- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 31, 2000

Atlanta writer Jean Sasson began writing the first of a trilogy about the lives of Saudi women in 1988, when she was approached by a feminist princess of the royal house of Saud. The first book, "Princess," published in 1992, sold 3 million copies in 50 countries. A second book, "Princess Sultana's Daughters," published in 1994, sold 2 million copies. The third, "Princess Sultana's Circle," was released this month.

Miss Sasson also drew from her contacts from living 12 years in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, at the King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Centre. The heroine of the book, speaking under the assumed name of "Sultana," details the massive restrictions endured by Saudi women such as forced marriages in their midteens or death by stoning or drowning for even talking with a male stranger.

The Saudi Embassy did not immediately return calls asking for comment. Following are excerpts from an interview conducted by culture page editor Julia Duin.

Q: What led you to take on women's rights in one of the world's richest countries?

A: People have said: How dare you make any kind of judgment on another culture and society? My answer to that is always, if it's a bizarre or quirky unusual situation, it's not my place to comment on it. But if someone is being hurt, whether physically or psychologically, it's my moral responsibility to say something.

I see such a backlash on women's rights in the Islamic world. These countries don't have separation of church and state like we do. And so they take their Koran, and interpret, misinterpret, do anything you please with it, and if anyone disagrees, you're committing treason.

Q: Since you moved back to the States in 1992, how do you keep in contact with Middle Eastern women?

A: I have a lot of female friends in every country, and we do a lot of planning and hoping the future can be better for them. I've been in every Arab country other than Libya. All the women in those countries felt bad about Saudi Arabia. Now the Saudi women I know admit, "We really have it rough, but I'm glad I'm not in Afghanistan."

Q: What do the Saudis think of you?

A: Oh, they hate me. While doing a book-signing in London, one woman handed me her card and mouthed, "Please call me." She said [later], "I have quite a long story to tell you. When I went back to Saudi Arabia after 'Princess' came out, I was arrested as soon as we hit Saudi airspace. I was put in a dungeon, and every day someone came screeching at me, saying I was going to be put to death for treason because I was the princess featured in your book."

I had never heard of her. [She told me] they kept her hooded. Her father was dead, so she had no protection. She ended up on a plane back to London. Obviously, someone in the family had paid an enormous amount of money.

Q: What are the Saudi reasons for all this?

A: The women in Saudi Arabia still veil. They can't drive. They can get an education, but they're still not allowed to work around men. And these days, there are more mutawas [religious police] on the streets watching them. When I went there in 1978, it was getting better. Then two things happened: the Mecca uprising, which struck terror into the Al Saud [family's] heart, because one of the main themes of the uprising was the liberties being given to women; and then there was the overthrow of the shah by Khomeini. The Saudis saw all this as handwriting on the wall. They thought, if we give our women too much freedom… . Everything changed after that. They thought, we'll give them the women. That will keep them quiet.

So women are being sacrificed all over the world. We're in the year 2000. They no longer allow fetal scans to determine the sex of a baby in India because it was fast becoming a country without women. Now do you know what they're doing? They're killing them at birth. The midwife snaps their spines for five bucks. They don't even want to fool with girls.

The saddest man I've ever seen was a man I saw walking on the beach in Cyprus. I went up and asked him what was wrong. He said, "I'm the father of five daughters. I'll die broke. I have to have dowries for five daughters, and I'm a poor man. They need to change the system to make the men pay something."

Q: Have your books changed Saudi Arabia?

A: No. I've made [the women] feel better about themselves to know that someone cares. I've made more Americans aware that maybe we can build on this until our government decides that, although these are our allies, this is an important issue to us. Until [American leaders] say, "We know you can't change it overnight but you need to start making changes or we'll not be your allies, we'll get our oil from Venezuela."

Q: Is there any bright side to their situation?

A: I tell my Saudi friends, as bad as it is there, I'd rather be [a woman] in Saudi than India, Pakistan, Yemen or Afghanistan. Because, if you have a good man in Saudi Arabia, you have a very charmed life. You might not be able to go out and work, but some of them don't want to work. But in India and Pakistan, the women are not also mistreated but they're so poor. As least many of the Saudis are rich.

Q: Recently, a 19-year-old Bahraini princess who fled the country dressed as a U.S. Marine claims that if Americans deport her, she will be severely beaten if she returns. What is behind that?

A: [Those] men do not want to be known as men who can't control their women. This Bahraini princess I was asked by [CBS News'] "48 Hours" why this was such a dishonor. And I said, it's not being able to control your women. It's the family name. There's such shame.

Q: What is the American government doing about all this?

A: Zero, they don't care. I think they would have kicked this Bahraini princess right back out if there hadn't been legal issues here to keep her. They don't want to upset anybody.

In Thailand, I went to a slave auction. There were 8-year-olds auctioned. [Watching] were a lot of Germans and a lot of Americans, soldiers and naval [sailors]. They're getting younger and younger because everyone's convinced the only way not to catch AIDS is to have [sex with] virgins. Those little girls are scared to death. They are trembling and crying. Some of them are nude or in swim suits. I can't believe I can't stop that.

Q: Why haven't some of the major women's groups the Hillary Clintons of this world spoken on these things?

A: I think she tries to make the statements she can while she's there, about women having self-esteem and making their own decisions. But until it becomes policy and the men do something, it won't make any difference. She's just frivolous to them, the men who run those countries.

I had heard Bill Clinton saying he wants to become an activist. Well, I know exactly what he needs to do. He obviously loves women. He needs to be an activist for women's rights. He has great charisma and charm. Maybe he can make some difference. Maybe he could save lives. He would be appalled at the way these women are treated. I think he should be an activist for women who have no voice. Our issues are important, but they pale in comparison to women who are going to be put to death or thrown in a well for speaking to a man on a phone. In Afghanistan, they put women to death in stadiums, and people cheer.

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