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Transformations dans le genre en péninsule Arabique
Espaces de subjectivités personnelles et sociabilités

Building New Spaces

Gender and Linguistic Interactions in Rajā' al‑Ṣāni‘’s Banāt al‑Riyāḍ
Gemma Ventura et Agnès Garcia‑Ventura


Dans cet article, nous nous concentrerons sur la dimension socioculturelle du roman Banāt al‑Riyāḍ de Rajā’ al‑Ṣāni‘ à travers une analyse de la langue et du genre. Nous montrerons que le roman d’al‑Ṣāni‘ est subversif à plusieurs égards : dans sa forme par l’emploi singulier des langues, et sur le fond par la mise en scène de subversions et de nouveaux rapports de genre. Dans un premier temps, nous mettons en lumière les usages de différents registres linguistiques qui s’entremêlent dans le texte. Dans un second temps, nous analysons la manière dont sont construits les personnages, en portant une attention particulière à leurs rôles de genre et à la façon dont ces derniers sont en même temps assumés et contestés.

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  • 1 In this paper we use both the original Arabic text published in 2005 for the section devoted to soc (...)
  • 2 Ahmed, 2007.
  • 3 Ware, 2010, p. 6.

1Rajā’ al‑Ṣāni‘’s Banāt al‑Riyā was first published in Arabic by Saqi Books in Lebanon in 20051, and banned in Saudi Arabia. Despite this, the book was sold clandestinely in the country at a high price (up to $500, according to some Western newspapers2). In the rest of the Arab World, this book was also well received, becoming the number one bestseller for the regional equivalent of Amazon. Al‑Ṣāni‘’s novel has been reprinted in Arabic seven times in two years, it has appeared in bestseller lists in Lebanon, Bahrain and Kuwait, and has been translated into more than 20 languages since 20073. After this great success, the government of Saudi Arabia has recently allowed the book to be sold.

2The narrator recounts the story of four Saudi girls, Lamīs, Qamra, Michelle and Sadīm, experiencing common teenage conflicts related to love, their studies, their future and their friendships. Their stories are presented in a hybrid structure which intersperses traditional paper book pages and Internet forums and e‑mails. Different typographies accompany the reader and help them go from one to the other in nearly every chapter.

3Lamīs studies medicine and seems to be the most successful girl in the group. She ends up getting married and moves to Canada. Qamra, after an arranged marriage, goes to the United States with her husband, who is cruel to her and cheats on her with a foreign woman. In order to keep her husband, she gets pregnant. However, instead of accomplishing her objective, he files for divorce. Michelle has a very different point of view. Since her mother is American, she enjoys much more freedom than her girlfriends do. The fourth girl, Sadīm, experiences different amorous disasters. However, in the professional arena, she succeeds in establishing a company for bridal arrangements, helped by her friends.

  • 4 Al‑Ghadeer, 2006; Booth, 2010; Thomas, 2007.
  • 5 In comparison to Banāt al‑Riyāḍ, which could be translated as “The Girls of Riyadh”, the noun “girl (...)
  • 6 As quoted in Le Renard, 2011, p. 103.

4Branded as “chick lit”4, the plot was a strong selling point for the book. At the same time the romantic and sexual adventures of these four characters, quite controversial in fact, provoked a social debate in Saudi Arabia. As a reaction, two different kinds of books arose. On one hand, articles and books that criticized the exaggerated and fallacious depiction of the social reality of Saudi girls: in particular, a book entitled Banāt min al‑Riyā5 appeared, intending to prove that other types of girls also exist, who are “righteous Muslims” and avoid such “deviant” practices6, and that the characters in al‑Ṣāni‘’s novel corresponded to a very reduced and specific social class, also known as the “velvet class” (al‑abaqa al‑makhmaliyya).

  • 7 Abd al‑Malik Warda, al‑‛Awda (The return), Beirut, Dār al‑āqī, 2006.
  • 8 Al‑Harz, Sabā, al‑Akharūn (The others), Beirut, Dār al‑āqī, 2006.
  • 9 Le Renard, 2011, p. 104.

5And on the other hand, other plots followed suit instead of contesting it. Since Banāt al‑Riyā’s publication and sale in Saudi Arabia, a book about a religion teacher’s bad influence on a pupil7 and another one dealing with love and sexual relations between girls8, for instance, have been published9.

Starting point: Building up and breaking down normativity

6In this paper we concentrate mainly on the sociocultural configuration in Rajā’ al‑Ṣāni‘’s Banāt al‑Riyā novel through the analysis of language and gender, as two different strategies to challenge mainstream norms. On the one hand, we pay attention to the use of languages and the combination of different registers and formats used in the text. On the other hand, we deal with the construction of characters, focusing on their gender roles and how these are at the same time accepted and contested. Combining these two approaches we suggest that al‑Ṣāni‘’s novel is, following Nirmal Puwar’s proposal, a “space invader” in several ways: in the novel itself, through its specific use of languages, through gender subversion, and through the invasion of physical and symbolic arenas.

  • 10 Puwar, 2004.
  • 11 Idem, p. 41‑49.
  • 12 Idem, p. 32.

7Following Nirmal Puwar’s contention about the use of the tag “space invaders” for bodies that are considered out of place10, we concentrate on both the languages used and the bodies (i.e., characters) presented in Banāt al‑Riyāḍ. We suggest that some bodies, considered neutral and universal, and are as such invisible. As a consequence, all the other bodies which differ from these supposedly “neutral bodies” are amplified and cause the allegedly “universal bodies” to be disorientated11. That is to say, these different bodies are “space invaders”, bodies out of place in contexts perceived as proper for those conceived as universal. Quoting Puwar, “bodies do not simply move through spaces but constitute and are constituted by them. Thus it is possible to see how both the space and the normative bodies of a specific space can become disturbed by the arrival of Black and Asian bodies in occupations which are not historically and conceptually marked out as their ‘natural’ domain”12.

