Saturday, November 29, 2008

In the Land of Invisible Women: A Female Doctor's Journey in the Saudi Kingdom

One thing I’ve noticed, and taken advantage of, since the horrors of 9-11 is the increase in titles published in the U.S. pertaining to various Muslim cultures. I’ve read more than a dozen such titles in the last two or three years, both fiction and nonfiction, some written by Muslims and others by non-Muslims living in Muslim countries. I’ve learned something from each of them, but Qanta Ahmed’s In the Land of Invisible Women: A Female Doctor’s Journey in the Saudi Kingdom is one of the most instructive of them all.

Qanta Ahmed, a British citizen raised in a moderate Muslim family in the U.K., received her medical education in the United States and considers the U.S. to be her second home (she currently practices medicine in South Carolina). But when she unexpectedly found herself without the visa necessary to remain in New York she accepted a position in a Saudi Arabian hospital and set out on what she figured would be an exotic adventure, an opportunity for her to experience life in a country dominated by Islam. Ahmed remained in Saudi Arabia for two years during which she learned as much about herself as she learned about Islam and the culture in which she had immersed herself.

Arriving at the King Fahad National Guard Hospital completely unprepared for the atmosphere in which she would be working, Ahmed was surprised to find herself being so ignored by the hospital’s almost exclusively male medical staff. She quickly learned that she would be allowed to practice medicine unveiled, dressed in white lab coat and trousers, but that her medical opinion would almost automatically be considered inferior to that of any of her male colleagues.

Ahmed found herself resenting, and being frustrated by, the limitations placed on the women of Saudi Arabia. She learned that these women, herself included, could only be seen in public if their dress conformed to strict Muslim law (never a strand of hair to be exposed), that they were not allowed to drive a car, that they could not leave the country without the permission of a father, brother or husband, and that “morality policemen,” known as the Mutawaeen were more than willing to make sure that women strictly complied with what was required of them.

But, as Ahmed learned when she grew closer to her female colleagues, all is not as it seems in Saudi society. Many women, because of the support offered them by their fathers and husbands, are being allowed to enter professions long closed to them and to open businesses of their own. They are raising their daughters to become confident, outspoken women who consider themselves to be the equals of their brothers in every way. She discovered progressive families filled with idealists and community activists determined to bring change to the Saudi system, change that will bring many Western liberal values to the kingdom.

Ahmed, however, was shocked to find just how far Saudi Arabia still has to go in terms of its racism, anti-Semitism, and anti-Americanism. She found that even the large number of Saudi doctors trained by Jewish teachers, teachers they considered to be their personal friends, were still unable to get past their rabid anti-Semitism. She felt firsthand the personal hurt of watching close friends and colleagues celebrate what happened to America on September 11, 2001, some even going so far as to buy celebratory cakes for the hospital within minutes of the news.

Despite her many dismaying experiences, Ahmed left Saudi Arabia feeling much closer to Islam than when she arrived in the country. Her friends patiently instructed her in the nuances of the religion and her completion of the Hajj inspired her in an almost magical way. Readers unfamiliar with what happens in Mecca during the Hajj will be fascinated by the logistics of that annual celebration as described by Ahmed, and will understand exactly how large numbers of people can sometimes die in the midst of a religious experience of this magnitude.

In the Land of Invisible Women, particularly since it was written by a woman with a foot in two worlds, is a real eye-opener.

Rated at: 4.5


  1. Sounds fascinating! A friend of my m-i-l went to Saudi Arabia with a contingent of American nurses in the late 70's or early 80's. There was a tunnel from their dorm to the hospital so that they would not appear in public in their uniforms. Martha found it an interesting but unnerving experience and was thankful to come home when her year was up. She made A LOT of money, but wasn't willing to continue.

  2. I'm about halfway through this book at the moment and enjoying it very much. You are right, it is a real eye-opener!

  3. I love your review, and will definately look out for this book. It sounds fascinating.

  4. Jenclair, this is the most detailed explanation of life in Saudi Arabia that I've ever read - it's a long book, of course. I lived in Algeria for a while but that's a much more westernized version of Islam, so much of this was new to me, especially the details of the Hajj. I know people who have made that pilgrimage but they never shared this kind of detail with me.

  5. I'll look forward to your review, Stefanie. I think that, for the most part, this one is getting good reviews everywhere.

  6. Thanks, Leah. It's a trade paperback in size, pretty thick, with that eye-catching cover so it should be easy to spot in a bookstore. Let me know what you think if you decide to read it.

  7. I enjoyed reading this book and your review as well! Ofcourse, the author wrote her memoir almost a decade after she returned from Saudi Arabia so things have changed somewhat since then and continue to do so...

    Look forward to visiting your blog more often.

  8. Thanks for stopping by, Lotus. I do hope that things are changing in a positive direction in Saudi, for the sake of women there. What a horrible mistake it is for a society to disqualify half its population from the workplace...or to limit workplace access the way that some countries still do.

  9. yet another piece of anti-Muslim propaganda. OK,some basic facts: Saudi Arabia's rulers were NOT put in by the Arabs themselves; they were put in by the BRITISH in an effort to keep people subjugated by religion - I find it very amusing that everybody wants to equate Saudi with Islam when most Muslims don't follow the strict Wahhabi code of Islam that Saudi practices; the next time I want to do a book on the USA, I'll ignore New York, California and all the other states and go to the most backward, redneck state and write about the people there and say that ALL Americans are like this. Aaah, sweet karma....

  10. Anonymous, once again, I wish you had had the courage to identify yourself rather than taking a hit and run approach to the conversation.

    This is a MEMOIR. It is one woman's experience and, as such, it is reality. It is the life she lived in Saudi. It is not anti-Muslim in the least. Did you even read it?