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


Status: Read from May 14 to 24, 2015
Format: Paperback (edit)
Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Author: Qanta A. Ahmed

I had not gone through the reviews about this book before picking this up for reading. But now I see, that this book has got lot of negative reviews. I agree the quality of writing is not that great. One needs to sit handy with a dictionary to find the meaning of the complex words used in the book. Her description about the Saudi women and men she meets during her stay in Riyadh is repetitive. Palest Caucasian skin, flawless creamy skin, gorgeous, visible delicate blue veins, translucent beauty, expressive eyes, luminous porcelain complexion …are few of the words used repetitively to describe the beauty of Saudi women.

But none of these criticism can stop you from reading this book. A book worth reading with lots of insight about Islam and the live in Saudi Arabia. Be assured, most of your misconception about Islam will be cleared.

Dr. Qanta A. Ahmed, a Pakistani origin, British born Muslim and practiced and trained physician from US. When her visa renewal was denied, her US immigration came to an end. In a spur of moment she decides to put her medical skills in use in the Middle East where US medicine was widely practised. And from Kennedy she boarded her flight to Riyadh, in a believe that she is will-acquainted with the ways of an Islamic Kingdom.

In the airport, during the time for Isha prayer (the final evening prayer which Muslims observe after sunset), the author is entranced by the scene when Saudis condensed around symmetrical lines in a precise and prostrated to God. She observes the Saudi women: mass of black bundles blending into one another. During her journey to Riyadh, she is constantly reminded of her religion. In the big screen at the centre of the cabin showed a motionless white arrow. The arrow pointed to the direction of Mecca, the spiritual and historical epicentre of Islam. Muslims call this direction as Qibla.

She has to go for her abbayah (a thin, flowing robe that covers the entire length of the body, from head to foot. Abbayah has a matching scarf called the hijab, to cover the hair and head)shopping the first thing in Riyadh.

During her two years stay in Riyadh, Quanta befriends many Saudi nationals. During her stay she finds that equality among genders does not exist in Saudi society. Women in Saudi are controlled with abbayahs, are banned to drive and are not allowed to travel without the permission of a male member of the family. Quanta is astonished to learn that there had been a time, before 1979 (1399 in Islamic calendar) when women could walk alone with no man accompanied. The women of Saudi lost their freedoms while the monarchy and the Mutawaeen (religious police who impose wahabisim strictly ) got to keep their power.

At her work place, as a woman, she is considered invisible to her male counter part. She realizes that a difference in opinion about a patient’s illness from a female doctor is taken as a personal insult by male physicians. No amount of Harvard or Cleveland Clinic could qualify a female physician to put her opinion forward. In the mean time she makes many female Saudi friends, who are in the same profession as hers, like Zubaidah and Ghadah. She is stunned to know that many women in Saudi are business owners, of clothes boutiques, hair salons, of chic stores or rare porcelain. Even though women in Saudi are not permitted to hold a business directly, many do so through the front of a male representative.

The interesting chapters of the book includes the parts describing the authors Hajj. During the Hajj season, one of Quanta’s colleague, Mobeen insists her to attend Hajj. In Saudi, no Muslim can be denied the opportunity to visit Mecca. So Quanta takes a decision to attend Hajj. But she feels like a imposter. She has no idea about how Hajj is done. She didn’t even have a copy of Quran or a book on how to do Hajj. The initial preparation for her Hajj includes surfing the internet for information on how to do Hajj. Nadir, another surgeon, helps Quanta get three books both in English and Arabic with all information about Hajj. Zubaidah helps Quanta to get proper abbayah for her Hajj.

The instructions says that: one should express the intention to make Hajj. One has to assume the required purified state, the ihram, through ablutions and prayers, before departing for the airport. While travelling, one has to acknowledge the Holy Sites of Medina and Mecca. One arriving in Mecca, she would make her first Tawaf(circumambulation counter clockwise seven times around the Ka’aba), before embarking on Hajj. After that first night completing the first Tawaf, she would depart the next day to Mina where, for three day she would spend the time in a reverie of supplication. From their she would go to the plain of Arafat. She would stand on the ground where Abraham had stood before God and prayed all night. This was the essence of Hajj. After a day at Arafat, in the evening, she would spend the night outdoors on a plain called Muzdullifah. Finally, she would return to a place near Mina, called Jamaraat, where she would throw seven stones at three pillars which symbolize Iblis, the Devil, showing him appropriate scorn. This would mark the end of her Hajj and she would cut a small lock of hair and discard it; a symbol of purification. After Hajj is complete, she would sacrifice a sheep to distribute to the poor. Only after finishing all these steps, she could celebrate Eid. She would make a final Tawaf, at the end of which, with a final backward glance at the Ka’aba, she would pray that God allow her to return once more in her life to Ka’aba, and leave the city limits immediately. She would, thus become a Hajja (the official title of a Muslim woman who has completed Hajj).

