An interesting true-life story told from a Western-educated Muslim doctor’s point of view,
In the Land of Invisible Women gives us a true bird’s eye view of modern Saudi Arabia. Although Dr. Ahmed’s perceptions are somewhat skewed by the fact that her Saudi life revolves around the hospital and the upper-class strata of society, that narrow angle view only distracts from the richness of the tale in a minor way.
The choice to accept a position in a Saudi Arabian hospital was partly fueled by the loss of her American visa. Deciding that she wanted to explore more of her Muslim faith and experience firsthand some of the lifestyle of day-to-day Saudi life, she quickly becomes disillusioned with the misogynistic perspective of almost every man she meets there, as well as the overwhelming control the Islamic radicals maintain over the country. Her story, as told in this book, takes place predominantly before 9/11, so the perspective of Saudi Arabia and its Islamic neighbors is not so much politically skewed; rather, it addresses the strong Muslim ties that Dr. Ahmed feels for her temporary country.
Thirty-one at the time she arrives in Saudi, she is quickly taken shopping for an abbayah, the requisite outerwear that is such a dominant part of female attire. Black, enrobing the wearer from head to toe, Quanta is astonished at the degree of privacy and freedom she feels when she first wears it. Providing protection from prying eyes and allowing a wide degree of personalized dress underneath, the abbayah is just the first step in Dr. Ahmed’s indoctrination into Saudi society. She soon learns that the external elements to which she is exposed are only the tips of the Muslim iceberg. Everything is so different from her youth, schooled in Britain, and North America, and she is hard-pressed to establish herself in Arabia as a woman with opinions and beliefs – both personally and medically. No man will look her in the eye, and often she is not even acknowledged as a viable member of the ER team on which she serves.
So much different for the woman doctor to assimilate and understand: the lack of communication between men and women; the fact that no Saudi woman is allowed to drive, or even to be out in public without a male member of family (or other women); and the constant pressure to keep her more feminist opinions to herself. She makes friends with other women, almost all other medical professionals, and from the highest echelons of the upper classes there in Riyadh, where she makes her home. The reader does get the feeling that Quanta gets very little hands-on with the “common man” (or woman), for she spends a disproportionate amount of time within the pages talking about the attractiveness or wealth of those with whom she associates. It is as if the very fact that women are only free to be women within the confines of their homes encouraged Dr. Ahmed to focus on the exterior facets of that life. Most of the women seem to dye their hair, wear extraordinary amounts of jewelry and the most expensive footwear, all under the disguising cover of the abbayah.
Despite Dr. Ahmed’s preoccupation with looks and superficialities - or perhaps because of it - she does expose to the reader the soft, decadent underbelly of the wealthy men of Saudi Arabia. Many are playboys, using drugs and alcohol and indulging in other vices, including fast cars and trips all over the world. The women, too, travel often, for cosmetic surgery and elite name brand clothing. Quanta is horrified to discover that hymen reconstruction is one of the most popular overseas surgeries, which women seek out rather than exposing themselves to censure, even death, if they are found not to be “pure.” Virginity is highly prized, and the pressure, as with most of the societal standards, is entirely on the women.
Dr. Ahmed, despite her lack of language skills in Arabic, does find solace in being in the land of Mohammed. She spends a good deal of time explaining and sharing with her readers the experiences she has in taking the holy pilgrimage to Mecca. Thousands upon thousands go each year, and taking Hajj is considered the obligation of every Muslim at least once in their lifetime. She explains the rituals (such as the drinking of holy water, called zam zam) and the deep faith that comes to her in making Tawaf.1 Unfortunately, there are a number of grammatical and spelling errors in the book, as well as some contradictory information. There is too much technical, medical terminology used for a book that seems to be intended to be the story of one woman’s journey to her religious roots. Nevertheless, Dr. Ahmed has a beautiful sense of metaphoric writing, and although the reader may come away from the narrative feeling uncomfortable and disconcerted by Dr. Ahmed’s encounters with Saudi nationals, it is obvious that the depth of emotional experience about which we are reading is sincere, passionate and truthful.
Quanta Ahmed now practices medicine in the United States, and her two years in Saudi Arabia helped her understand and appreciate her faith, the friends she made, and the uniqueness of a male-dominant culture. It is an experience that most of us will never have, thus the story offers a perspective and intensity that we need to have in order to understand both the faith and the peoples of the Middle East.
1 (This is the ritual of walking around the Ka'aba, which is the cube-like structure in the center of Mecca, seven times.)