In the Land of Invisible Women:
A Female Doctor’s Journey in the Saudi Kingdom
Paperback – September 1, 2008
After being denied a visa to stay in the United States, Dr. Qanta A. Ahmed, a Muslim woman of Pakistani origin, embraces the opportunity to practice medicine in Saudi Arabia. In this book, Dr. Ahmed describes her experiences while living in The Saudi Kingdom as a doctor, and more specifically a female doctor. Though the book chronicles Dr. Ahmed’s personal journey, it also represents the lives of so many other oppressed women who are forced to abide by strict rulings or else face the harsh consequences. Dr. Ahmed gives those women a voice and speaks out against this kind of treatment. Through her own observations, Dr. Ahmed learns a great deal about life in The Saudi Kingdom and most importantly, she learns a lot about herself. We also see that although the men often live privileged lives in relation to the women, they also have their own share of obstacles and challnges they must endure.
This is an important story because it perfectly demonstrates that major inequalities between men and women are still rampant in some parts of the world. What Dr. Ahmed witnessed and had to face is a reality for many women and a true testament to their strength and courage. This book took me through a range of emotions, including anger, sadness and amazement. Not only is the story incredibly powerful, Dr. Ahmed’s writing is really beautiful. I loved the writing style as and the way she managed to transport me into her experiences. I felt her outrage, her pain and her frustration as though I was living it as well.
While reading the book there were times when I felt that Dr. Ahmed went into too much detail and perhaps less would have been more in some cases. However, I do realize that many of those details are integral parts of her experience and offer important insights into each aspect of daily life as a woman in The Saudi Kingdom.
This book is a well-written and fascinating insider’s look into life in Saudi Arabia and the challenges that women and sometimes even men must face in their daily lives.
In the Land of Invisible Women is a must read for everyone. Why? People must find out how Dr. Ahmed dared to cope with radical Islamic fundamentalism. Rather than misery and despair, her story is one of brightness and optimism for Saudi women. But equally vital, it is a tale of expectation, a hope that brave Saudi men, who dare read her story, might have a jolt of conscience over unjustified cowardly feelings they hold toward women.
Adventures in Reading
Sourcebooks, Inc. kindly sent me a copy of the memoir In the Land of Invisible Women by Qanta A. Ahmed, MD, which was perfect timing as I had just heard Ahmed’s interview on the Diane Rehm Show and was quite curious about the book. Ahmed, “a British Muslim doctor,” is denied a visa to stay within the United States and quickly makes up her mind to accept a position in Saudi Arabia. Her memoir In the Land of Invisible Women offers a unique perspective of a western woman, professional doctor, and Muslim living within the kingdom.
I feel that most of what I know about Saudi Arabia has been my interpretation of evening news’ sound bytes. Via an original and interesting perspective, Ahmed takes the reader through her experience of Saudi Arabia, particularly in Riyadh , where she worked as a doctor for two years at the National Guard Hospital. In the Land of Invisible Women reads as a cross between a medical narrative and a memoir, and also manages to pursue two distinctly interesting themes: a western woman’s experience within the Kingdom and a lifelong Muslim’s interaction with more extreme forms of Islam.
My only complaint about the book regard some structural issues as some chapters read as disjointed. Assumedly the format is chronological, though certainly gaps of time are missing, but the reader at times is expected to make shaky leaps between one handful of chapters, for example, that focus on Hajj season to the next handful of chapters detailing Ahmed’s experience with romance in Riyadh. Relatively a minor distraction, but it did force me to wonder if I had managed to skip pages.
What I most appreciated about this book was Ahmed’s divulgence of her opinion and how she avoided becoming dismissive of other’s beliefs. The author is consistently willing to acknowledge the complex traditions and cultures that, for example, produce both negative and positive responses to wearing the abbayah. Nevertheless, Ahmed still beautifully asserts her arguments and confronts the anti-Semitism, the sexism, and the anti-western attitudes she experienced.
In the Land of Invisible Women gave me a lot to think about, and just not about the complexities of Saudi Arabia but also my country’s, the U.S.A., interactions within the Middle East.
Dr. Qanta Ahmed is a Muslin British citizen of Pakistani descent. She grew up in London and then attended medical school in New York City–obtaining certifications in internal medicine, pulmonary disease, critical care medicine and sleep disorder medicine. Then in 2000 her visa renewal was denied. While rectifying this problem, she needed to live and work outside the U.S., so she took a two-year position at the top hospital in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. This memoir details her time there.
