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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

In the Land of Invisible Women Offers A Riveting Look Under the Veil of Arabian Women

(Image from Sourcebooks)

When my 7-year-old daughter spied the title of this book - In the Land of Invisible Women - she wrinkled her little face in confusion. "Mom," she asked, "How can a woman be invisible?" I know she was not asking a deep, philosophical question, but was stumped by pure logic - People are solid, therefore they cannot be invisible. Before I had a chance to explain, she flitted outside to build a fairy house, but it made me wonder if she, a daughter of 21st Century America, could even fathom a world where women live under such oppression that they cannot drive, own property in their own names, or drift outdoors without cloaking themselves in thick robes. To a child who's been taught she can do and be anything - a doctor, an astronaut, even president - such a world would be as foreign to her as Mars.

The land in question is Saudi Arabia, pre 9/11. Author Qanta Ahmed admits some things (like women being allowed to drive) have changed since she dwelt in the Kingdom, but In the Land of Invisible Women focuses on what was happening during the years she lived and worked in Saudi. Dr. Ahmed, a British Muslim of Pakistani descent, studied and trained in both England and New York City. After several years in the U.S., her American visa ran out, so she made a spur-of-the-moment decision to relocate to Saudi Arabia, where her medical skills were needed at King Fahad National Guard Hospital in Riyadh. The prospect of a high salary and free rent drew her to the Kingdom. Although friends expressed concern over her decision, she felt little apprehension - after all, she was a Muslim woman "well-acquainted with the ways of an Islamic Kingdom" (8). It didn't take her long to realize just how different life in this foreign land could be.

Dr. Ahmed became especially fascinated with the lives of Saudi women, who functioned under laws dictated by extremist leaders. By Western standards, their lives were oppressive nightmares, their every movement guarded by men. At the time of Dr. Ahmed's residency in the Kingdom, females were required by law to veil themselves when in public. In addition, they were not allowed to drive, own property in their own names, or appear outside their homes alone. Powerful Muttawas (or religious policemen) patrolled restaurants, malls and other public arenas to ensure the rules were followed. Foreigners received no leniency, so Dr. Ahmed followed the same rules as her Saudi counterparts. By studying these women - feminists, extremists, cowards, advocates, vocal and silent - she learned to appreciate their plights. Through Dr. Ahmed's many stories, the reader also comes to admire them in all their variations.

Dr. Ahmed also discusses the many contradictions in the Kingdom, from Pepsi-slugging, Cadillac-driving Saudis who despise the U.S.; to American-trained doctors' "unmistakable fetor of relish in the face of [9/11's] destruction" (397); to brilliant female doctors unable to express second opinions for fear of offending their male colleagues; to women veiled to escape men's glances conducting affairs with "Bluetooth boyfriends." In the end, she remains puzzled by a place where

I still count the dichotomies: angry divorcees who dream of becoming second wives; conflicted Saudi men who cannot forsake the expectations of powerful matriarchs; womanhood that is both oppressed and liberated by veilings; Saudi men who are feminists and Saudi grandmothers who propogate female suppression ... (435-436).

As fascinating as all these discussions are, the most poignant sections of the book come as Dr. Ahmed deals with "the fleeting Muslim within me" (112-113). Disappointed with Saudi Muslims who display flagrant sexism, anti-semitism and other kinds of racism, she becomes disillusioned with the Saudi brand of the peace-affirming religion she has always known. Still, a trip to Mecca offers spiritual rebirth, which finally allows her to feel a sense of belonging in the Kingdom.

In the Land of Invisible Women is not light reading. It's a riveting hard-hitter that offers a unique and intimate look under the veils of a culture steeped in complexity and contradiction. Throughout, Dr. Ahmed provides an honest, sometimes scathing, sometimes sensitive look at the fascinating nuances of Saudi culture. It also provides a moving potrayal of one woman's search for her own self, her own soul. Unique and intensely moving, In the Land of Invisible Women is not to be missed.

Grade: B

(Note: If you're interested in hearing a radio interview with Dr. Ahmed, click here.)


  1. This was one of my favorites of 2008 and I'm happy to see that you thought it such a worthy read...great review, and thanks for the interview link.

  2. I really want to read this one. It sounds like a powerful book. I can't imagine what it must have been like for Qanta Ahmed.

  3. I read this...While it was insightful (especially the chapters on Mecca!), her writing got a little...I don't know. It seemed a bit dry-ish to me at times, and I really, really disliked how her friends would use her name 15 times per paragraph in every conversation they had with her. The subject matter interested me enough to keep me going though. I don't know how she stood it there for so long, I would've run away screaming the first time anyone offered me a job there!

  4. I know this is from 2009, but I was skimming through your review list and this one caught my eye. I'm adding it to my TBR list!


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