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Inside the Kingdom: My Life in Saudi Arabia
Less than human
By Steven Martinovich
Since the September 11, 2001 attacks the issue of Saudi Arabia's role in the global promotion of an extremist form of Islam has become increasingly debated. The western world's reliance on Saudi oil makes it an important issue but it only scratches the surface. Although the Saudi royal family has been exporting the Wahabbist philosophy in an effort to release the pressure of religious fundamentalism, it is also a philosophy that Saudi society has fully embraced.
What it means to live in a repressive society that takes its inspiration from the seventh century is a reality that possibly only a woman can truly appreciate. Although both men and women live under strict religious strictures, the public and private lives of a woman are severely curtailed in Saudi society. That was a life that Carmen bin Ladin accepted after she married into the family made famous nearly two decades later by her husband's younger brother, Osama bin Laden. Her story, and an exploration of Saudi Arabia's insular society, informs Inside the Kingdom: My Life in Saudi Arabia.
Born of a Swiss father and Persian mother and living mostly in Geneva, Carmen met her future husband -- Yeslam bin Ladin -- in the early 1970s. Though he was from a wealthy and traditional family with close connections to the royal family, bin Ladin was a forward thinking man who appreciated Carmen's intelligence and strong streak of independence. The pair quickly became inseparable and was soon married. After the birth of her first child, the bin Ladin's moved to Saudi Arabia to the family's seat of power in Jeddah.
As Carmen relates, she very quickly became aware of the demands made of her if she wished to be a proper woman in the strictly Islamic society that, despite its economic success, was essentially medieval in character. No man, outside of close relatives and her husband, was allowed to see her face. Even speaking to a man not of her family was considered shameful and a wife was expected to completely submerge her identity and in effect become her husband's property. The life of a Saudi wife was largely limited to producing and raising children, and obeying the men in her life, a group that eventually includes her own children. Unless one devoted herself completely to religion to fill up her life, day to day existence was often an exercise in passing time.
"The lowliness and subservience of Saudi women is deeply inscribed in that culture. Pleasure, comfort, equality -- so many things that I had taken for granted were completely foreign here. This was not the way of life in Persia, or in other Arab countries. Saudi society is very close to its roots in the ancient codes of the Bedouin, who have always lived as nomads in a vast desert that has kept them isolated from the rich cultures around them. Saudi Arabia is a stern, implacable country. For many Saudis, it seems sometimes, almost every kind of pleasure is a sin."
Nineteen seventy-nine turned out to be a momentous year. In Iran the Shah was overthrown and replaced by a theocratic Shiite regime hostile to the Saudi government while the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Closer to home, Saudi Arabia was rocked by uprisings in Mecca and Qatif and Saudi government and society responded by becoming more religiously conservative. Where previously she was buoyed by the small steps Saudi Arabia took to free its women, reality set in: Saudi Arabia was ultimately unable to accept the fact that women might want lives of their own. The marriage of Carmen and Yeslam eventually fractured under the weight of religious and cultural demands and his own increasing conservatism and they separated in 1988.
Readers expecting a prominent role for Osama bin Laden in Inside the Kingdom are likely to be disappointed. For much of her story he remains a distant figure, though always dogmatically religious. The value of the book, however, lies not in a study of a family linked to the world's most notorious terrorist, but rather in exploring the oppression that Saudi women -- and ultimately all Saudis -- endure every single day of their life. Carmen bin Ladin's story is a powerful one that should serve as a warning that Islamic extremism poses not only the danger of spectacular acts of terror, but also the suffocation of society itself.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.
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