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Osama bin Laden's Sister-in-Law Remembers Life in a Closed Society - 2004-08-19


One of the most wanted terrorists in the world today is Saudi-born Osama bin Laden. His influence on a generation of would-be religious warriors and terrorists has led to a closer scrutiny of the environment in which he grew up in Saudi Arabia. Now, a former sister-in-law has opened a new window on the strict confines of Saudi Arabia that isolated women and promoted religious extremism. Correspondent Laurie Kassman spoke with Carmen bin Laden about her best-selling memoir of life in Saudi Arabia with Osama bin Laden's brother.

Carmen bin Laden, half Swiss, half Persian, married Osama bin Laden's older brother in 1974, and went to live with the extended bin Laden family in Saudi Arabia.

Her book Inside the Kingdom chronicles her nine-year marriage to Yeslam bin Laden and her life in Saudi Arabia during the 1970s, before the oil boom opened Saudi society to the modern outside world.

For a Western-educated woman, she says, it was a disturbing change of lifestyle. She had to cover herself from head to toe in the traditional black veil, known as the abaya, whenever she left the confines of her home. She was no longer able to drive a car or leave the house unescorted, even to cross the street to visit another member of the family. She and other female members of the family were not welcome in the company of men not related to them.

Used to the liberal lifestyle of the United States and Europe where she was educated, Carmen was surprised her female in-laws never challenged the restrictions.

"You know, in Saudi Arabia, I have never experienced that someone questioned the basis of that culture," she says. "It's like this, and it's static. [The attitude is,] It's like this, and this is the best way to be."

During her stay in Saudi Arabia, Carmen bin Laden watched as the exploitation of the country's oil wealth transformed a desert tribal kingdom into a modern, hi-tech society.

But she says the changes did not always penetrate the deeply conservative social traditions, especially for women. And that led her to fear for the future of her two young daughters.

"When you see a society change so fast materially, as a Westerner I assume society will change, and women will open, and they will seek basic change," she adds. "But, unfortunately, this is not what I experienced. And I started fearing for the future of my daughters, and I wanted my daughters to be able to lead the life they wanted to and have the freedom of choice."

Carmen bin Laden's story of love-turned-sour is familiar to many young women who are charmed by cultural differences, and then trapped by them.

Carmen met Yeslam bin Laden while they were students in the United States. She admired his open mind and social graces. But she says, once home in Saudi Arabia, he reverted to a more conservative lifestyle.

After Saudi Arabia mobilized religious warriors to support Afghanistan's 1979 fight against the Soviet invasion, adherents to radical Islam, like Osama bin Laden, gained more clout. His views, Carmen says, were respected and sometimes feared inside the family.

"During my stay in Saudi Arabia, and even later, the family, the sisters, the brothers, they always spoke to him as a very religious and respectable man," she recalls.

Carmen bin Laden says the idea for her book pre-dates the 2001 terrorist attacks. She wanted to explain to her daughters why she decided to leave Saudi Arabia and take them with her. The book is now on several bestseller lists in the West.

"I had this book in me for a long time. I thought, I owe it to my daughters to explain why they had to go through all those difficult times through most of their childhood, and to explain how I saw that society, and what was my fear for their future," she says.

Mrs. bin Laden has kept her married name, even though she acknowledges it has become synonymous with death and destruction.

"We have to explain we are bin Laden, but we do not have the same values," she notes.

Yeslam bin Laden divorced Carmen in 1988. She and her daughters have not returned to Saudi Arabia since then.

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