When Jean Sasson’s book “Princess: Life Behind the Veil in Saudi Arabia” was published, it became an immediate international bestseller. It sold in 43 countries and spent 13 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list. Now, in this long-awaited, compelling new book, Sasson and the Princess Sultana return to tell the world what it means to be a Saudi woman today.
This fascinating insight will include personal stories of triumph and heartbreak, as told to Princess Sultana, her eldest daughter and author Jean Sasson. Each of these stories will offer the reader a glimpse into different aspects of Saudi society, including the lives of the Princess, her daughter and other members of her family.
This is the 4th in the series you have written about Princess Sultana. Can you tell us why Princess Sultana feels compelled to keep her identity a secret after all these years?
Yes, I can tell you her feelings on the matter. And, I, too, believe that the readers of her book have a right to know why we cannot reveal her true name.
The full truth is that in the beginning, she was protecting herself. While she wanted to expose the truth of life behind the veil, she did not have any desire to be put in prison, or to be kept under house arrest. Few governments look kindly upon anyone who criticises them, or the society. The books about her life laid bare the tremendous problems faced by many women, and the raging discrimination against females in the land.
Now her number one priority is to protect her children. In many countries, when one member of the family does something that generates disapproval or punishment, the entire family is usually dishonoured. Two of her three children have made their homes in the country where they were born. They love their country, and do not wish to leave. For her to make her identity known, she believes that her children would need to leave. This is not her goal. She wants to live in the land of her birth, and wants her children to be able to maintain their heritage, yet at the same time, she feels she must continue to help bring change and improvement to her country.
But many things are improving and other women have come out in the open to discuss the issues affecting women there.
Yes, you are right. I have seen several interviews online and even some YouTube videos that show native women speaking out about the issues that need addressing. But here is the big difference: None of those women has had a book published about their lives. None has been so bold as to be so critical. All handle the discussion very delicately. In Princess Sultana’s life story, told in the series, she does not hold back. She expresses her dismay at her own family. She tells it exactly as she sees it. She is very bold, and realises that her boldness means that she must not expose her family to criticism and punishment, after all, there are young members of her family who do not have a say in what she says and does, yet it could affect their lives in a most harmful manner.
Does Princess Sultana recognise other women who are also fighting for women’s rights?
Absolutely. Nothing has made her happier. She praises all the women who are taking extreme chances to bring change. There are young mothers who are pushing the driving issue, because they do not have the money to hire a full-time driver and they need to get to work. These young women videotape themselves driving and risk arrest, which often happens. Several of those young mothers were arrested and had their children taken away from them until they agreed not to drive. That took enormous bravery on their parts. Thankfully, King Abdullah appears to care about the plight of women in the world, and he has pardoned some of the women so that they would not be imprisoned for driving.
The princess is also most pleased to see that so many young men are fighting for women to have basic human rights. This is something she always said had to happen before real change can come to our world.
What do you think has made native women come out and fight in public for the changes they want?
It’s as simple as education. The government has ensured that all young people, male and female alike, have access to education. Once a person is educated, whether male or female, they tend to push to improve their world, and the entire world, for that matter. If the men did not want their women to move forward for change, they should not have allowed education. Education for women was starting to catch hold when I lived there, and I told my male acquaintances then that their vast education system was going to change the entire country. They didn’t believe me then, but they do now! But education brings good change, so it is a positive point.
What does this 4th book cover about the Princess that the first three did not?
It’s been a long time since readers had an update from Princess Sultana, and I’ve been approached by so many readers for many years, asking to know what had happened to the princess, and to the other women in the country. I always said that we should not do another book until we could see a huge shift, for women to be a part of the public life of that country. And, now that is happening. So a decision was made a year ago to do a 4th book so that we could update readers on how life in has changed for the benefit of women there. This book reveals stories about Princess Sultana’s family, her father, brother, sisters, husband, children and grandchildren. The princess and her daughters selected the stories of ten native women they wished to share with the world. These are women who have reached heights in careers and in public life that could have never been imagined even 20 years ago. The book tells the stories of these native women, their achievements, and additionally, the direction the country is headed in. It is all very promising.
Where does the princess think that her country is headed?
Princess Sultana truly believes that her country is finally coming to terms with the idea that women are capable of making decisions for themselves and to use their education to work in careers that elevate their country. Although she sadly acknowledges that not every man would agree that women have intelligence and have the right to make their own decisions, she sees that the tide is finally turning, that one day women in her land will live more freely.
Tell us something about her family without giving away any stories in the book. And, as the writer of her stories, surely you have a favourite story that is included in this 4th in the series that you might share with us.
Readers will quickly discover that some things just never change! The daughters of the princess are like oil and water. They cannot get along, so there is plenty of upheavals between those two! Yet her son has become all that she wanted him to be. Abdullah is a young man who respects women, who loves his wife (he has only one wife) and adores his daughter, just as he loves his son. The princess and her husband, Kareem, have a very solid and good marriage, something I did not expect to happen, but it’s a nice surprise. She has lost two of her sisters to death, unfortunately, but she is still close to her other sisters. Her brother, Ali, never misses a chance to disappoint the princess, or readers.
Just as in the other books, there are lovely family stories, and very dramatic family stories. I suppose all families are like that, but her family seems to be a bit more dramatic than most, for whatever the reason.
As far as a favourite story, indeed I have a favourite. In this case it is a heartwarming story that occurs when the princess sees her father after a long time. The story will surprise a lot of readers because it is something none of us, including the princess, ever expected to happen.
This may not be something you addressed in the book, but how has the violence in the Middle East affected the princess and her family.
Well, while I can’t speak on her behalf when it comes to politics, I do know that she is very worried about the entire region, and the violence that is overtaking so many countries, from Syria to Iraq to Gaza and the threats to other lands. Like most thinking people, she is extremely distressed to see the ongoing suffering affecting so many innocent people. She is a woman who loves her children and grandchildren with a great passion, (like most mothers), and she is extremely upset. But, despite the fact she is from a ruling family in the region, she, of course, has no power and ability to be involved on a government level.
What makes you most proud about these books about a princess?
I instantly know my answer to this question. I am most proud that the books I have written have created a positive change in the lives of so many people. I get several hundred letters a week from readers, and so many are from young women who tell me that the books I have written, about Princess Sultana, and about other women, changed their lives in a most significant way. Many young women change their college majors, saying that they are going to pursue a law degree so that they can bring change for other women in lands where women have no voice. Nothing makes a writer happier than reading that the work she has done has altered lives, and in a good way.
Tell us what you will do next. Will it be a 5th book on the princess?
No, I already have two or three projects lined up. I must finish my own memoir, as I have so many stories to tell about my personal experiences in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Kuwait, and Iraq. I keep putting it off, but it’s time to finish that book. I must write my book on animals, as I’ve had more thrilling experiences, some funny and some sad, saving animals than anyone might imagine.
As far as writing a 5th book on Princess Sultana’s life, well, it is too early to tell. However, since we waited so long between books, and readers became impatient, we are considering doing short stories about the princess and her adventures, and offering 80-100-page vignettes. We have not come to a final conclusion on this, but since there is so much going on in her life, and the lives of other women she knows, and there is so much change now occurring that we think perhaps readers would like to read essays on the subject every six months or so, rather than wait five or six years for another book. We’ll see what happens with the readers, as really, without them, there is no reason to write a book.