Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Inside the Kingdom

"I have lived in the Bin Ladin clan. I have analyzed the workings of Saudi society and I fear for the future of the free world. My fear and outrage is based on my conviction that a large majority of Saudis support the extremist ideas of Osama Bin Ladin and that the Bin Ladins and the Saudi Royal Family continue to operate hand in hand even if their relations are sometimes too intricate for their convergent convictions to be apparent."

--- Carmen Bin Ladin
Inside the Kingom

I recently finished Carmen Bin Ladin's autobiography, Inside the Kingdom: My Life in Saudi Arabia. It's is a deeply tragic tale of a Swiss-Persian woman's long romance with Islam Bin Ladin, one of the more powerful of Osama's 21 brothers. I would immediately like to go out, buy twenty copies, and begin distributing them to all the cultural relativist feminists I meet.

Inside the Kingdom's selling point is that it provides a profoundly personal insight into the family, though clan is a better word, of the world's foremost terrorist. Indeed it even provides a few interesting anecdotes about Osama himself.

For instance, at a clan getaway to the Red Sea one sweltering summer day in the late 70's, Carmen sits with Osama's wife and baby son. As Osama's infant suffers severely from dehydration, Carmen asks Osama's wife why she is trying to feed water to her child from a metal spoon. Why not just give the child a bottle? The mother replies that Osama will not have his son raised with western practices. Even as the mother weeps and Carmen has her husband plead with Osama to let his child sip from a bottle, Osama does not budge. He would rather see his child, even his male child die than take a drink from a western made rubber tit.

The real power behind Inside the Kingdom, however, comes from Carmen's ability to express the love shared by her and her husband Islam and the tragedy of losing that love to medieval Bedouin culture and Wahabi doctrine. Inside the Kingdom is as Carmen describes it, a "Saudi Fairytale." It opens with romantic stories of Islam's princely courtship of Carmen, their first years together attending UCLA, and the free, Western lifestyle they cultivate their relationship under.

The story takes a dramatic turn when Carmen, a native of Switzerland, first sets foot onto Saudi sand for her wedding to Islam. From that point on she becomes nothing more than chattel in the eyes of the Bin Ladin men and women. In Saudi Arabia it turns out, even the extreme levels of wealth and power held by her husband and the Bin Ladin clan cannot save her from the prison of her gender.

As Inside the Kingdom develops the reader slowly watches Carmen's tragedy unfolding. This happens gradually for while Carmen is viewed as her husband's property outside the home, forced to wear the abaya, forbidden to speak to or be seen by men, unable to drive, shop, read, hold an opinion, etc…, she is able to set up her own little version of the west within her home compound. Carmen builds a library of forbidden books, invites foreign dignitaries and businessmen over for Tennis and black market beer, and focuses proudly on little triumphs like getting her Ethiopian driver to acknowledge her voice.

As her outward freedoms are completely stripped, she takes greater and greater refuge in these tiny victories within her own home. Getting her Ethiopian and Sudanese servants to respond to her voice when she asks them to mop up her terrace or to drive her to a relative's house seems to be the focus of several years of Carmen's efforts. In Saudi Arabia even the wife of a Bin Ladin, a clan second only to the al Saud princes, is inferior to her male servants. Moreover, Saudi women are forbidden from having their voices heard by any men that are not their husband or a blood relative. Carmen's struggle with her slave like male servants to control the most mundane responsibilities of her home is heartrending but it is enough for her to subsist intellectually and emotionally without slipping into the deep depression that must be a Saudi woman's only true companion.

Coupled with this is Carmen's hope that Saudi society will liberalize with time and begin to offer more modern freedoms to its women. Unfortunately, that dream ends for Carmen with the Iranian Revolution of 1979 when the Saudi Royals, concerned about the potential of a conservative Muslim revolt in their own lands, turn back the clock on liberalizing the nation to approximately 780 AD. At the same time that Carmen finds her hopes for a more open Saudi Arabia shattered, her husband Islam begins to grow ever more traditional and paranoid.

With time, Islam will become more like his many brothers demanding ever greater restrictions on Carmen and deciding that like other Saudi men, he too should hold more than one woman as his property. Their long affair that started as such a true romance ends in 1988 when Carmen and Islam separate. He later signs a death warrant for Carmen by accusing her of adultery. Carmen now faces extradition to Saudi Arabia if she steps foot inside a Muslim country. Once there, she will not be allowed to defend herself and would likely face execution.

The status of women in Saudi Arabia is an embarrassment to humanity yet so often I hear blanket statements from acquaintances and colleagues like, "you can't compare cultures," "cultural comparisons are subjective and therefore valueless," or "as an American man you shouldn't form opinions about other cultures." Most, if not all of these cultural relativists also consider themselves to be feminists. I just don't get it. I simply cannot accept the concept that Saudi culture is equal to my own in the face of the damning evidence so bravely provided by Carmen Bin Ladin. To these cultural relativists I now have my own blanket statement to share, "You are not a feminist, nor do you support women's equality in any real sense if you think that Saudi Culture is equal to American Culture…period."

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