Before going to Riyadh, Qanta had been warned about the many ways that the Saudi Kingdom represses women–both Saudi nationals and expatriates working there. She initially felt that being a Muslim with Pakistani coloring would give her a leg up. This was not to be the case. Her Muslin upbringing in a liberal, educated British home and then her experiences in American medical schools barely scratched the surface of what she was expected to know and how she was expected to behave in the different circumstances of Saudi society.
Qanta extremely carefully depicts Saudi life. She covers the mundane as well as a thorough description of her trip to Mecca to complete the Hajj (the religious pilgrimage that all Muslims are required to make during their lifetime). While there she feels a strong religious uplifting that changed many of her previous views about being a Muslim–and being a Muslim woman in a Muslim society that is ruled by theocratic conservatives. The Quran (Koran) teaches that all humans are to be treated with respect, but she becomes more and more aware of the discrepancies between the written teachings and the actions of the religious police (Mutawaeen).
Qanta Ahmed tells about her friendships with Saudi nationals, both women and men, and the difficulties involved with simple gatherings of friends. Like Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran does with Iran, this book provides a realistic picture of life in the Saudi Kingdom.
It is a substantial book and should be savored by readers who feel as I do, that the more we know about the inner workings of countries the more understanding we have of their policies and their view of us.
Armchair Interview says: Just shy of 450 pages, the Reading Group guide makes this an excellent book group choice.
A Westerner’s Cultural Education
Whether or not a reader is familiar with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Dr. Qanta Ahmed’s debut memoir is a mesmerizing read. It’s also the perfect primer for those who want to know what life is really like for women in a rigidly orthodox Muslim country. A British citizen of Pakistani origin, Ahmed completed her medical training in internal medicine, pulmonary disease, and critical care in New York City. At the completion of a fellowship in sleep disorders, she found that her visa application to stay in the United States had been denied. Without much thought or familiarity with the Kingdom, Ahmed accepted a job offer to work at the King Fahad National Guard Hospital in Riyadh.
Although she had been raised Muslim, Ahmed had very little knowledge of the religion. Through her writing, readers gain an education as well. Further, Ahmed’s firsthand experiences in a Muslim country elucidate facets of its culture, from an explanation of blood money to the practices of polygamy. One of the most moving sections of the book covers Ahmed’s Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, the holiest site for Muslims. It’s on this journey, ripe with adventures and side turns, that Ahmed discovers the importance of religion to her, and embraces all the positivism of Islam.
Yet, throughout, Ahmed encounters various dichotomies, especially because she is a Westernized Muslim woman. Right away, her experience wearing an abbayah—a robe that covers from head to toe except for the eyes, which all women in the Kingdom must wear when they go out in public, no matter their nationality or beliefs—was paradoxically restrictive and freeing: “As I fastened the abbayah in front of a mirror inside the makeshift dressing room, I watched my eradication. Soon I was completely submerged in black. No trace of my figure remained. My androgyny was complete.” She described it as a “strangely inviting prison” and “in some respects the abbayah was a powerful tool of women’s liberation from the clerical male misogyny.” Only through the abbayah’s protective layer can a woman get anything done.
There are other examples of the way Saudi women “benefit,” from their female status. In marriage, women receive a mahr from their new husbands, which is a substantial fortune. And if they divorce, the woman gets to keep all of her mahr. Divorce is also easily obtained; if a man wants to take on a second wife (in Saudi Arabia, he can have up to four), this alone is grounds enough for divorce. Yet, in a divorce, men are awarded custody of children over the age of seven or nine, a fact that runs counter to a Westerner’s way of thinking.
Polygamy is another intriguing topic discussed here—one of Ahmed’s colleagues divorced her husband for wanting to take on a second wife, then confessed that she herself would like to become a second wife: “I am going to marry a man who is already married. I don’t want to marry a naïve bachelor. I want to marry a man whose primary needs are already met.” Ahmed, the Westerner, found this logic puzzling, and rather sad.
To a degree, the divorcée’s story is an indicator of a Saudi view Ahmed encountered in a more global realm—that of anti-Semitism. Ahmed was in Riyadh during 9/11, and these chapters are some of the most moving, disturbing, and insightful of the book. Ahmed was saddened and distressed—she is, after all, extremely attached to New York and America—and taken aback by her colleagues’ excitement in reaction to the attacks. Female Saudi obstetricians in her hospital bought cake for their staff to celebrate. Her friends talked about how America “deserved” this tragedy because of its support of Israel. It’s a turning point for Ahmed, as she uncovers the complexity of allegiances. It’s also an affecting illustration of how unaware some Westerners—Ahmed included—were of the antipathy much of the Middle East harbors for the West. It points to ironies and paradoxes on so many levels; many of her Saudi colleagues had their medical training in the States with Jewish mentors, and benefit from oil money—yet they flatly “hate the Jews.” While such attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors disappointed and isolated Ahmed, they fit neatly into her growing understanding of the Kingdom.
