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Volume Ten, Number Two   March 2005

Inside the Kingdom: My Life in Saudi Arabia                   
Carmen Bin Ladin
Warner Books New York 2004
206 pages

Carole Pearson

At first glance, “Inside the Kingdom: My Life in Saudi Arabia” looks like a purely profit--motivated and somewhat frivolous effort to cash in on a notorious surname. While the first charge may have some merit,  if the reader perseveres, author Carmen Bin Ladin offers up a fascinating and disturbing look at  what daily life is like for women (albeit wealthy ones) behind the firmly closed doors of  Saudi society. 

Inside the KingdomThe author acquired her notorious surname when she wed Osama’s half-brother, Yeslam, one of 54 siblings sired by Sheik Mohamed. She herself is of Persian-Swiss heritage and raised in the  more permissive (or liberated) environment of Switzerland by her Iranian-born mother.

In the 1970s, decades before Osama became a household name,  the author meets Yeslam in her mother’s Geneva home. During their courtship, he espouses a westernized attitude towards women but when they travel to Saudi Arabia to marry, Carmen Bin Ladin discovers her first glimpses of the city of Jeddah are through the black mesh of a veil she is expected to wear. 

Saudi society  is governed by an extreme puritanical form of Islam, Wahabism. Bin Ladin writes, “The Saudis have become the guardians of the absolute orthodoxy in the Islamic world - the hardest of the hard. The only difference between Saudi Islam and that of the ultra-hard-line Afghan Taliban is the opulence and private self-indulgence of the al-Sauds. The Saudis are the Taliban, in luxury.”

It is describing her life with the Bin Ladens  where the author unveils, so to speak, her personal experiences and trying to, variously,  conform to or reform the role of  women in Saudi society. Compared with her earlier lifestyle, she writes, “It was like going under an anesthetic.” She writes of her overwhelming frustration and anger at rules that forbid women to even leave their home alone and without permission from their husband.. The veil becomes a part of her everyday wardrobe, worn even at home when her  husband’s friends visit.

While seeming to reluctantly accept her own fate, Bin Ladin finds herself greatly concerned for her two young daughters who she  raised according to her own social values. On one hand, she wants her girls to have the same opportunities she herself was given but, she notes, “I realized that by bringing my children up to believe in freedom, tolerance and equality, I was shaping them into women who would rebel from a society seeking to lock them in.”

While her wealth enables her to alleviate her repressed situation with  frequent jaunts to Geneva and the United States, the message her story tells serves to raise awareness of the plight of the rest of the women of Saudi Arabia who don’t have the money nor a foreign passport to escape their oppression. “Inside the Kingdom” merely touches the surface of how bad it can be.

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