Sunday, December 07, 2008

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

Sourcebooks, Inc.


464 pages

September 2008

When Qanta Ahmed MD (of Pakistan descent, UK-Educated, NYC-practicing doctor) was assigned a job at The King Fahd National Guard Hospital in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, she grabbed the opportunity with both hands. Coming from a Muslim background as she did, she assumed she would assimilate easily into this Islamic-governed country, but what she found instead is that she stuck out like a sore thumb for despite her Muslim upbringing she found she had much more in common with people in the west than with these people that shared her religion.

Living as I have in the Middle East, I don't find that hard to believe at all. After all, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is truly a world apart...what sets it apart is the equal prominence given to the monarchy and clergy and the state-sponsored Islam that they follow-

However, my fascination with Saudi Arabia has more to do with its people than anything else.
Broadly, the people of the country maybe classified into 5-6 groups. First, you have the
Bedouin or the nomadic people making up some 7 % of the population. They are fiercely clannish and do not often mix with the rest of the population. Then you have the feared Mutaween or the religious police. Most go to strict Islamic schools and operate under the command of the Saudi king and are empowered to arrest or apprehend individuals if they (the mutaween) are accompanied by the Saudi police, The Mutaween are highly intolerant of anything they perceive as western and thus ankles, uncovered hair, intermingling of the sexes and so much more) . It is rumored that many of the Mutaween are actually convicts who earned their freedom by memorizing the Koran!

Their polar opposites would be the young
Saudi men with their fast cars, Rolex watches, designer clothes , Dunhill cigarettes etc. You also have what the author very aptly calls, "The Lost Boys of The Kingdom". This group is made up of all those Saudi boys who, thanks to unrestricted polygamy in the kingdom, are spawned by men who are so old they have lost all interest in children, even if it's a male child. The Lost Boys generally grow up with a mother and an absent father and without any male role models or a direction to the future, many of these boys find belonging in drugs and fast cars.

However, it is the
Saudi woman that makes the most fascinating study. Many of them are well educated, independent-minded, beautiful and strong women, yet is is astonishing to see how they comply with the subservient role laid out for driving, no working (unless it's as a teacher or a doctor), no leaving the country unless permission is given by a senior male member of the household. But of all the things a Saudi woman has to contend with, the one that horrified Qanta Ahmed the most was the wearing of the abaya, a head-to-toe black garment which all women in the Kingdom must wear when they go out in public, no matter their nationality or beliefs....
"during the day, or in public, these women not only veiled their beauty and their clothes in those black abayas, they veiled their spirits, their souls, their joie de vivre."
Later Qanta would admit that the abaya was paradoxically restricting and liberating. Among other requirements there are those that forbid women to wear seat belts because it results in their breasts being more defined...imagine that!!! I am particularly indebted to Dr. Qanta for giving us a window into the world of Saudi women because it is an almost impossible task to get to know them on a social level. The fact that Qanta Ahmed was a female Muslim doctor, she naturally had more privy to these women than any one of us will ever have.

Some of the other notable characters in Saudi society are the monarchy and the expat worker. The royal family is much loved by the Saudi people, especially
Prince Al-Waleed and some of the younger princesses who champion women's rights. It is perhaps due to these forward-thinking Royals that the clergy is getting increasingly agitated .

Qanta was in Saudi Arabia at a very interesting time (just before and during the 9/11 attacks) a time when Saudi Arabia was at its most angry and probably most radicalized. I found the chapter on 9/11 and the reaction of the Saudis a very telling one, one that is bound to make a western reader quite angry and afraid.

Despite the many differences Qanta experienced between the people of her faith and herself, strangely enough, this stay to Saudi Arabia brought her closer to her God and the chapters on her pilgrimage to
Hajj are perhaps the most moving in the book.

So far so good, but I do have some quibbles with the book. For instance, I dislike how the author discusses many of the Saudi's social issues anecdotally. You hear about the Saudi practice of "blood money" ( money paid to the next of kin of a murder victim as a fine) from a conversation that Qanta has with a co-worker and "hymenoplasty" from a woman she meets at a party. There is also this chapter on the custody of children should a Saudi couple get divorced and most of the information is provided by someone Qanta knows at the hospital. I would have preferred the author to have researched some of these important issues, rather than just quoting what she heard in everyday conversation.

