I got my wish today. I got to ride my bike home while it was snowing. The roads were terrible, but the bike path was absolutely lovely. One place that doesn’t have to think about snow, however, is Saudi Arabia. But there are other things there to worry about. In the Land of Invisible Women by Qanta Ahmed chronicles her two years as a surgeon at the King Fahad National Guard Hospital in Riyadh. Ahmed is a British citizen but considers the United States to be her home. For some reason she could not get her visa renewed. She was offered a job in Saudi Arabia so she took it.
Ahmed’s parents are originally from Pakistan and she and her family are Muslim. She knew Urdu and only a little Arabic, but most educated people in Saudi Arabia seem to know English quite well, especially the doctors and surgeons as they all studied in Canada or the US on Saudi government scholarships. She arrived in the country a single woman and alone. The hospital sent a driver to pick her up and he immediately took her passport. Women are not allowed to travel alone in Saudi Arabia, drive, or leave the country without permission from a male relative. Since Ahmed had no family home she cuold live in, she had to live in a small apartment on the National Guard compound. She was not the only one living on the compound though. Saudi Arabia hosts a huge expatriate community.
To say that it is difficult being a woman and a surgeon in Saudi Arabia is an understatement. Ahmed must wear an abbayah except when she is in female-only company or working in the hospital. On her first day in Riyadh, she is shown how to wear an abbayah by her secretary who lends her one so they can go shopping at the mall to buy one of her own. At the mall she has her first experience with the Muttawa, a sort of religious police, who patrol everywhere monitoring the population to make sure they are obeying the country’s strict Muslim laws. Even though Ahmed is not a citizen she is not immune from being arrested.
In the Land of Invisible Women is a fascinating look at what turns out to be a schizophrenic country. More and more women are encouraged to become educated and they are taking advantage of the free opportunities being made available to them. However, if a woman is going to study overseas, she must at the very least be engaged otherwise her family will very likely not allow her to go because it would be improper. Because of the strict male/female segregation imposed by Saudi law, there is a great need for female medical professionals as many women in the country will not get the medical help they need because they do not want to see a male doctor.
One of the interesting aspects of Ahmed’s story is that in spite of the strict Muslim law and all that she disliked about it, she made Hadj–the pilgrimage to Mecca–and felt her faith renewed and strengthened. But her beliefs are not those of the Muslim state; hers is a more inclusive faith that she believes is truer to the Quran than the fundamentalist ones being enforced by law.
Ahmed was in Saudi Arabia during 9/11. What she describes is sad and deeply disturbing and she has difficulty reconciling it with the kind and good people she has come to know and like very much.
I could go on and on. The only negatives about the book is that Ahmed writes like, well, a doctor for lack of a better description. Sometimes her sentences are a bit stiff and clunky but it is easy to forgive and overlook since her story is so engaging. I highly recommend this book to anyone looking to learn a little something about Saudi Arabia in general and what it is like to be a woman there in particular.