify with on one level or another as readers, and so, I found the following quote to be especially poignant:

“Apparently, all men were the same. It was like God had given them different faces just so that women would be able to tell them apart.”

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I give this book a four out of five stars. I loved the format, the stories, the mysteries, the relationships, the travels, the glimpse of an unknown world, but more importantly, I loved the characters and how they were described each with their own little flaws and characteristics, which made the book colourful and come alive in a different way than I’ve experienced before.

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The Devil Wears Prada and the Portrayal of Women.

By Signe.

Hello, Bad Book Bitches (or Beautiful Booklovers, if you don’t feel quite comfortable with our name yet).

I have the honour of posting the first ever book review on Bad Book Bitches (I’m forever grateful, Dzenana), and I have to admit that I’m equally existed and scared. I’m thrilled because it’s finally happening (we’re finally posting real content), but scared because I don’t know what’s going to happen and where this will take us. And so, this review is the culmination of weeks of hard work and meetings, immeasurable amounts of chai latte, discussions and frustrations as we’re finally ready to go live.

With this honour of being the first, I contemplated for a long time of what to post. The first is always the most anticipated (at least for me), and so, I wanted to choose a book with characters that most of us could identify with. I wrote a review of a great book that’s important to me, but re-read it and felt like something was not quite right. Not right now, at least. With this initial disappointment, I thought long and hard about which book to choose, and I kept returning to one title that formed me growing up. First, I displaced this thought because I thought it was too easy just to choose something that I’ve always loved, but then I realised that this is actually what Bad Book Bitches is about—honest reviews of books that we love. The chosen book is one that I’ve kept returning to: I’ve re-read the yellow pages, I’ve felt the pink cover and traced my fingers along the title The Devil Wears Prada ever since I was maybe thirteen years old. But most importantly, I’ve been inspired by the main protagonist, and I’ve always wanted to be her—Miranda Priestly, editor-in-chief of Runway Magazine—even before I understood that her mean attitude was not a personality trait, but a tension between how we perceive men and females in chief positions.

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I’m not sure which is more famous: The movie version from 2006 starring Anne Hathaway, Meryl Streep and Emily Blunt, or the book from 2003 written by Lauren Weisberger—a somewhat true tale of her time as a personal assistant to Vogue-boss-lady Anna Wintour.

The book opens with Andrea “Andy” “Ahn-drea” Sachs, a recent Brown University graduate who moves to New York City in the hopes of creating a career in publishing. She aspires to work for The New Yorker, but is nevertheless hired as Miranda Priestly’s personal assistant and doesn’t care about the superficial world of fashion. Much of the book is reserved for Miranda’s dragon-like attitude, her way-too-high expectations and how much Andy works to gain just a little bit of respect—but somehow always fails to. For example, Andy questions the choice of a “blue” item, and Miranda Priestly delivers, possibly, the best comeback ever written.

“… This … stuff? I see, you think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and select out—oh, I don’t, that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you’re trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don’t know is that that sweater is not just blue, it’s not turquoise, it’s not lapis, it’s actually cerulean. You’re also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves Saint Laurent, wasn’t it, who showed cerulean military jackets? … And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of eight different designers. Then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic, casual corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and so it’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you’re wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room. From a pile of stuff.”

With this, the reader realises that “this stuff” is not just fashion or a piece of clothing, but part of making sense of the world. More importantly, “this stuff” represents how vital Miranda Priestly is, and what crucial world she plays in fictional New York City.

What I’ve always found to be interesting about this book is the portrayal of Miranda. On the one hand, she is cynical and not especially sympathetic towards her assistant. On the contrary, she is an extremely strong leader (I mean, come on, she runs Vogue … or, “Runway” I mean). Honestly, I think that Weisberger’s portrayal of Miranda as a dragon and witch is not fair. I find it ironic that women are still unable to be portrayed as leaders and therefore, the writer’s resort to less appealing characteristics. But maybe Weisberger did in fact what to comment on this societal issue by portraying Miranda as a cold-hearted woman. It’s interesting because when we look at the portrayal of men as leaders, they’re not cold-hearted, mean, evil or over-the-top demanding. Why is it that the female protagonist has to be portrayed like this?

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Throughout the book, Miranda demands that Andy picks up the right cup of coffee (obviously the right temperature as well). The right steak (that’s thrown out because Miranda didn’t feel like eating it anyways). That Andy’s always available (Miranda calls her whenever she wants or feels like it). And, of course, that Andy gets a copy of the newest Harry Potter book (not even published yet). And we see how Miranda (remember, female boss, the emperor of fashion capital) is still defined in relation to her husband, who wants a divorce. Miranda is diminishing—and I find this portrayal so wrong.

Weisberger actually had a chance of portraying a strong woman, but yet she fails to escape stereotypes and more importantly, men. Nevertheless, it’s still my favourite book because I’m aware of this issue of representation, and because I can recognise how strong Miranda is, and I think we should all strive to be her.

I find it difficult to rate this book because I’m ambivalent towards it. On one side, I love the characters and what they represent, but on other hand, I don’t particularly love how it’s written or what Weisberger focuses on. Therefore, I’ve landed on three stars because my overall impression was that I liked it.

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