Another quibble (albeit a small one) is her preoccupation with people's looks and brand names...makes her come across as being slightly superficial even though one has to presume she is not.

When Ms. Ahmed was asked why she wrote the book, she said when Americans in general think of Muslims, the radical Islam aspect of it comes to mind. Through the book she hopes to humanize Muslims and the Saudis, but in her last chapter when she talks about the glee with which they greeted the attacks of 9/11 and their hatred for the Jews there does seem to be a contradiction. Where are these moderate Saudis/Muslims hiding? Most of them seemed to believe that the US deserved what they got and that was quite disturbing to read.

Still, overall the book is a wonderful and informative read and a real window into a society many of us will never get to experience for ourselves. I am grateful to Ryan of Sourcebooks for providing me with a review copy.


"In The Land of Invisible Women" is a memoir of the author's time in Saudi Arabia from 1999-2001 (almost a decade ago). Since then the Saudi people, with access to more advanced communication, have become more confident...the voices of the mutaween have grown weaker and the women more emboldened. There seems to be a progressive change in the air...let's welcome it.

**08 March 2009** An Update:

The author mentioned how much young Saudi men like to race cars, she also mentioned how touchy-feely Saudi men were with each other and how they had no hesitation in kissing each other or holding hands. She, however, made no reference to "drifters" (young Saudi men who employ the dangerous practice of deliberately deliberately spinning out and skidding their cars sideways at high speeds, sometimes killing themselves and spectators). According to this article in the NYTimes,

Drifting, which tends to attract poorer, more marginal men, has also been an unlikely nexus between homosexuality, crime and jihadism since it emerged 30 years ago. Homoerotic desire is a constant theme in Saudi songs and poems about drifting, and accomplished drifters are said to have their pick of the prettiest boys among the spectators. Drugs sometimes also play a role. But a number of drifters have also become Islamic militants, including Youssef al-Ayyeri, the founder of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, who fought in Afghanistan and was killed by security forces in Saudi Arabia in 2003.


Sanjay said...

Hey Lotus..before I comment on this post, please accept my compliments on the new blog look. I loved the old look and also love this new spare, beautiful look of your blog!!!! Especially the header! It speaks to your love of reading and literature!

You have done a wonderful job of capturing the essence of the book for your readers. It does provide people like me a peek in to the lives of the people of SA and seems to be along the lines of what I have read, but nothing substitutes for the perspective that a Muslim woman brings while living in SA.

A few comments and thoughts and apologies for the long comment.
I would have preferred that Qanta had maybe researched some of these important issues, rather than just quoting what she heard in regular conversation.
Could she have done that? I say that for two reasons.. perhaps she did not intend to write a book when this happened. Also as a physician would she not be be breaching privacy and the confidence of a colleague if she tried to research more in the divorce case (or even in other cases)? This is after all Saudi Arabia where I doubt if her going from a physician to a investigative journalist or researcher would be tolerated? Maybe I am wrong?

It was interesting to note that Qanta stuck out as a sore thumb, but could it also be because there are also some differences in her practices of Islam v/s those in SA? Is that true, does she talk about it?
Does she say more about the expats? Does she interact with them?
Also for me, I associate the Muttawa with intolerance and evil, I use the latter word because they were the ones who allowed Saudi school girls perish in a fire rather than allow firefighters who were male and non family go in and rescue the girls. As I recall the incident caused a lot of furor in SA and out of it. Does she refer to the Muttawa being less strict in some situations?

I did find the term "Lost Boys Of the Kingdom" rather ironic, would have preferred Qanta call them "Lost Spoiled Boys Of the Kingdom" :) For they maybe lost but what have they really lost? Perhaps it is all relative.