8In the novel, these out of place bodies are mainly those of women and homosexuals. Moreover, language registers are perceived as space invaders in the novel and even the novel itself may be considered a space invader. The struggle against strict linguistic norms is linked with an attempt to transform gender models. Indeed, speaking differently opens up the possibility to think differently and to different models.

Languages in motion: how to contest a rigid linguistic context or a sociolinguistic analysis of Banāt al‑Riyāḍ

9In Arabic‑speaking countries, several varieties of Arabic coexist in the same linguistic space. This coexistence was conceptualized by Charles A. Ferguson (1959) as diglossia. It consists of two different varieties of the same language with different social status and distributed along distinct contexts, functions and uses. Two cases were specifically pointed out when developing this concept: Greek —demotic, compared with classical Greek— and Arabic —national and local dialects, compared with classical and modern Arabic. Ferguson defends that these two varieties correspond to two different needs in the sociolinguistic space: a high prestige variety ([H] variety), which is written and used in privileged circles —politics, religion, literature, media, etc.—; and a low prestige variety ([L] variety), which is not written, but considered as a set of errors which have persisted through centuries.

10Joshua Fishman (1967), keeping the specialized usages and functions of these languages, introduced an expansion of the concept by accepting the coexistence of more than two linguistic systems, which could be genetically independent. Fishman’s view opens the door to applying this concept to more complex linguistic systems. This linguistic distribution corresponds also to Pierre Bourdieu’s expression of symbolic systems and power.

  • 13 Bourdieu, 1994, p. 210.
  • 14 Bourdieu, 1982, p. 68.
  • 15 Bourdieu, 1994, p. 210.

11According to Bourdieu, language is not only a communication tool, but also, and more importantly, an instrument of symbolic power. It is a mechanism through which a dominant class (or class fraction) can “confirm or transform [its] vision of the world, and in this way, the action on the world, and, thus, the world”13, in order to maintain its dominant position and, therefore, its power too. In sociolinguistic terms, dialects and sociolects are languages, or varieties of languages, which can be (and often are) socially and geographically stratified and even hierarchical. Understanding symbolic capital as “the recognition, institutionalized or not, that [certain agents] receive from a group”14, classical and modern Arabic are provided with this symbolic capital. What is called dialectal or colloquial Arabic —or even the social Arabic varieties and specific jargon— are not recognized. When using these varieties —or languages—, speakers are situating themselves in a lower position in terms of symbolic power. This situation gives dominant classes, and class fractions, an “almost magical power which allows the procurement of the same amount of power than as if it had been done by force (physical or economic), thanks to its specific mobilization effect”15.

  • 16 Al‑Jehani, 1985.

12In the case of Saudi Arabia, studies on the characteristics of Saudi dialects abound16, but analyses on Saudi sociolects and registers are less common. Kees Versteegh (2001) attests to, at least, a general twofold linguistic reality in the Arab world. On the one hand, the prestigious written Arabic variety —(H) variety, in Ferguson’s terms—, which is the sociolect of politics and media; and, on the other hand, the less‑prestigious spoken Arabic variety —(L) variety, still according to Ferguson—, as well as its diatopic variations. These two languages rarely occur in the same conversation. Furthermore, spoken Saudi “dialects” are not written nor used in political discourses or media programs, whereas written Arabic —modern or Qur’anic Arabic— is not used in everyday language.

  • 17 Versteegh, 2001, p. 132.
  • 18 Hussein, 1954, p. 86.

13Using classical Arabic at home or its dialects in the media or in a novel would be to transgress social and linguistic rules. Dialects are considered linguistic mistakes according to canonical and commonly accepted sociolinguistic norms. According to Versteegh “it remains difficult in the Arab world to arouse interest in the dialects as a serious object of study”17. The well‑known Egyptian writer Ṭaha Ḥusayn also illustrates this reality of spoken Arabic: “I look upon it as a dialect that has become corrupted in many respects”18.

  • 19 Al‑Sanea, 2007, p. vii.
  • 20 Āshūr, Jabouri Ghazoul, Reda‑Mekdashi, 2007, p. 53‑58.
  • 21 Booth, 2008, p. 198.
  • 22 Booth, 2010, p. 170.

14Upon analyzing the English translation of Banāt al‑Riyā —as well as its translation in other languages, such as French, Catalan or Spanish—, we found a prologue written by the author in which she explains that she had to modify the original novel for it to be translated. Thus, the author shows a certain self‑censorship of her original intent when first writing the novel. She writes that “in the original version of my novel I interspersed classical Arabic with language that reflects the mongrel Arabic of the modern world —there was Saudi dialect (several of them), Lebanese‑Arabic, English‑Arabic and more”19. She puts on paper a well‑known linguistic reality of the Arab World, while affirming, at the same time, that this is not an orthodox maneuver: “as none of that would make sense to the non‑Arab, I had to modify the original text somewhat” (cf. above). Many Arab books have been translated from their original edition without needing any adaptation or change, since they used classical or modern standard Arabic. Even though other Arab writers have already used local varieties of dialect in order to depict more accurately the social (theater plays, poems or novels), women writers from the Gulf countries have used regional varieties mostly in poetry and in drama20. The English translator, Marilyn Booth, points out Banāt al‑Riyā’s singularity and audacity in terms of language diversity: “(...) Banāt al‑Riyā is the first Arabic novel (…) bold in its use of not one but multiple vernaculars”21. Based on her study of Banāt al‑Riyā, Booth finds three varieties of Saudi Arabic in al‑Ṣāni‘’s novel: “Arabic vernaculars, more standardized ‘educated Arabic’, and a spoken hybrid Arabenglish”22. Moreover, the originality of this novel is also the combination of this linguistic diversity with a diversity of technological references and contexts.

  • 23 Al‑Ariss, 2012, p. 9.
  • 24 Al‑Ghadeer, 2006, p. 296.

