I’ve been wanting to read this book for quite some time, so I was pleased when I saw it at my public library’s audiobook download website. I just devoured the book, listening to the whole thing in two days, and mostly in a state of shock. Inside the Kingdom: My Life in Saudi Arabia is the story of Bin Ladin’s surreal life during her 15 year marriage to a Saudi man. She was a thoroughly Western Persian-Swiss woman when she met and married her husband in 1973. For this vibrant and intelligent woman, the restrictions on women in Saudi Arabia were a culture shock beyond all reckoning. Her husband was sympathetic and did not restrict her himself, but outside of her home, and even in her home with Saudis, she had to conform to the strict tribal and Islamic codes governing a woman’s every move.
The book focusses on the life of women in Saudi Arabia, which as a woman, was all she was allowed to see—not that there was much to see, even under the head-to-toe coverings they had to wear when any men outside their immediate family were around. About all that they are allowed to do is shop, have tea, and pray, and those first two require the use of a driver because women are not allowed to leave the house alone. Though Bin Ladin did find some friends in Saudi Arabia, most of the women were caught up in the tribal competition for status and honour. Competitive shopping and religious devotion (or at least the appearance of it) were how they established and maintained the female pecking order. They also lived in constant fear of being cast off and losing their children. All a Muslim man needs to do to divorce his wife is say “I divorce you” three times in front of a witness, and he can prevent her from ever seeing her own children again. As you might imagine, this inspires a great deal of obedience.
Bin Ladin was able to tolerate the situation for love of her husband and had hopes that things would improve as Saudi Arabia developed economically, but by the time she had her third daughter, she realized that things were only getting worse and could not subject her daughters to that life. She did not want them to become like the ignorant, neurotic, cowed, and brainwashed Saudi women around her. As strict as it was, Saudi Arabia’s version of Islam, Wahhabism, was getting stricter, and she saw that people like Osama Bin Laden, her brother-in-law, were the wave of the future.
Even her husband succumbed to his culture, which is what precipitated their separation (and is preventing their divorce). She suspects he has charged her with adultery in Saudi Arabia, which carries the death penalty (for a woman), so she can never visit a Muslim country in case she might be extradited. She also knows that publishing this book puts her life at risk, but I think she felt she had to do it for her daughters, and to warn the world.
I found her love for her daughters extremely moving, and her description of the Saudi mindset extremely chilling. Every time the music came in on the audiobook I jumped because I was so on edge listening to her story. At the end of the book she describes how the nightmarish Saudi tribal culture is being exported as Wahhabi Islam to the rest of the Muslim (and non-Muslim) world, funded by our petrodollars. While listening to the book I, who can’t walk to the end of the driveway some days, actually looked up at my car and seriously considered chucking it. Our oil money funds the Saudi schools that turn out Wahhabi imams and send them all over the world to preach our destruction. Carmen Bin Ladin, naturally an optimist and a fighter, is not optimistic about the West’s ability to withstand this new wave of Islamic fundamentalism. Let’s hope she’s wrong.