Does she talk about the tribes? For Saudi royalty is from a certain tribe or an amalgamation of some close ones, and the royalty as such is quite extensive. What about tribes who are not a part of royalty, are they treated just the same? Sorry just curious if she talked about it.
And while I agree that this book may be a noble attempt to humanize Muslims, I am afraid questions about their condemnation of terrorism will remain. Somehow the outrage over Danish cartoons (which while offensive.. the creators did not kill anyone) is never matched when coming out in protest about acts of terrorism.
Also a Q about the endnotes. Are they from the book?
Have the Mutaween really become weaker? To me Saudi royalty and the clerics both need each other to keep things quiet. If there is really such a progressive change that is good, but I suppose I am a bit of an skeptic.
Again thank you for a wonderful review. And enjoy the holiday season.

Hollydolly said...

Hello Anjali:

I have just finished ready this book, and found it fascinating, but disturbing at the same time.I had no real idea of the power of the so called "religious police". It must be so difficult to live within such guidelines and still remain faithful to your culture. On a simpler note, how we take for granted just to meet up with a group of friends and go out for a meal, not being concerned about who is single, married, what religious persuasion they may be, but just to concentrate on having a good time with friends.......oh how lucky we are.

When I look at what is happening in our Country right now, I just want to stand up and shout, get real people, don't mess up our beautiful and free Country.......Just read this book and fold you hands in gratitude of how very lucky and privileged we are.

Neeku said...

Hi Anajali,

You changed your blog look... Its nice... seems like a good book... I think I might put that in my Christmas wish box ... may be someone will get me for Christmas...

Lotus Reads said...

Hey Sanjay!

Many thanks! The header (which I, too, will admit is gorgeous) would not have been possible had it not been for help from some very special people!

Thank you also for reading through my review and for the thoughtful questions and comments.

No, I was not wanting Qanta to divulge on specific cases, rather, I was hoping that instead of just citing what people had told her about these different social issues (divorce,blood money, child custody etc), that she would research them and tell us (her readers) what was actually true...not just conversations that may or may not contain facts.

About the intention to write a book...even if that hadn't been there initially I am sure it was something she gave more than a passing thought to as her time in Saudi produced new and different experiences, also, she wrote this book almost a decade after returning to the States so she had plenty of opportunity to research stuff over the internet or consult experts or even the library.

Yes, the book is all about her viewing life in Saudi through Western perceptions. The point I was trying to make is that before she stepped foot in Saudi Arabia she didn't realize how different it would be. She thought that as a Muslim lady she would be accepted with wide open arms...little did she realize that while the religion might be the same, some of the belief systems were very different. She mentions the expat from time to time but not too much...nor does she say a whole lot about the original tribes of Arabia.

What the lost boys have lost is guidance and a proper home life. Their fathers were mostly absent and their mothers, while present, really didn't have the power to do much. These boys grew up with money but with no role models and no focus. Sad.

Yes, I remember that incident with the Mutaween. Dreadful, isn't it? No, she had no good words for the mutaween, none whatsoever...I think she really,really hated them and it definitely shows in her writing.

About the endnotes, yes, they are paraphrased from the last chapter in the book which the author wrote in 2008. I would love people living in Saudi or people who have lived in Saudi Arabia recently, to contribute to these notes and to tell us if progress is really being felt.

Thanks a million for your comment Sanjay!!!

Paulina said...

Hi, I just discovered your blog and love it! I am also a culture vulture as you describe yourself as.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Sylvia!

It's always so wonderful to hear from you! Lately we've been reading the same books...what synchronicity! I'll laugh if you're current book is "Girl From Foreign" because that's going to be my next book to read! :)))

The Mutaween were so feared...both by Saudi women and men. When my friends were stationed in Saudi Arabia (they used to fly for Saudi Airlines) they would recount stories of how the mutaween would take a swipe at their ankles with batons if their ankles were exposed! I don't think they wield that much power anymore and thank goodness for that!

You are so right...we have so much to be thankful for. The freedom we experience as women is a gift indeed. Many of our sisters around the world are not that lucky.

Lotus Reads said...

@Neeku ~ Hi!!! If you lived closer I would have loved to have loaned you my copy (except it is has pencil marks all over it and cryptic notes in the margin!)

I hope the people who are putting together your Christmas gifts read this blog...that way they'll know what to get you! :)

Seasons Greetings Neeku and thanks so much for stopping by!

Lotus Reads said...

@Paulina ~ Welcome! I am delighted to "meet" you and hope to get to know you better through your blog and comments. Will visit you soon!

