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In the Land of Invisible Women
Cover of In the Land of Invisible Women
In the Land of Invisible Women
A Female Doctor's Journey in the Saudi Kingdom
Borrow Borrow

A strikingly honest look into Islamic culture?—in particular women and Islam?—and what it takes for one woman to recreate herself in the land of invisible women.

Unexpectedly denied a visa to remain in the United States, Qanta Ahmed, a young British Muslim doctor, becomes an outcast in motion. On a whim, she accepts an exciting position in Saudi Arabia. This is not just a new job; this is a chance at adventure in an exotic land she thinks she understands, a place she hopes she will belong.

What she discovers is vastly different. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a world apart, a land of unparalleled contrast. She finds rejection and scorn in the places she believed would most embrace her, but also humor, honesty, loyalty and love.

And for Qanta, more than anything, it is a land of opportunity.

Very few Islamic books for women give a firsthand account of what it's like to live in a place where Muslim women continue to be oppressed and treated as inferior to men. But if you want to learn more about the Islamic culture in an unflinchingly real way, this book is for you.

"In this stunningly written book, a Western trained Muslim doctor brings alive what it means for a woman to live in the Saudi Kingdom. I've rarely experienced so vividly the shunning and shaming, racism and anti—Semitism, but the surprise is how Dr. Ahmed also finds tenderness at the tattered edges of extremism, and a life—changing pilgrimage back to her Muslim faith." — Gail Sheehy

A strikingly honest look into Islamic culture?—in particular women and Islam?—and what it takes for one woman to recreate herself in the land of invisible women.

Unexpectedly denied a visa to remain in the United States, Qanta Ahmed, a young British Muslim doctor, becomes an outcast in motion. On a whim, she accepts an exciting position in Saudi Arabia. This is not just a new job; this is a chance at adventure in an exotic land she thinks she understands, a place she hopes she will belong.

What she discovers is vastly different. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a world apart, a land of unparalleled contrast. She finds rejection and scorn in the places she believed would most embrace her, but also humor, honesty, loyalty and love.

And for Qanta, more than anything, it is a land of opportunity.

Very few Islamic books for women give a firsthand account of what it's like to live in a place where Muslim women continue to be oppressed and treated as inferior to men. But if you want to learn more about the Islamic culture in an unflinchingly real way, this book is for you.

"In this stunningly written book, a Western trained Muslim doctor brings alive what it means for a woman to live in the Saudi Kingdom. I've rarely experienced so vividly the shunning and shaming, racism and anti—Semitism, but the surprise is how Dr. Ahmed also finds tenderness at the tattered edges of extremism, and a life—changing pilgrimage back to her Muslim faith." — Gail Sheehy

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Excerpts-
  • From the book I returned to Khalaa Tarfa, my first patient in the Kingdom. She was a Bedouin Saudi well into her seventies, though no one could be sure of her age (female births were not certified in Saudi Arabia when she had been born). She was on a respirator for a pneumonia which had been slow to resolve. Comatose, she was oblivious to my studying gaze. A colleague prepared her for the placement of a central line (a major intravenous line into a deep vein).

    Her torso was uncovered in anticipation.. Another physician sterilized the berry brown skin with swathes of iodine. A mundane procedure I had performed countless times, in Saudi Arabia it made for a starling scene. I looked up from the sterilized field which was quickly submerging the Bedouin body under a disposable sea of blue. Her face remained enshrouded in a black scarf, as if she was out in a market scurrying through a crowd of loitering men. I was astounded.

    Behind the curtain, a family member hovered, the dutiful son. Intermittently, he peered at us . He was obviously worrying, I decided, as I watched his slim brown fingers rapidly manipulating a rosary. He was probably concerned about the insertion of the central line, I thought, just like any other caring family member.

    Every now and again, he signaled vigorously, rapidly talking in Arabic to instruct the nurse. I wondered what he was asking about and how he could know if we were at a crucial step in the procedure. Everything was going smoothly; in fact soon the jugular would be cannulated. We were almost finished. What could be troubling him?

    Through my dullness, eventually, I noticed a clue. Each time the physician's sleeve touched the patient's veil, and the veil slipped, the son burst out in a flurry of anxiety. Perhaps all of nineteen, the son was instructing the nurse to cover the patient's face, all the while painfully averting his uninitiated gaze away from his mother's fully exposed torso, revealing possibly the first breasts he may have seen.

    I wondered about the lengths to which the son continued to veil his mother, even when she was gravely ill. Couldn't he see it was the least important thing for her now at this time, when her life could ebb away at any point? Didn't he know God was Merciful, tolerant and understanding and would never quibble over the wearing of a veil in such circumstances, or I doubted, any circumstances?

    Somehow I assumed the veil was mandated by the son, but perhaps I was wrong about that as well. Already, I was finding myself wildly ignorant in this country. Perhaps the patient herself would be furious if her modesty was unveiled when she was powerless to resist. Nothing was clear to me other than veiling was essential, inescapable, even for a dying woman. This was the way of the new world in which I was now confined. For now, and the next two years, I would see many things I couldn't understand. I was now a stranger in the Kingdom.
About the Author-
  • Dr. Ahmed is currently an assistant professor of medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, and Assistant Director of the MUSC Sleep Disorders Laboratory. She is a quadruple boarded in internal medicine, pulmonary disease, critical care medicine, and sleep disorders medicine. She continues to practice intensive care medicine. She became a fellow of the American College of Chest Physicians, a Diplomat and member of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.