15The whole book is in the style of a French 19th century literary serial published periodically —although in this case it is published on the Web. This techno‑fictionalization23 gives the novel an underground tone. Technology writing has already been used by other Arab writers such as Jumāna Ḥaddad or Hilda Ismā‘īl24, creating a new form of Arab cyberfeminism. According to al‑Ghadeer, the email narrative model of Banāt al‑Riyā could be conceived as an attempt to subvert the (patriarchal) literary canon. In fact, the first page of the novel introduces the reader to this technological environment reproduced in a paper edition:

  • 25 Al‑ṢĀni, 2005, p. 7.
  • 26Welcome to the mailing list ‘seerehwenfadha7et’, to subscribe send an empty message to the followi (...)

مرحباً بكم في قائمة مراسلات ’سيرة وانفضحت ‘البريدية للاشتراك بالقائمة، أرسل رسالة فارغة للإيميل الآتي :26

16The name of the listserv is already a provocation against the canons of morality. According to Booth, “The literal meaning of this cybertransliteration is ‘A life story and it has been exposed’; the verb infaḍaḥ implies exposure of something disgraceful or shameful” (p. 204). Each chapter also begins with a header which imitates email information written in English —the global language of the Web—, and in Arabic, in Roman and Arabic alphabets:

  • 27 I shall write of my friends Al‑Sanea, 2007, p. 1

From: ‘seerehwenfadha7et’
Date: 13/2/2004

  • 28 Al‑ṢĀni, 2005, p. 9.

سأكتب عن صديقاتي 28.

17Applying the translator’s classification quoted above (“Arabic vernaculars, more standardized ‘educated Arabic’, and a spoken hybrid Arabenglish”), Arabic vernaculars or dialects are specially used to report direct speech, and to report emails. For conversations, we shall show the dialect in which Lamīs and Michelle criticize Qamra’s nuptial dress.

  • 29 Idem, p. 16. “– Poor Gammourah, I wish she had gone to the dressmaker who made Sadeem's dress inste (...)

— مسكينة يا قمورة، يا ريتها راحت للمشغك اللي خيطت عندو سدومة بدال هالعك اللي عاملتو بنفسها... شوفي فستان ساديم! إللي يشوفي يفكر إيو لإيلي صعب!
اللي يسمعك يقول في واحدة من هالمعازيم عارفة إن فستاني لباجلي مشكا! (...)29

18In this conversation, dialectal variation is clearly used in some grammatical (such as the relative pronouns or certain prepositions) and lexical (dress or to see) terms.

19We present two examples of dialectal variation in emails. The first case represents an email the narrator (in charge of the chat room and alleged author of the e‑mails) receives from a Lebanese girl, apparently very interested in the story of the four girls.

  • 30 Bonsoir to everybody. Who do you think is the anonymous writer? Sadīm, or Michelle, or Lamīs? Make (...)

بونسوار لإلكون، مين بتتوأعوا تكون الشخسيي المجهولي؟ أمرة يما سديم يما ميشيل يما لميس؟ احزوروا وبتربحوا تزكرتين مع إكامي ببيروت تتجوا تحضرونا بحفلة البرايم! (...)30

In this example, Lebanese Arabic is used instead of Saudi varieties. The first word (Bonsoir), the conjunctions or ([iama] instead of [‘Au]), the phonetic transcription ([‘amra] instead of [Qamra]), as well as some lexical (all) and grammatical words (conjugation particles or prepositions such as [bi] instead of [fi]), distinguish the language used in this email from classical Arabic.

20The second example represents the author of the emails’ answers to some of her readers.

  • 31 Oh, you really frightened me, girls! And you ask why girls should not depend on one heart!”, Idem, (...)

ولله إنكن تخف يا بنات! وتقولون ليش البنات مو مثل العيال على قلب واحد! 31

21Particles such as [leish] (instead of why) or [mu], as well as some lexical words, establish the difference between this Saudi variety, written in an email, and classical Arabic.

22Standard Arabic also appears in this novel, not only in the description of the characters and situations, but also for reported speech. The use of this Arabic variety (a more educated one) indicates a highly educated, upper class character. This is the case of a two‑woman conversation in which they talk about Sadīm.

  • 32 Al‑ṢĀni, 2005, p. 14. “‑Who's she?
    – Mā sha’ Allah, God willing, no envy touch her, she's so prett (...)

— من تكون؟
— ما شاء الله. ملح وقبله!
— يقولون صديقتها من زمان (...)32 .

They ask each other who Sadīm is, and they admire her.

23And finally, we give some examples of an Arabenglish variety. These two examples, chosen from a long list of quotes, correspond to different scenes in the novel in which characters introduce a word or a sentence in an Arabenglish variation. The first one is a transliteration of “too much.” We can assume a specific pronunciation in both examples.

  • 33 Al‑ṢĀni, 2005, p. 17

تو متش.33

24The following one transcribes the sentence: “Where the hell did she get this dress from?

  • 34 Idem, p. 16.

— وير ذا هيل دد شي قت ذس دريس فروم؟34

25Code‑switching occurs automatically. Sometimes it begins with one language, sometimes with the other. In the case we present below, the Arabenglish variation repeats the first sentence, in vernacular Arabic.

  • 35 Idem, p. 45.

”صحيح تجيك التهايم وانت نايم! يو قت أكيوزد وايل يور أسليب! “35

26This example appeared in one of the emails, when the narrator wanted to answer one of the readers who wrote to her. This reader criticized the narrator’s level of English, thereby proving that she was not Michelle, the most Westernized character of the four girls of Riyadh. She tells him: “you get accused while you’re asleep”.

27In spite of the fact that Michelle is the character who uses this Arabenglish variety the most (and even al‑Ṣāni‘ stresses this idea with her readers, as seen in the last example), we present below a conversation between Lamīs and Michelle in which they alternatively change from vernacular Arabic to an Arabenglish variety.

  • 36 Idem, p. 296‑297. “– What’s wrong? Why did you have to wake me up so early?
    – Michelle:
    Today is Fay (...)