Hollydolly said...

Hello Again:

Wow, spooky, spooky, if your next book is the one by Sadia Shepard, then yes, it is on my list. I am number 2 on the library list......

Stefania said...

It seems a very interesting book, I am also interested in life in SA. "Girls of Ryadh" is in my TBR list, but maybe this book, being non-fiction, is better to get an idea of life in SA...

iselldreams said...

New appearance of your blog looks quite nice....
plus nice review as ever! sounds like an interesting one...

Dana said...

Great review AGAIN :)

Sanjay said...

Lotus.. Thank you so much for your response. Reading thru your reviews is always fun and informative. I always learn something new!

I agree, that after a while you want an author going beyond anecdotal evidence/conversations. Perhaps the nature of SA made it difficult? Not sure, I guess one has to ask Qanta herself. Perhaps a Q for a book reading, if she does one? :)

I had not realized that she wrote this book a decade after she returned. How interesting! I agree she could perhaps have done more research.

Thank you for telling me about the expats and why she stuck out despite being of the same faith and explaining why the Saudi men were referred to as "lost boys".

Yes it would indeed be nice to have more recent insight in to life in SA, but this book and your post does help a lot, esp for someone like me.

Thanks again, hope you had a good weekend and best wishes for the week ahead!

Lulu said...

hi lotus,
i bought and read and loved "banniyat al riyadh" after your review. it was fascinating indeed. i am also more intrigued to learn more about saudia arabia. will pick up this book when i am the bookstore next!
i like your new design though the i loved the burst of colour and vibrancy of the previous one!

Madeleine said...

This is my first post on your blog. It is very nice to meet you and you truly deserve the "Thinking blogger award".

This said, I will buy this book for several reasons, what a great review!

Now this truly happened to me at the age of 16. Then again when one grows up in Monte-Carlo it is not so extraordinary, considering the people who surround this small country.

Walking home from school a extremely elegant and young man of Middle Eastern descent followed me every day when school let out. Finally I found him one day as I walked into my parents house speaking to my parents, I had no idea about what. Happens he was a son of King Faisal and with his father and many mothers was staying at the Negresco in Nice.
Here is the shock, he was asking my hand in marriage to my father ?????? My parents of course refused, they where invited to dine with king Faisal but still refused any alliance between me and his son.

Reading your review brought back some memories of ths incident, sometimes I wonder what life would have been like, I imagine restricted in the extreme.

Have a nice week and nce to meet you :}

Lotus Reads said...

@Sylvia ~ Yes! It is the Sadia Shepherd one, lol! I picked it because it promises to throw light on the Jews in India and considering the recent terrorist attacks in Mumbai targeted the Jews, I think it is something I should get more familiar with.

@Stefania ~ Hello! I have read both books and if you're looking for insights into Saudi culture you should go with Qanta's book, but "Girls of Riyadh" is also very informative and perhaps more topical too. Thanks so much for stopping by!

@Iselldreams ~ Thank you! I like to keep changing my blog's a girl thing I think! :)

Lotus Reads said...

@Dana ~ Thank you! How nice of you to say that. I wish I had more time to work on this review...I was very rushed when I wrote it...this job leaves me with very little time for reading and writing.

@Lulu ~Hi!!! So glad you enjoyed "Girls of Riyadh", thanks so much for letting me know. Yes, I know what you mean about the previous blog frock...I loved it too...perhaps I will go back to it some day...just wanted a little change for a while!

Lotus Reads said...

@Sanjay ~ Hi! Yes, as I read this book I half-envied the author for being able to enter the lives of these people. They are usually so can live there for years and still not get to know a local. She was very lucky they gave her access to their thoughts and lives and I guess we were are too because she has shared them with us! :)

Lotus Reads said...

@Madeleine ~

Hello and a big, warm welcome to the blog! Thank you for the story!!! Growing up in Monte-Carlo must have made for an interesting childhood and teenage years to say the least. I remember seeing portraits of King Faisal with his beautiful Turkish wife (one of the many,lol) but don't recall seeing any pics of his family. I really loved the story thanks so much for sharing!

starry nights said...