Table of Contents-
  • Chapter 1: The Bedouin Bedside

    Chapter 2: A Time to Leave America

    Chapter 3: My New Home, a Military Compound

    Chapter 4: Abbayah Shopping

    Chapter 5: Invisible and Safe

    Chapter 6: Saudi Women Who Dance Alone

    Chapter 7: Veiled Doctors

    Chapter 8: The Lost Boys of the Kingdom

    Chapter 9: A Father's Grieving

    Chapter 10: An Invitation to God

    Chapter 11: The Epicenter of Islam

    Chapter 12: Into the Light

    Chapter 13: The Child of God

    Chapter 14: The Million-Man Wheel

    Chapter 15: Committing Haram

    Chapter 16: Calling Doctora

    Chapter 17: Daughters of the Desert

    Chapter 18: Next Stop: Absolution

    Chapter 19: Prayer under the Stars

    Chapter 20: Between the Devil and the Red Sea

    Chapter 21: Mutawaeen: The Men in Brown

    Chapter 22: Single Saudi Male

    Chapter 23: The Calm before the Storm

    Chapter 24: Wahabi Wrath

    Chapter 25: Doctor Zhivago of Arabia

    Chapter 26: Love in the Kingdom

    Chapter 27: Show Me Your Marriage License!

    Chapter 28: An Eye for an Eye

    Chapter 29: Princes, Polygamists, and Paupers

    Chapter 30: Divorce, Saudi-Style

    Chapter 31: The Saudi Divorcée

    Chapter 32: Desperate Housewives

    Chapter 33: The Making of a Female Saudi Surgeon

    Chapter 34: The Hot Mamma

    Chapter 35: The Gloria Steinem of Arabia

    Chapter 36: Champion of Children

    Chapter 37: 9/11 in Saudi Arabia

    Chapter 38: Final Moments, Final Days

    Afterword: Rugged Glory

    Endnotes

    Bibliography

    Reading Group Guide

    Acknowledgments

Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    June 2, 2008
    This memoir is a journey into a complex world readers will find fascinating and at times repugnant. After being denied a visa to remain in the U.S., British-born Ahmed, a Muslim woman of Pakistani origin, takes advantage of an opportunity, before 9/11, to practice medicine in Saudi Arabia. She discovers her new environment is defined by schizophrenic contrasts that create an “absurd clamorous clash of modern and medieval.... It never became less arresting to behold.” Ahmed’s introduction to her new environment is shocking. Her first patient is an elderly Bedouin woman. Though naked on the operating table, she still is required by custom to have her face concealed with a veil under which numerous hoses snake their way to hissing machines. Everyday life is laced with bizarre situations created by the rabid puritanical orthodoxy that among other requirements forbids women to wear seat belts because it results in their breasts being more defined, and oppresses Saudi men as much as women by its archaic rules. At times the narrative is burdened with Ahmed’s descriptions of the physical characteristics of individuals and the luxurious adornments of their homes but this minor flaw is easily overlooked in exchange for the intimate introduction to a world most readers will never know.

  • Booklist

    July 1, 2008
    Denied visa renewal in America, British-born Pakistani physician Ahmed, 31, leaves New York for a job in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where she celebrates her Muslim faith on an exciting Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca even as she encounters rabid oppression from the state-sanctioned religious extremist police. She is licensed to operate ICU machines in the emergency ward, but as a woman, she is forbidden to drive, and she must veil every inch of herself. Her witty insider-outsider commentary as a Muslim and feminist, both reverent and highly critical, provides rare insight into the upper-class Saudi scene today, including the roles of women and men in romance, weddings, parenting, divorce, work, and friendship. After 9/11, she is shocked at the widespread anti-Americanism. The details of consumerism, complete with Western brand names, get a bit tiresome, but they are central to this honest memoir about connections and conflicts, and especially the clamorous clash of modern and medieval, . . . Cadillac and camel.(Reprinted with permission of Booklist, copyright 2008, American Library Association.)

  • Adventures in Reading "Ahmed still beautifully asserts her arguments and confronts the anti-Semitism, the sexism, and the anti-western attitudes she experienced... In the Land of Invisible Women gave me a lot to think about, and just not about the complexities of Saudi Arabia but also my country's, the U.S.A., interactions within the Middle East. "
  • Bookopolis "This book is a well -written and fascinating insider's look into life in Saudi Arabia and the challenges that women and sometimes even men must face in their daily lives."
  • Blog Critics "In the Land of Invisible Women is a must read for everyone. Why? People must find out how Dr. Ahmed dared to cope with radical Islamic fundamentalism. Rather than misery and despair, her story is one of brightness and optimism for Saudi women. But equally vital, it is a tale of expectation, a hope that brave Saudi men, who dare read her...
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A Female Doctor's Journey in the Saudi Kingdom
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