— وتس رونق؟ ليه مصحّيتني من بدري كدا!؟
— ميشيل، اليوم زواج فيصل.
— ... (صمتٌ على الطرف الآخر).
— ألو؟؟ ميشيل! أنتي معي؟
— آم هير.
— آر يو أوكي؟
— وات فيصل؟ ماي فيصل؟
— أيوه يا بنتي فيصل زفت الطين ما غيرو!
— هو تولد يو؟ (...) مين حياخذ؟ 36

28In the first sentence, Michelle asks in Arabenglish “what’s wrong”, and immediately adds another sentence in vernacular Arabic, asking why Lamīs called her so early. Lamīs’ answer is uttered in vernacular Arabic, and the narrator introduces a descriptive sentence in modern Arabic between brackets. Before the silence, Lamīs asks again in vernacular Arabic if she is still on the phone, while Michelle answers in Arabenglish “I’m here”. The next question Lamīs asks is presented in Arabenglish “are you okay?”. Later on, Michelle asks Lamīs who told her about Fayal’s wedding in Arabenglish, and some lines below she asks in vernacular Arabic for all the information she may have on the bride.

  • 37 Booth, 2010, p. 171.
  • 38 Fasla, 2006, p. 169.

29Code‑switching is present all through the novel, responding to and describing a daily situation in Arabic‑speaking countries. The different uses of different varieties of Arabic contribute to characterize the four girls: their najdī or ijāzī origins, Western influence, and good education in Arabic. However, at the same time, it is used to characterize the author of the emails and her readers, writing from Saudi Arabia and all around the Arab world. This “exuberant linguistic landscape”37 contests the monolithic image of the Arab world, according to which classical or standard Arabic are the correct and sole languages spoken in Arab countries. In Saudi Arabia we do not find only two coexisting varieties of Arabic, but several geographical varieties and class sociolects. We may have to talk about TRIglossia or PLURIglossia instead of DIglossia38, just as Joshua Fishman pointed out in his conception of diglossia.

  • 39 Versteegh, 2001, p. 195.

30Banāt al‑Riyā pictures the linguistic diversity of Saudi society. In doing so, the author contests the current symbolic system, accepted and recognized in Saudi Arabia. Al‑āni‘ writes unwritten languages and words. She gives them symbolic capital in a system in which they do not have any. Al‑āni‘’s aim could have been to get closer to her audience or to the main characters’ reality. Versteegh describes this idea in these terms: “The colloquial language as the language of family and home is associated with the in‑group, with intimacy and friendship, whereas the high variety is associated with social distance and official relationships.”39 Putting the spoken language in writing could work as a tool to help the audience relate to the story. This strategy is combined with a variety of media which are a part of the new technological social networks. All these passages correspond to email texts, integrated in the text of the novel itself. Once again, the author subverts the literary canon in order to get closer to its readers. This strategy helps a young Arabic‑speaking audience identify with the characters.

31However, this book serves not only to contest (either intentionally or not) the current linguistic and literary limitations and constraints of Saudi Arabia, but also, therefore, its linguistic and literary symbolic system. A 24‑year‑old writer has decided to break with the established rules and has changed, in the pages of Banāt al‑Riyā, the existing symbolic classification and sociolinguistic hierarchy. At the same time as al‑āni‘ shows a complex linguistic diversity and an underground social network in her novel, she also contests the homogeneous, smooth vision exported by Saudi Arabia’s government.

Reading bodies in Banāt al‑Riyāḍ: difference, domination and subversion

32Knowledge has been produced, for ages, by and for white Western men of specific social classes, and, therefore, many people have been excluded from this knowledge. These people have been considered objects of study for ages, but never producers nor consumers of knowledge.

33Women have often been included in this group due to their long history of having been reduced to their bodies, totally conditioned by them, from the point of view of the knowledge produced by upper‑class males. As such, they have struggled to be able to take part in creating science and ideas. It is in this context that embodiment theories arose, partly linked to feminisms, claiming that knowledge is produced stemming from the body and corporeality. Indeed, it is only considering the (sexed) body as the core and not the periphery that we can question who produces knowledge and how. Only then is it possible to open up new questions and take into account new points of view.

  • 40 Butler, 1997, p. 2; Foucault, 1975.
  • 41 Foucault, 1975, p. 5.

34In the last decades, some trends in gender studies, mainly queer theories, began to explore the relationship and interaction between power and bodies, among others. In this sense, most of them follow Foucault, especially when dealing with processes of subject formation. In Foucault’s contention, power is not an external entity influencing subjects, but a basic entity that is part of subject formation. That is to say, bodies are occupied by power40. Power, thus, is an integral part of subject formation and rather than something alien to it. Only with this perspective in mind is it possible to understand profound domination: if power is part of the subject, then power is what limits the subject while at the same time enhancing it, making knowledge and understanding also possible41. Therefore, in the Saudi context described in the novel, social norms are part of the process of subject formation, thereby constituting a power “in” and “over” the characters’ bodies.

  • 42 David, 1997, p. 7.

35Below, taking all these premises into account, we present some proposals, always considering the characters of the novel as sexed bodies moving in specific social contexts. We organize our characters’ analyses in three main parts, corresponding to those topics usually considered by feminisms when theorizing bodies: difference, domination and subversion42.


  • 43 Butler, 2004, p. 102‑130; Haraway, 1991, p. 114.

36In the Saudi Arabia described in the novel, there is a first distinction of characters in relation to their sex, which is clear and valid for all of them. Despite differences among the four female main characters, their families and also their suitors, it is clear that sexual identity is what defines their identity in the first place and what determines most of their actions. Thus in the novel a dual system is defined: men and women must fit rigid standards of masculinity and femininity, respectively, both defined by a heteronormative context, linked to an “obligatory heterosexuality”43. In this context, those who do not fit this dual system are severely punished; homosexuals (or those thought to be homosexuals) are a good example of this. These characters, Nūrī and Arwā, included by al‑Ṣāni‘ in her novel, are punished and feared at the same time.