Lotus I love the new clean and fresh look of your blog.Thanks for the review I thnk this will be an interesting book to read.

Madeleine said...

Hi Lotus, King Faisal used to stay at the Negresco, when he went for an outing he was always followed by many, many wifes, daughters in their black abaya, I was to young to understand totally the meaning of this dress, honestly it looked scary not exotic in the least. His sons on the other hand when in France wore the latest fashion. To be honest my parents where horrified. For good reasons...then again who knows, it is a nice memory so, he was very handsome and I a very foolish young girl.

Lotus Reads said...

@Starry ~ Thank you!

@Madeleine ~ yes, as you say, these experiences make for great memories and I thank you for sharing them with us! And yes, to be foolish is the prerogative of the young! :)

Id it is said...

Thanks for the heads up on this Lotus; your write up picks up some intriguing aspects of Saudi life that any reader would want to know more about.
I'm curious as to when she wrote this book...

Beloved Dreamer said...

Sweet A, it has been so long since I have been here. Everything looks great. I miss talking my friend. I will email you.


Faiyaz said...


I've been reading your blog for almost a year and i have to really say thank you! Because of you and your blog, i have read many beautiful books that i didn't even know existed. (My favourite so far is Beneath A Marble Sky) We both share a similar love for South Asian Literature.

This book is definately on my list! Recently I've been very interested in reading about Saudi Arabia.

Thanks once again.

Lotus Reads said...

@Id~ Hi! She wrote this book recently but it recounts her stay from 10 years earlier. Although women are still not allowed to drive or leave the country without permission from a man in the family, I am convinced things are a little better for them in Saudi Arabia then it was a decade to go.

@Beloved ~ Miss you too, but i understand the silence. Hope you're getting a lot of reading done?

@ Faiyaz ~ Thank you so much for writing!!! You have no idea how happy I get every time someone writes in to let me know my blog has helped influence their choice of reads, even if in a very small way. John Shors will be thrilled to know you enjoyed his book so much. I will have to write and let him know...he has a new one out now, it's called "Beside a Burning Sea" and is set in the South Pacific at the height of WWII. At the core it's the story of an American nurse who falls in love with her Japanese patient. I haven't read it yet, but I do plan to.

Take care and thank you so much for writing!

Faiyaz said...

(: You have no idea how much you have influenced me! Almost all of the books in my list are there thanks to you.

I have heard about and seen Beside A Burning Sea several times but I have not picked it up yet. I plan to first purchase and finish reading everything from my current booklist first before buying books that are not in my booklist. It sounds almost as compelling as BAMS.

I remember your review of The Dowry Bride and how you disliked it. I think that book was more for people that knew nothing about Indian culture, so that they would find lots of things interesting. Shobhan Bantwal has a new out called The Forbidden Daughter. Do you plan on reading it? I have started reading it and I can say it is a slight improvement, however there are way too many similarities with The Dowry Bride.

Thanks (:

Lotus Reads said...

Hi again Faiyaz!

I went to your live journal page and was very happy to see a review for "The Bastard of Istanbul". Unfortunately, it wouldn't let me leave a comment!

I really wanted to like "Dowry Bride"...I remember plodding on even when I didn't like the first few chapters, but unfortunately I just couldn't go beyond page 100 or maybe i stopped earlier (I can't remember now,lol). I'm happy you see an improvement in her new book...not sure if I will read it or not. Perhaps I'll wait for your review? :)

xx_faiyaz_xx said...

oh ohh sorry. livejournal can be a bit weird at times. my blogspot blog is bookishly-bookish. i just started it recently. i used to post short book reviews in my personal livejournal and i thought i should start a new one just for them. Im currently doing some short reviews for books that i have read this year.

And so far I'm liking The Forbidden Daughter more than the Dowry Bride, mainly because it isnt very draggy. The Dowry Bride was extremely stretched out and boring in the middle. And I feel so honoured that you would wait for my review to read a book (: Thank you!

madhan said...

This is very cool indeed! Thanks for sharing!

I am a first time visitor of your blog.

Great work.

About this article.
The whole article gives us wonderful insight.

Poppy Q said...

It looks like an interesting book. I have many friends who have worked in the medical field in Saudi, and they tell some most interesting stories about their experiences.