On entering the Masjid al-Haram, the view of Ka’aba and the emotions are described beautifully:

Thousands melted from vision. I found myself alone, standing at the gate of God. I gazed upon the Ka’aba, eyes widening with wonder. The unobstructed view blurred with salty, unexpected tears.

I was unable to peel my eyes from my Maker. He was here. He was everywhere. He had gathered me. He had forgiven me.

I could hide nothing from Him and found myself no longer fearful of discovery. All my follies were exposed to my Maker and yet He loved me still.

I stared and stared at the cuboid building, bewildered at the energy emanating from its black-draped walls that beckoned me closer. It radiated light that even its sooty blackness couldn’t extinguish. Here, there could be no shadow, only light.

Though the presence of expatriates is not uncommon in Saudi, but racism is based on skin colour. Qanta faces this wrath during the Hajj. Due to her dark skin and her friendliness to Rashida and Haneefa, the Hijazi maids, the women sharing the same tent as Qanta, assumed that she is also a servant. They looked down on her because they assumed she is a Asian and as a servant she didn’t belonged in their tent. But their attitude changes towards her the next morning, when they finds out that Qanta is a doctor. Islam places a great emphasis on easing suffering and the privilege of being a doctor. The Quran says:

If you save one life it is as though you have saved all mandkind.

Qanta feels annoyed by the mention of Pure Saudi.

Qanta and her colleagues faces the Wahabi wrath during dinner at a local Saudi restaurant in Riyadh with the international visiting faculties. The Mutawaeen are very powerful in Saudi. Not only expatriates, the Saudi too feared the Muttawa. Due to the prowling Muttawa patrols, innocent romance was an illicit affair. Even husbands and wives out in public in Riyadh never left their homes without their marriage certificate.

In Riyadh, she gets a knowledge on Sharia law about the blood money. Zubaidah gives her the knowledge from Quran about the many rights given to women with regards to divorce, property inheritance, mahrnafqa. Fatima give her more insight on divorce in Islam and the custody of children after divorce.

Qanta meets an extra ordinary surgeon Reem, who inspires to become a vascular surgeon. Reem’s parents are educated and they made education of their only girl child as a priority. But when she gets an opportunity to go to Canada to take a fellowship, they put a condition that Reem should get engaged first. This makes Qanta wonder, how can be highly educated family be so conservative.

Qanta realizes that she underestimated the Saudis, when she meets Ghadah and her husband Haydar. She finds that, they don’t work to pass time or for the monthly salary. Rather, they preferred to work to accomplish change, to serve their country.

The author wonders, how the ban on operating motor vehicles for females tally with the Islamic history, where women were previously empowered. For instance, Hazrat Khadija, was herself a wealthy merchant trader who rode her own camels, made and managed her own wealth and actually chose her own husband, the Prophet, inviting him to marry her.

The author is shocked by the reaction of Saudis on the 9/11 attack on the twin towers in US. The surgical wards, the patients watched the towers crumble and the patients, Saudis, actually clapped. They felt, America deserved this attack because of its alliance with Israel. Two Saudi women obstetricians, even ordered cakes to celebrate the occasion. The Saudis didn’t even consider that, the surgeons and doctors treating them in the wealthiest Arab state is only by the credentials they acquired from America. Because they had been invited on generous visa by the American Government.

Qanta is fortunate enough, that she gets one more chance to meet her Maker, before she leaves the kingdom. She gets a wonderful opportunity to make her Umrah in the night before Ramadan. She finds the hypnotic Ka’aba too mesmerizing, too alive, too compelling.

I had arrived in this Kingdom a stranger to Islam and I was leaving it as a citizen of my faith. In this Kingdom of extremes, in the sharp shadow of intolerant orthodoxy, I had pried open the seams of my faith and snatched the gemstone of belonging. Glittering and brilliant, it was mine forever. Thought I was soon to leave this extraordinary oyster-Kingdom and, as its core, the luminous pearl of Islam, I was taking something within me forever, something from which I could never be separated. I took with me my place in my faith, my place as a Muslim.

Qanta finds rejection and scorn in the land she believed she belonged but she also finds tenderness as the tattered edges of extremism. She get opportunity for life changing pilgrimage back to her Muslim faith.

As described by the author:

It is the women who really opened the door to this society for me. Women who confided, women who guided, women who competed, women who disdained, women whom I attempted to heal and who in turn would heal me, women who are illiterate yet had memorized the Quran, women who were objects of affection from even within their closeted veils.

In the book one can find elaborate explanation about many topics as explained in Quran, which are vastly miss-understood. A truly thought provoking book and would recommend any one who is eager to know about Islam and life in Saudi.

Truly said:A rigid Islamic theocracy cannot suppress the true beauty in Islam no matter how weighty the suffocation.


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