  • 44 Al‑Sanea, 2007, p. 20‑22 and 122.
  • 45 Idem, p. 46‑47.

37Nūrī, Umm Nuwayr’s son, is considered gay because he does not meet the standards of normative masculinity44. Arwā, one of the students at the University, is also described as “the lesbo” because of her “extremely short hair and her masculine stride”45. In both examples, people are prejudiced against Nūrī and Arwā based on their external appearance, they are considered homosexuals because they do not correspond to the standards of masculinity and femininity. However, we know nothing about their lives, about their way of thinking or about their sexual preferences. They have no voice and we do not know what they think: they are two characters that appear in the novel, but which are, at the same time, silenced.

  • 46 Kimmel, 2008, p. 16.

38But there is a big difference between these two. While Nūrī, the boy considered gay, is ridiculed by society, Arwā, the butch looking girl, is feared and masked by that same society. From our point of view, this situation makes it clear how trying to avoid normativity, in a heteropatriarchal context, is not the same for males and for females. Femininity is considered secondary, apparently subordinated. Hegemonic masculinity, however, should be dominant, and because of this, a boy questioning this superiority and presenting alternative models of masculinity should be severely punished, as his attitude is a threat to the order of things. Indeed, as presented in the novel here analyzed, homophobia is a pillar for building this kind of masculinity46. In other words, from the point of view of the society that surrounds them, Nūrī is a boy if considering his biological sex, but he is perceived as a girl in what regards socio‑cultural gender. Quite the opposite, Arwā is a girl if considering her biological sex, but she is perceived as a boy in what regards socio‑cultural gender. Society, then, considers Nūrī’s performed gender as feminine and Arwā’s as masculine. Only this reversal of their expected gender roles explains why Arwā is feared while Nūrī is mocked, despite their respective biological sex.

  • 47 Teppo, 2008.
  • 48 Najmabadi, 2005, p. 232‑236.

39This situation is something recurrent in different cultures and contexts. In Ancient Near Eastern literary traditions, for instance, there are several myths or rituals where men turn into women or, at least, wear women’s clothes and attributes, in cultic contexts47. Also, some stories punish men by turning them into women when they do not show appropriate behavior, that is to say, when their behavior does not fit in with standard masculinity. Why then is the same metaphor, that is to say men turning into women, considered positive or negative? It depends on the context. On the one hand, it is positive in cultic contexts, when it is related to the will of the gods. At the same time, gods do it to reinforce established roles through their inversion, a common resource. On the other hand, it is negative in non‑cultic contexts where changing roles is seen as a disorder and a dangerous threat to these established roles. Thus, it is possible in the symbolic world, not in the earthly one and it is valid not only for literature, but for real life too. In any case, what is clear is that attributes associated with masculinity or with femininity are dynamic, that is to say they change in different geographies, chronologies, social contexts, etc. Moreover, spheres considered as masculine or as feminine could be closer or further apart also depending on all these different contexts. For this reason we cannot consider that a mustache, for example, is an attribute of masculinity only because it is so for us in our contexts, as Afsaneh Najmabadi48 sustains: neither masculinity and femininity, nor their associated attributes are natural or universal, they are created and negotiated continuously in different places at different times.

40From our point of view, something similar happens in the novel. Arwā, through inversion, reinforces established roles, simply because she is perceived as more powerful if imitating some prototypical masculine features, because men are more powerful. At the same time, Nūrī should be punished because in his case, through inversion he does not reinforce positive perceptions of masculinity. What he does is perceived just as the opposite, as a threat: looking for other alternative masculinities in a context such as this one is just not possible.

  • 49 Al‑Sanea, 2007, p. 26‑27 and p. 32‑35.

41Another consequence of this dual gender system is that almost all relationships in the novel among men and women are doomed to failure. Only Lamīs is saved from failure, but all the other romantic or sexual relationships are difficult and problematic. When dealing with sex, the most interesting examples are those of Qamra and Sadīm49. In both their cases, their first intercourse marks a before and an after: before, all possibilities and perspectives are open, while afterwards only disaster and desperation are possible. Therefore, sexual relationships with or without reproductive purposes are linked to failure instead of pleasure.

  • 50 Idem, p. 97.

42This difficult relationship between men and women is presented by al‑Ṣāni‘ as a result of the different expectations for men and women in their relationships, using a comparison in which women are described as lizards and men as crocodiles50. Furthermore, in order to deal with this topic, al‑Ṣāni‘ quotes Socrates at the beginning of chapter 10: “men want women to understand them, while women want men to love them”. From our point of view, including a quote by one of the classic philosophers in Western canonical tradition is highly significant. In doing so, it seems that the author defends that these different expectations for men and for women are something that exceeds geographical, chronological or cultural frameworks.


43All the characters that appear in the novel are, to different degrees, dominated by social norms. For this reason, when they must decide something, they always make a decision based on these norms and not their own preferences. All characters are upper class and well educated; some of them spent time in foreign countries while growing up. All these circumstances would allow them some leeway in deciding. Despite their privileged situation, they lose the ability to decide until the very end because they are dependent on these social norms that go clearly beyond individual will. Besides, these norms are applied differently depending on different factors like class (linked also to ethnicity), gender (difference analyzed in the previous section) or age (determining hierarchies inside households).

  • 51 Butler, 1997, p. 45‑47.

44Social norms, then, are dominant factors and make certain power relationships among the characters possible, following Foucault’s notion of power mentioned above. In the novel, there are many examples of characters applying their own censorship to their actions, doing what society expects of them, instead of doing what they want to do (for instance Fayṣal or Firās when deciding who they are going to marry). It is not possible to explain this widespread apparently submissive attitude if we do not consider that power is part of the subject51.

  • 52 Forcades i Vila, 2008.