A Reader from India said...


Love the new look of your blog, especially the header!

Thanks for another lovely review of what sounds a Lotus-ish kind of book, by which I mean an interesting study in anthropology!

Seasons Greetings and wish you a Very Happy New Year!

Lotus Reads said...

@Madhan ~ Many thanks for dropping by!

@Poppy Q ~ Thank you for the visit. Some of your friends might be interested in reading this book...they will probably find a lot they can relate to.

@A Reader ~ lol, yes, after a while we as readers can get so predictable, no? :)

A very happy New Year to you too!

Anonymous said...

@Lotus: am utterly delighted with the makeover, dearest.

my greatest fear in reading such a book would be that i may make the mistake of appropriating the culture and rejecting the people - with their all too human hatreds and prejudices.

A very happy new year to you and yours!

Suzanne said...


I just wanted to say that I love your blog! I'm always glad to find new titles to pursue.

Thank you for this review.


Aparna said...

Great review, I really like your writing.

H said...

wow, you really put a lot of effort in your writing, it's impressive how well crafted most of your posts are, in terms of content.

Congratulations on the blogs of note thing

Um Naief said...

things are changing in Saudi. i believe that foreign women are now allowed to enter the country, walk around and such w/out wearing an abaya.

it wasn't 'just' in saudi that ppl rejoiced over the 9/11 attacks. many places experienced the same... including Bahrain.

i've often thought of writing a book about the world here, as i see it... especially seeing that i live it and experience it one-on-one on a daily basis. so, it's good to see that ppl are interested.

La escritorita said...

Fantastic blog. Your love for reading and literature and writing is infectious!

I just started a blog on "Lines of Beauty," those lines from books and poems that just make us smile and shiver. I encourage you to visit and keep the discussion going!


سعد الحوشان said...

nice article.

I am from Saudi Arabia, i didn't read the book, but I fear that the author made alot of exaggerations from what i understand.
It is true that Saudi community is highly conservative, and even with other fellow muslim brothers, we mostly don't blend very much at first, it takes alot of time to know saudies, and to learn about their lifestyles, their mindsets and motivations.
i heared many lies about us from foreigners, especially muslim ones unfortunatelly. but as you noticed, saudies are changing, and by time, you will learn more accurate things about them, when they represent themselves better, and become more open, as this is the general trend now in the community, to expose.
hope to have you visiting Saudia one day, and have a pleasant time here.

the seat belt story is new to me!!
ladies I know never had a problem with it, nor the motawaeen or motawwa'as, as far as I know.

Lotus Reads said...

@Nocturne ~ Sorry for the delay in getting back to're right..there is danger in taking everything these books say at face value. As I read this book I was in constant contact with a friend that lives in Saudi Arabia and she would go over things with me, so I felt I got a much clearer and truer picture with her input.

@Suzanne, H and Aparna ~ Thank you so much! You gladden my heart! :)

Lotus Reads said...

@Umm Naief ~ Your geographical location and extended family contacts make you somewhat of an authority on life in that region. I, for one, would surely love to hear what you have to say! May I be your agent? :)

@La escritorita ~ "Lines of Beauty"...what a neat idea for a blog! I will definitely visit one of these days. Thanks for dropping by!

Lotus Reads said...

Hello سعد الحوشان !

Thanks for leaving me a comment. Your insights are much appreciated! Yes, if it is hard getting to know people in the Saudi community then it stands to reason that many of the things they do...their culture, values,traditions etc. will be misunderstood. I hope there comes a time in the not-too-distant future when articulate Saudis like yourself will tell the world more about your country and people so that outsiders can stop their speculation.

I visited your blog..but will have to get a software to translate the Arabic to English. Will visit again soon. Thank you!

xanindia said...

What a very good book depicting the lives of women in Saudi. I can't follow the law in relation to women dressing. But I do not go for women who almost stripped themselves too. Just in the middle of this scenario is better-nothing overboard.

Aparna said...

Thanks for this great post.

Madeleine said...

I am currently reading this book.
As far as the young men and their car antics, yesterday I watched a video of the exact thing, I will try to find it for you. It wasn't easy to watch...dangerous!!!