Book review: ‘In The Land of Invisible Women; A Female Doctor’s Journey in the Saudi Kingdom,’ by Qanta Ahmed
September 18, 2016
When examining foreign cultures, it is easy to fall into the trap of uncompromising extremes, often fueled by an allegiance to one's own patriotism or monoculturalism, blinding one against the nuances of cultural variances or the inescapable commonalities that all humans across the world share.
Often, it takes an individual who has had the opportunity to dip a foot into multiple cultures to really put forth a clear image of a country. Author Qanta Ahmed did just that, and she shares her deeply personal account of two years spent practicing medicine in the mysterious world of Islam's holiest land, Saudi Arabia. "In The Land of Invisible Women; A Female Doctor's Journey in the Saudi Kingdom," is a tour-de-force, a must-read for anyone eager to understand the complicated world in which Saudi women — and men — live.
Raised in Britain by Pakistani parents, Ahmed was highly qualified in western medicine and had long called the bustling streets of New York home. But when a career door unexpectedly slammed shut after a work visa was not renewed, the young doctor jumped at an offer to practice medicine in Riyadh, the epicenter of the followers and enforcers of Wahabiism, which dictates the most extreme adherence to Sharia Law that its proponents insist trump the more moderate directives in the Quran.
Though raised a Muslim, Ahmed had never worn a veil and was accustomed to western clothing and lifestyles. She knew, then, that the strict rules governing women's attire were going to be just some of the many challenges. "Even with a deep understanding of Islam, I could not imagine mummification is what an enlightened, merciful God would ever have wished for half of all His creation." Being a Muslim, though, she assumed the transition would be an easy one. She was wrong in so many ways.
Without really thinking through the contract's fine print, which included the death penalty for certain transgressions, she signed on, confident that her status as a Muslim would shield her. But as the plane hurled eastward, she began to doubt the wisdom of her hasty decision, and she dared to ponder some of the immediate barriers that might arise hampering the freedom to which she was accustomed. First, she learned that she would never be allowed to venture outside without a male escort, and second, she would have to bury her femininity beneath the black and cumbersome folds of an abbayah.
There is a fascinating progression of Ahmed's surrender to the cultural expectations of the rigid Kingdom, and she explains her own self-analysis of her transition to a life of invisibility. Trying on a veil for the first time in a store was a surreal moment. Looking at herself in the mirror as she pulled the black fabric over her head, she watched herself and her identity disappear, and alone in the dressing room she felt shame and self-loathing for accommodating something so contrary to her own upbringing. But upon stepping out of the shop she felt a surprising sense of security, with a profound awareness that in the Kingdom's male-dominated society, there was some measure of safety in being invisible.
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In the privacy of a home, she was permitted to be unveiled, and she was astonished by how effected she became by the sight of feminine hair and necklines. "The forbidden becomes much more enticing than what is always revealed." She was also shocked by how elegant and poised the women all were when the veils were removed. She sensed that beneath the male-inflicted, archaically conservative and restrictive attire, the women dared to exude freedom, confidence and control. There was a strength to the women that she had not expected, a self-love that was captivating.
This is not to say that her time on the streets was easy; she eternally felt the oppressive and ominous hand of Wahabiism, which was suffocating — often literally — beneath the heavy veils in the hot desert sun. But safe behind the gates of the military base hospital, Ahmed recounts yet another contrasting view of the conflicted dynamics of the Kingdom. Western doctors — and those trained overseas — mingled easily regardless of gender or nationality, maintaining a professional work environment akin to any place else in the world.
For Ahmed, her time in Saudi Arabia was a study in daily contradictions, and she found herself fascinated and surprised in equal measure. She participated in Hajj, and her account of her journey to Mecca and her own spiritual awakening encompasses a good portion of the book, which sets up an intriguing contrast against the strict and terrifying rigidity of the form of Islam enforced by the Mutawaeen.
The insight gained from Ahmed's unique female perspective is immense, and most gratifying is the documentation of the changes she has witnessed on subsequent return trips. She now knows, having worn the abbayah, that Saudi women are increasingly strong and unified, their veils doing little to cover their determination to move forward in the world.
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