45To this respect, taking into account the Lacanian idea of subject (as interpreted by Teresa Forcades52), the core of the subject is empty and we spend our whole life trying to fill this vacuum. According to this, by analyzing this core we can explain problems, identity, power relationships and many other aspects. Understood in this sense, the Lacanian idea of subject is opposed to the Cartesian one. For Descartes and his followers the core of the subject is compact and full, thus is a given and it would that nothing can be added to it. However, for the analysis we present here, we consider that the Lacanian proposal (based on the emptiness and not on the fullness of the core of the subject) helps us to understand some differences in the way men and women shape and transform themselves into subjects, that is to say the way they shape their identity. Keeping this theory in mind, many characters appearing in the novel, mainly the men, do not intend to fill this vacuum: they assume that social norms accomplish this function and that these constitute the core of their identity. Female characters, on the other hand, are presented as seeking the best way to fill this vacuum.

  • 53 Gilmore, 2008, p. 33‑34.
  • 54 Al‑Sanea, 2007, p. 268.

46Anyway, domination is not only present in the social norms that affect society as a whole, but also at different levels, so there are relations of subordination among different social classes or among men and women. In relation to this gender‑dependent domination, the general contention regarding a heteropatriarchal society like the one described in Banāt al‑Riyā would be one of women subordinated to male power, that is, subordinated to the so‑called “3Ps”: protection, provision and power53. In our opinion, women are apparently subordinated to their husbands, fathers, and boyfriends in the novel, but de facto this domination is not real. Despite the fact that it would seem that it is always men who decide to leave their girlfriends, they never decide alone: there is always somebody deciding for them. This “somebody” is usually the family, and inside the family, mothers have a very relevant role. This situation is also made explicit in some parts of the novel where the author describes men as weak because they are subordinated to tradition and women as stronger than men when it comes to fighting tradition despite the obstacles54. For this reason, we argue that what defines these different levels of domination in some cases is age more than gender.

47Parents (uncles, aunts, fathers, and mothers) of the young characters decide for them while these young characters only decide to maintain the social order. It is a type of domination more related to age groups than gender, despite gender being, as we described above, the first and primary difference among characters.

  • 55 Latte Abdallah, 2009.

48 What lies behind all these possible (or impossible) choices in what regards relationships between men and women is an attempt, by the social context, to maintain the predominance of family ties over matrimonial links. But all in all, this situation is a changing one, a cultural construct, and we realise through the characters of the novel that they are struggling to change this social pattern. As Stéphanie Latte Abdallah observes when analysing four generations of Palestinian women in Jordanian refugee camps, there is a progressive individualization of choice that is neither easy to keep, nor constant and linear as the process is conditioned by different factors55. On the one hand, there is education: when literacy goes up, women tend to question mandatory marriages. On the other hand, there is the economic situation: when women realise that there are not enough economic resources, they tend again to desist on linking marriage with love and choice. We think that this situation is parallel to the one portrayed in the novel despite the differences in status (upper class girls versus refugees) and nationality (Palestinians versus Saudi Arabians). The four girls of Riyadh are literate and educated at different levels, consequently they perceive that they know and control enough elements to make some choices in their lives. But when they try to make these individual choices they realise that society is still based on collective choices. Thus, this imbalance has to be managed and success is conditioned by their education, temperament and relationships with their parents among others. Moreover, they try to change some hierarchies in love relationships: they try to cultivate friendship and spousal love above all else, while society still values filial and sibling love more, these are ties that condition all other relationships. To this respect, then, the novel shows how the dominance of some social rules is contested with little success in many cases.


49Al‑Ṣāni‘’s novel is subversive at different levels, both content and container: it describes situations that should not be public, feelings that should not be shared, and secrets that should not be revealed. The narrator announces to the reader at several points in the text that she is wearing red lipstick. Using lipstick and thus subverting normative appearance serves as an announcement of the content subversion the narrator is going to give. Moreover some characters make non‑conventional choices, far from what is expected of them. Below we give some of these examples of subversion.

50Let us begin with a reflection on how subversion is achieved. In the novel, subversion can be a choice or just a fatality. Some actions are perceived as subversive by society taking into account social norms, but they are not thought or perceived as such by their performers. Qamra, for instance, does not plan to be a single mother, it is just fate and there is nothing she can do about it, save carry on. That is to say, Qamra’s position is not the result of a decision or an act of protest, but something accidental. But despite that, in the heteropatriarchal context described in the novel, lone motherhood is not the best possible situation, so it should be considered a subversive one.

51Another kind of subversion, common to all characters (male and female) but with limited temporal scope, is deciding something free of any consideration (at least apparently). This decision is usually linked to love, studies or work, the last two motivations many times being consequences of the first. For Michelle and for Sadīm, it is a heartbreak that makes it possible for them to go abroad, to study or to work. Michelle goes to the USA, Sadīm goes to London and in both places they have greater leeway than in Riyadh. In both examples, then, subversion is accompanied by a change in geo‑cultural contexts. For both girls moving abroad to a Western English‑speaking country is in itself subversion. In addition, in the new place they have the opportunity to do things that in Saudi Arabia would have been perceived as subversive.

  • 56 Idem, p. 277‑278.

52Moving on to male characters, their freedom of choice is usually about maintaining a loving relationship with the women they love. It could be before, during or after their marriage to a woman that they do not love. Some of them, like Fayṣal, Rashid or Firās are aware they cannot maintain their decision when they marry, because in the case of marriage they ought to respect social norms and household expectations. In this way, an extreme example is that of Sadīm receiving and rejecting Firās’ proposal to become his second wife56.

53It is highly significant that subversion linked to men or to women, when both follow the heterosexual norms, has different causes and therefore, different consequences too. For heterosexual women subversion could be linked to the end of a romantic relationship that usually was idealized or, at least, conceived without taking into account possible interferences from social norms and arranged marriages. So, subversion comes after the end of a specific situation. For heterosexual men, instead, subversion comes just before this situation. In the novel, male characters are portrayed as more aware of the inevitability of social norms, so they seem to be subversive only as a last chance before following them. Therefore in most cases subversion for men is the cause while it is the consequence for women. In other words, subversion is something men are allowed to do before entering adult life. However women cannot do so even before adult life and when they do it becomes a life choice, many times against their will.

