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.