Ahmed’s portrayal of Saudi Arabia during her two years there is one of both fondness and frustration, and a fascinating one at that.
Kirkus (Starred Review)
Faced with visa troubles in the United States, British-born doctor Qanta Ahmed accepted a position at the top hospital in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, without hesitation. “I did no reading, knew nobody who’d been to that country, but thought, ‘Well, I’m a Muslim, what’s there to know?’ ” she says. Upon arriving, Ahmed quickly realized that she was nowhere near prepared for the experience, which she details in the forthcoming In the Land of Invisible Women. “Your status in Saudi society is determined entirely by your relationship to family. Going there alone was a uniquely difficult and challenging situation,” the pulmonary specialist says. Ahmed quickly learned to brush off the judgmental stares from colleagues when she shunned the veil because it interfered with her ability to practice medicine. She details the difficult process of integration into Saudi society throughout her two-year post: adjusting to life in a country where women are largely ignored, the jarring anti- Americanism and anti-Semitism of Western trained professionals and the pilgrimage to Mecca that renewed her faith. Despite the restrictive customs of Saudi’s religious rule, Ahmed found a vibrancy that left her hopeful.
“Saudi is much more heterogeneous than one would expect,” she says. “Muslims themselves feel fairly lost in a country so caricatured and vilified for its severe austerity and Wahhabi theocracy, but it’s also the cradle of Islam and the site of the Hajj—a symbol of what Islam could be.”
“This memoir is a journey into a complex world readers will find fascinating and at times repugnant… intimate introduction to a world most readers will never know.”
This memoir is a journey into a complex world readers will find fascinating and at times repugnant. After being denied a visa to remain in the U.S., British-born Ahmed, a Muslim woman of Pakistani origin, takes advantage of an opportunity, before 9/11, to practice medicine in Saudi Arabia. She discovers her new environment is defined by schizophrenic contrasts that create an “absurd clamorous clash of modern and medieval…. It never became less arresting to behold.” Ahmed’s introduction to her new environment is shocking. Her first patient is an elderly Bedouin woman. Though naked on the operating table, she still is required by custom to have her face concealed with a veil under which numerous hoses snake their way to hissing machines. Everyday life is laced with bizarre situations created by the rabid puritanical orthodoxy that among other requirements forbids women to wear seat belts because it results in their breasts being more defined, and oppresses Saudi men as much as women by its archaic rules. At times the narrative is burdened with Ahmed’s descriptions of the physical characteristics of individuals and the luxurious adornments of their homes but this minor flaw is easily overlooked in exchange for the intimate introduction to a world most readers will never know.
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“In this stunningly written book, a Western trained Muslim doctor brings alive what it means for a woman to live in the Saudi Kingdom. I’ve rarely experienced so vividly the shunning and shaming, racism and anti-Semitism, but the surprise is how Dr. Ahmed also finds tenderness at the tattered edges of extremism, and a life-changing pilgrimage back to her Muslim faith.”
Ahmed still beautifully asserts her arguments and confronts the anti-Semitism, the sexism, and the anti-western attitudes she experienced… In the Land of Invisible Women gave me a lot to think about, and just not about the complexities of Saudi Arabia but also my country’s, the U.S.A., interactions within the Middle East.
The Weekly Standard
“a personal, deeply affecting, and exhaustively detailed account of the author’s experience as a female professional in the desert domain.”
Long Island Noir (Akashic Noir)
Paperback – April 30, 2012
Kaylie Jones: Kaylie Jones moved to Sagaponack in 1975, where her family continued to live for more than thirty years. She is the author of five novels, including A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries, and the memoir Lies My Mother Never Told Me. She teaches in the MFA program at Stony Brook Southampton, and in the Wilkes University low-residency MFA program in professional writing.
Akashic Books continues its groundbreaking series of original noir anthologies, launched in 2004 with Brooklyn Noir. Each story is set in a distinct neighborhood or location within the city of the book.
Brand-new stories by: Jules Feiffer, Matthew McGevna, Nick Mamatas, Kaylie Jones, Qanta Ahmed, Charles Salzberg, Reed Farrel Coleman, Tim McLoughlin, Sarah Weinman, JZ Holden, Richie Narvaez, Sheila Kohler, Jane Ciabattari, Steven Wishnia, Kenneth Wishnia, Amani Scipio, and Tim Tomlinson.