  • 57 Butler, 2004, p. 19‑22.

54We propose that this difference could be explained in a context where subversion, despite not being accepted, is more easily tolerated when committed by men than by women. Perhaps for this reason, another example of subversion could be the rich relationships that all the women (or at least women sharing similar situations of a similar age) have with each other. While men are presented as isolated, women remain together to overcome difficulties. Women go to these spaces created by these relationships to find freedom, awareness, growing up and complicity, and also for decision‑making57.

  • 58 Wittig, 1980, for the concept of “obligatory heterosexuality”, used in this direction.

55Finally, the other examples of subversion are the homosexual characters mentioned above. In the social context described here, gays and lesbians have no place. Therefore, being labeled as homosexuals by society makes them subversive characters. Again, this case proves that for these characters homosexuality is not necessarily subversion, or at least as we mentioned before, they have no voice. That is to say, we know that homosexuality is subversive from the point of view of a heteronormative society; we know nothing about the feelings of these characters. Thus, heterosexuality could be a political option and not merely a sexual one58. When heterosexuality is perceived as the social norm, as it is in the Saudi context presented here, then other sexual options are subversive and as political as the norm itself.

To conclude: languages and bodies as space invaders in Banāt al‑Riyāḍ

56In this paper, we analyzed some examples to show that in Al‑Ṣāni‘’s novel, characters, languages and even the novel itself are perceived as space invaders. That is to say, the struggle against the strict linguistic and literary norms goes together with the attempt to transform gender models. Indeed, speaking differently opens up the possibility to thinking differently and to different models. Below we summarize some of the main points that support this idea, the question we posed as our starting point.

  • 59 Ware, 2010, p. 6.
  • 60 Al‑Sanea, 2007, p. 188‑189 and 196.

57Firstly, the novel itself is a space invader in Saudi Arabia, where it was banned for years59. This reality is prefigured at the beginning of some chapters when the narrator mentions explicitly that the text we are reading is a provocative one, beyond standards and social norms60.

58Secondly, the novel combines different languages and types of writing. The literary canon establishes classical or modern standard Arabic as the written language. Thus, books are, in general, exclusively occupied by this concrete language. However, the so‑called dialects or other varieties of Arabic are symbolic space invaders in this novel. The author uses these languages transgressing established linguistic norms, through a hybridity of genres. In Banāt al‑Riyāḍ, the traditional pages of the book are mixed with what appear to be virtual web sites and forums. The novel breaks up restrictions regarding the canonical understanding of books and this new space is then invaded by languages rarely written down in literature. This invasion of languages provides the reader with information about the plot and the characters without having to make it explicit. This new writing was not directly punished: on the contrary, it was really well‑received by the readers —since it was a great success in the Arab World.

59Thirdly, characters are constant space invaders: they are invaders of physical and symbolic spaces. As far as physical spaces are concerned, there are different relevant scenes. At the beginning of the novel, the four girls go to celebrate a hen party before Qamra’s wedding, alone driving a car in the evening. In doing this, they are transgressing social norms, as they are girls and girls are not allowed to drive. Another example is the scene where Fayṣal and Michelle walk around the university campus at night, when it is forbidden to do so. In both cases, the physical invasion of public spaces (street, shopping center or university campus) are metaphors of the symbolic invasions they are performing, as all of them transgress social norms.

  • 61 Idem, p. 262‑266.

60Finally, another physical space invasion we consider very relevant is that of Michelle, seductive and provocative, attending Fayṣal’s wedding. She is not invited and, moreover, she behaves unexpectedly61 since she does show up. For all these reasons she is a paradigm of space invasion. This is not accidental, as Michelle is the character that is the most reticent to follow social norms and traditions without questioning them.

  • 62 Idem, p. 248.

61In relation to symbolic spaces, the characters in the novel transgress spaces of knowledge and religion. As for knowledge, women are supposed to be inferior compared to men. Despite the fact that all the girls described in the novel are upper‑class and well educated, they are supposed to be less clever or educated than their male counterparts. For this reason, in one meeting organized by the four friends, they discuss the fact that well educated women have more difficulties to marry as they are invaders in spaces reserved for knowledge and, moreover, they question men’s control of this knowledge. In this respect, the narrator quotes a reader sending an e‑mail and discussing this topic: “a man needs to feel the weight of his own superiority and masculinity when he is with a woman. Otherwise, what would prevent him from marrying someone just like him—another man?”62

  • 63 Idem, p. 31.

62Another example of how women’s education is perceived is the scene where Sadīm gets engaged to Walīd. Sadīm’s parents ask her to use only her fingerprint instead of signing63. Of course, as an educated girl, she can write and she prefers signing, but she is supposed to be less prepared than Walīd, and so unable to write at least in a public context.

63When invading the space of religion, Lamīs (Sunni) establishes a good relationship with Fāṭima and ‘Alī (Shiites). But despite their friendship, the relationship is impossible in the social context they live in. By maintaining this friendly relationship they are putting into question tradition, history, ethnicity and the roots of their culture. Because of all this, they are perceived as space invaders and punished for their attitude.

64Finally, it is also interesting to establish that not all characters invading spaces are punished, or, at least, they are not unhappier than those not considered space invaders. Michelle, for example, is the clearest advocate for transgression. She proposes new ways of building subjectivities, not totally dependent on social norms. Because of this attitude, she has problems and is severely punished when she is abandoned by Fayṣal, her first boyfriend, who decides to follow social norms by not marrying her. However, on the other hand, Fayṣal is not rewarded for following those norms. He is not lucky, or at least no luckier than Michelle. Thus, from our point of view there is not a cause‑effect relationship between being a space invader, and being unhappy. In the Saudi Arabian social context described in Banāt al‑Riyā, all characters suffer from the social norms, regardless if they follow them or not.

