Quanta Ahmed’s memoir In the Land of Invisible Women – A Female Doctor’s Journey in the Saudi Kingdom is an absorbing tale of Dr. Ahmed’s two years spent as a physician in Saudi Arabia. The author, a Muslim woman of Pakistani descent, was educated in Britain and trained in the United States. Her decision to go to Saudi Arabia just two years before 9/11 came about when she had to leave the United States at the end of her training. Ahmed was a modern Muslim, who had never covered herself or been subject to male domination, so being enveloped in a stifling abbayah and losing her freedom of movement outside her apartment and the hospital in Riyadh was a considerable shock. At times Ahmed got plenty mad, but fortunately she also got curious. She used her time well and met and spoke with as many Saudi women as she could find during her time there.
Ahmed was continually horrified by Saudi women’s lack of freedom and their vulnerability to the dangerous bullying of the religious police. At the same time, she grew to appreciate the women’s devotion to their religion and their country and their insistence on enjoying their lives, no matter how circumscribed. The female-only parties Ahmed attended sound like great fun and proved excellent opportunities for her to observe and speak with an impressive number of Saudi women when they literally had their hair down and their abbayah’s off.
The book is a huge mix of good and bad times. Ahmed was tremendously moved by making the hajj to Mecca and reminded of all the things she treasured about Islam. On the other hand, she hated and feared the religious police and was troubled by the extent to which her Saudi colleagues meekly accepted their abuse. To some extent, the hospital provided a safe haven and rewarding opportunities to practice medicine, but even there Ahmed noted how hyper-strict religious observances and male supremacy often prevailed. Sadly, there was a particularly jolting event at the end of Ahmed’s stay, but I won’t spoil it by divulging it here.
So the book convinced me that I won’t be going to Saudi Arabia unless they have an unforseeable turnabout on human rights in my lifetime. At the same time, I loved the book and appreciated all Ahmed had to say. Much of the book involved her sitting down and posing thoughtful questions to many different and very interesting Saudi women. At times there is a bit of awkwardness to prose because of all the Q and A, but Ahmed asked the questions I wanted to know. Her genuine respect and curiosity shines through. In the end, I learned a lot and came to appreciate these Saudi women and their perspectives even as I thought of Charles Grodin’s immortal line to Kevin Kline in the movie Dave: “Get out. Got out as fast as you can.”
Ahmed currently practices medicine in the United States and is frequently seen on CNN. I really recommend this book.