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Book Review: In the Land of Invisible Women: A Female Doctor’s Journey in the Saudi Kingdom by Qanta A. Ahmed, M.D.

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Doctor Qanta Ahmed dared to enter the land of Saudi Arabia. Although trained in the United States, her visa to remain had been denied. From Kennedy airport, she arrived in Riyadh, the capital city of Saudi Arabia. As a Muslin woman, she thought mostly of the privileges her status as a practicing doctor would provide — little of any trite annoyances caused by her Muslim religion. After all, she held multiple certifications: 1) internal medicine, 2) pulmonary disease, 3) critical-care medicine, 4) sleep-disorder medicine.

To her dismay, shock might be a more appropriate word, Dr. Ahmed crashed head-on into a male dominated society where women were looked upon as embodied “flesh” —  “objects.” Every nook and cranny of society was controlled by men intending to keep women, thought to be inferior beings, in their place: the home.

As a Muslim, why had she not known of her collision course? Dr. Amed had migrated to America from England. Her parents had “transplanted there from a post-Partition India.” With the promise of a nice salary and free accommodations, she had been lured by a hospital in Riyadh,

In Saudi Arabia, many Muslim women follow a fastidious veiling of their bodies that literally swallows up their entire person. It is required by Sharia — Islamic Law. Now, Dr. Ahmed must veil herself accordingly. Regardless of whether a woman covers her face, in “Saudi Arabia, no woman can go anywhere in public without wearing an abbayah that covers at least the body and head hair.” The abbayah would be black, even during the intense summer heat. On the contrary, men wore white thobes (robes).

Dr. Ahmed offers that during her stay in Riyadh, she saw how ridiculously removed from any genuine understanding of Islam were the ludicrous mandates of Sharia Law: “women segregated from men, Saudis from non-Saudis, Muslims from non-Muslims.” Even a woman who openly held an allegiance to another religious belief, she must follow the fanatically strict interpretation of Sharia dress code.

A Saudi woman was not permitted to travel anywhere alone without a companion. Thus, Dr. Ahmed had to rely on the hospital’s own car service for transportation. Inside the hospital itself, Ahmed states that “an insidiously advancing invisible status engulfed me.” Male doctors simply ignored her. They thought little of her credentials — less of her opinion and rarely if ever asked for it.

Although Dr. Ahmed wore her white coat and trousers when making rounds, other practicing Saudi colleagues wore their traditional Abbayahs under their white coats, a suffocating layer of vestments even in cooler weather. How any doctor could study a patient’s heart rate or lung condition with any kind of accuracy after inserting the earpieces of a stethoscope over cloth or polyester into the outer ear canal is questionable to this reviewer — a truly dangerous practice with a critically ill person.

After the intense mortification weeks of Ramadan, an Intensive Care Unit colleague of Dr. Ahmed’s encouraged her to complete her first Hajj to solidify her Muslim beliefs; this meant a journey to Mecca, . Since Hajj was a religious undertaking and “it was every Muslim’s duty” Dr. Ahmed’s schedule at the hospital could not stop her from going. Given leave from her hospital role, Dr. Ahmed found information on the Internet explaining in exacting detail what was required of a person making her Hajj.

Journeying to Mecca, Ahmed followed Hajj procedures eventually reaching the Ka’aba, a large black cube thought to be the very embodiment of God. Here, long before Islam was revealed to the prophet Muhammad, Abraham built the Ka’aba to blueprints revealed to him by the Angel Gabriel. Already religious by nature, Dr. Ahmed felt an almost supernatural attraction to the Ka’aba. It was as though she felt Allah’s magnetic all powerful presence just a few feet from her.

The Hajj experience changed Dr. Ahmed permanently. It helped her repair her battered female spirit. She found that a true Islamic faith had nothing to do with the insanity imposed by radical extremists whose irrational interpretation of Islamic law:
1) mummified the body of women by demanding full-body veiling
2) silenced women’s rights by claiming them inferior beings subject to the whims of men
3) destroyed their very freedom to move about by making it illegal for women to drive.

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 story, might have a jolt of conscience over unjustified cowardly feelings they hold toward women.

Like the Ka’aba whose brilliant inner light healed her battered female spirit, the indomitable courage shown by Dr. Ahmed In the Land of Invisible Women can brighten the souls of others, particularly Muslims who face meaninglessness and emptiness in today’s bizarre world of religious/political/armed conflict.

This book I would highly recommend to every American, particularly politicians who are trying to decipher how to deal with Saudi Arabia and countries holding similar belief systems. The Kingdom has been a world of intolerable but religiously "justified" discrimination and fractured human rights — resultant: a political enigma. But Dr. Ahmed claims that “the gender apartheid committed in the name of Islam is already dying, rasping its last, soured breaths.” She guarantees that changes are surfacing from within from those who dare.

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