65In this analysis we intended to show that literature can offer a fruitful field of study to approach Saudi society from a linguistic and gender perspective. Considering the fact that access to and the degree of autonomy inside this society are highly limited, literature offers a whole new space for developing alternatives, and it is used as an agent for change.

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Booth M., “ ‘The Muslim Woman’ As Celebrity Author and the Politics of Translating Arabic: Girls of Riyadh Go on the Road”, Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies No. 6, 3, 2010, p. 149‑182.

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Bourdieu P., Langage Et Pouvoir Symbolique, Paris, Point, 1994.

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Butler J., Undoing Gender, London ‑ New York, Routledge, 2004.

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1 In this paper we use both the original Arabic text published in 2005 for the section devoted to sociolinguistics, and the English translation published in 2007 for the analysis devoted to the construction of characters and the concept of space invaders.

2 Ahmed, 2007.

3 Ware, 2010, p. 6.

4 Al‑Ghadeer, 2006; Booth, 2010; Thomas, 2007.

5 In comparison to Banāt al‑Riyāḍ, which could be translated as “The Girls of Riyadh”, the noun “girls” is indefinite, and it could be translated as “Some Girls from Riyadh”.

6 As quoted in Le Renard, 2011, p. 103.

7 Abd al‑Malik Warda, al‑‛Awda (The return), Beirut, Dār al‑āqī, 2006.

8 Al‑Harz, Sabā, al‑Akharūn (The others), Beirut, Dār al‑āqī, 2006.

9 Le Renard, 2011, p. 104.

10 Puwar, 2004.

11 Idem, p. 41‑49.

12 Idem, p. 32.

13 Bourdieu, 1994, p. 210.

14 Bourdieu, 1982, p. 68.

15 Bourdieu, 1994, p. 210.

16 Al‑Jehani, 1985.

17 Versteegh, 2001, p. 132.

18 Hussein, 1954, p. 86.

19 Al‑Sanea, 2007, p. vii.

20 Āshūr, Jabouri Ghazoul, Reda‑Mekdashi, 2007, p. 53‑58.

21 Booth, 2008, p. 198.

22 Booth, 2010, p. 170.

23 Al‑Ariss, 2012, p. 9.

24 Al‑Ghadeer, 2006, p. 296.

25 Al‑ṢĀni, 2005, p. 7.

26Welcome to the mailing list ‘seerehwenfadha7et’, to subscribe send an empty message to the following email address:” (our translation). When available in the English edition, we offer the published English translation of our Arabic examples.

27 I shall write of my friends Al‑Sanea, 2007, p. 1

28 Al‑ṢĀni, 2005, p. 9.

29 Idem, p. 16. “– Poor Gammourah, I wish she had gone to the dressmaker who made Sadeem's dress instead of this mess she came up with herself! Just look at Sadeem's gorgeous dress, though –anyone would think it's by Elie Saab.

Oh whatever. Like there's even one lady in this provincial crowd who would know the difference!”, Al‑Sanea, 2007, p. 7. Lamīs, Qamra and Sadīm are translated in the English version of the novel as Lamees, Qamrah (or Gammourah for Qammūra) and Sadeem.

30 Bonsoir to everybody. Who do you think is the anonymous writer? Sadīm, or Michelle, or Lamīs? Make a guess and win two tickets to a prime concert in Beirut!”, Al‑ṢĀni, 2005, p. 44. In this example, and the next one, this passage was omitted in the English edition, so we offer our translation.

31 Oh, you really frightened me, girls! And you ask why girls should not depend on one heart!”, Idem, p. 128.

32 Al‑ṢĀni, 2005, p. 14. “‑Who's she?
– Mā sha’ Allah, God willing, no envy touch her, she's so pretty! (…) They say she's an old friend”. Al ‑Sanea, 2007, p. 5.

33 Al‑ṢĀni, 2005, p. 17

34 Idem, p. 16.

35 Idem, p. 45.

36 Idem, p. 296‑297. “– What’s wrong? Why did you have to wake me up so early?
– Michelle:
Today is Faysal’s wedding.
Silence from the other end of the line.
Michelle! Are you there?
 I’m here.
 Are you okay?
 Which Faysal? My Faysal?
 Yes, girl, Faysal the scumbag, no one else!
 Did he tell you himself or what? (…) So who is this girl he is marrying?”. Al ‑Sanea, 2007, p. 262‑263.

37 Booth, 2010, p. 171.

38 Fasla, 2006, p. 169.

39 Versteegh, 2001, p. 195.

40 Butler, 1997, p. 2; Foucault, 1975.

41 Foucault, 1975, p. 5.

42 David, 1997, p. 7.

43 Butler, 2004, p. 102‑130; Haraway, 1991, p. 114.

44 Al‑Sanea, 2007, p. 20‑22 and 122.

45 Idem, p. 46‑47.

46 Kimmel, 2008, p. 16.

47 Teppo, 2008.

48 Najmabadi, 2005, p. 232‑236.

49 Al‑Sanea, 2007, p. 26‑27 and p. 32‑35.

50 Idem, p. 97.

51 Butler, 1997, p. 45‑47.

52 Forcades i Vila, 2008.

53 Gilmore, 2008, p. 33‑34.

54 Al‑Sanea, 2007, p. 268.

55 Latte Abdallah, 2009.

56 Idem, p. 277‑278.

57 Butler, 2004, p. 19‑22.

58 Wittig, 1980, for the concept of “obligatory heterosexuality”, used in this direction.

59 Ware, 2010, p. 6.

60 Al‑Sanea, 2007, p. 188‑189 and 196.

61 Idem, p. 262‑266.

62 Idem, p. 248.

63 Idem, p. 31.

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Gemma Ventura et Agnès Garcia‑Ventura, « Building New Spaces », Arabian Humanities [En ligne], 1 | 2013, mis en ligne le 16 mars 2013, consulté le 16 mai 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Gemma Ventura

Universitat de Barcelona

Agnès Garcia‑Ventura

IUHJVV, Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona

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