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

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

3.8 100
by Qanta A. Ahmed

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"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.


"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

The decisions that change your life are often the most impulsive ones.

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 is a world apart, a land of unparralled 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. A place where she discovers what it takes for one woman to recreate herself in the land of invisible women.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

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." Ahmeda'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 Ahmeda'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. (Sept.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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... After 9/11, she is shocked at the widespread anti-Americanism. The details of consumerism, complete with Western brand names .... are central to this honest memoir about connections and conflicts, and especially the clamorous clash of "modern and medieval, . . . Cadillac and camel."


"Despite the restrictive customs of Saudi's religious rule, Ahmed found a vibrancy that left her hopeful. 'Saudi is much more heterogeneous than one would expect,' she says. 'Muslims themselves feel fairly lost in a country so caricatured and vilified for its severe austerity and Wahhabi theocracy, but it's also the cradle of Islam and the site of the Hajj-a symbol of what Islam could be.'"


Ahmed was saddened, distressed, and taken aback by her colleagues' excitement in reaction to the 9/11 attacks. Her friends talked about how America "deserved" this tragedy because of its support of Israel.

Kirkus Reviews
A female doctor provides a uniquely revealing look at the hidden world of Saudi Arabian women. Denied a renewal of her visa in the United States, British-born, American-educated pulmonologist Ahmed accepted a position at a hospital in Riyadh. On rounds, the male residents she supervised would interrupt her, and female residents (what few there were) would cluster silently at the back of the group. All female doctors were required to be completely veiled. In surgeries, sons would supervise unconscious mothers, not to ensure the quality of their medical care, but to ensure that no parts of their faces were revealed by slipping veils. With such evidence around her, Ahmed began to think of these women as the wretched of the Earth. "I wouldn't be corrected in my simplistic views," she writes, "until much later, when I had befriended more Saudi women." When she did, she learned that the lives of these women under veils were no less complex and rich for being largely unseen. At her first party, she was astounded by the elegance and confidence exuded by professional women who had struggled immensely to achieve their positions. She began to understand how respect and love for women were expressed in her adopted society. Despite the strict monitoring of their clothing and behavior and the edicts against showing even the smallest scrap of skin in public, the Saudi women she met were neither so silent nor so helpless as their formless presence suggested. However, her friends were wealthy and educated; the vast impoverished majority could not even afford to visit doctors, let alone become one. Though never ceasing to be dismayed by the uglier aspects of regressive Saudi orthodoxy, Ahmed also found herown Muslim faith deepened and her conception of Islam broadened by her sojourn there. If she never learned to love the veil, she at least learned to understand it. A big-hearted examination of the extreme contradictions in a society very different-yet not so different-from our own.

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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.

Meet 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.

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In the Land of Invisible Women 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 100 reviews.
Happy_in_New_Haven More than 1 year ago
I found "In the Land of Invisible Women" absolutely compelling reading. The perspectives of a woman who is a physician, a world traveler, and also deeply religious allowed me views of Saudi Arabia and its women that were intense and memorable. I expect that men readers would find this just as interesting as women readers. As a physician, Dr. Ahmed gives a scientist's-eye-view of life in the Kingdom. As a woman who speaks fluent Arabic, she was welcome in the inner circles of other women and could provide a rich picture of these women's lives and interests as well as their views of the difficulties they face as women in such a stern, difficult society. As a sincere woman of faith, she took me vicariously on her own spiritual journey that, as a non-Muslim, I can never experience directly but as another woman of faith I can relate to intensely. I LOVED this book and recommend it with great enthusiasm.
fantasy_nerd More than 1 year ago
The story of Dr. Ahmed's journey was both fascinating and frustrating. Through her beautiful writing and strong spiritual perspective I learned a lot about Islam. At the same time the culture of Saudi Arabia angered me immensely. Its a country I enjoy reading about but could never live in. It is a book that brings forth conflicting feelings and inspires much thought.
Busso More than 1 year ago
As a practicing American Muslim woman, I am oftentimes skeptical of commentary on the lives of Muslim women, or of Muslims in general. Dr. Qanta Ahmed's eye-opening memoir helped ease some of my concerns on such commentary. I had only known of Arab women's lives from a distance - through television and radio media. Dr. Ahmed's book exposed an intimate look at what it means, for a practicing Muslim woman, to live as a Muslim woman in Saudi Arabia. It is, as is often portrayed, a tough life for Saudi women. Yet the society as a whole is not to blame - this is the genius of the book. So many times you will hear Muslims saying "Muslims are to blame, not Islam" - Dr. Ahmed proved it in this book through the Saudi men and women themselves. She is able to portray Saudi's as an enlightened, patriotic, religious, and progressive people who are struggling to rid the shackles of some decadent societal norms. Another point to consider is that the author is a British born, now American based, physician who is also a Muslim. Dr. Ahmed's narrative is itself proof of not only the possibility, but plausibility of loving co-existence between the West and the Muslim world. I hear the book is being translated - I really can't say I'm surprised!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
My best friend and I each purchased this book for our next book club discussion. We each had our own reasons for choosing it - she, because she is staunchly feminist and the title and concept appealed to her; I, because of my intense pull to broaden my cultural horizons. Dr. Ahmed's writing style pulled me in, capturing and holding my attention, as I read about her life-changing decision to practice medicine in the Kingdom. I felt her fury and contempt for the rampant bigotry that exist(ed) during her years there, the anxiousness and butterflies associated with a forbidden school-girl-like crush, and the admiration for the many strong, supportive men and women who fought in their own ways for equality (be it in the ICU, a public restaurant, or by the Ka'aba during Hajj). I am notorious for starting a book and leaving it for weeks or months (yes, at times even years) before returning to finish it, but her vivid style had me turning page after page until, a mere 5 days after starting it, I finished the last sentence. This is truly a captivating piece of literature!
ReadingIsManna More than 1 year ago
Thought provoking. Great for learning and understanding women behind the veil without westernized biased filters.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
One of the best books I have read! I really enjoyed reading about Qanta's experiences while she was in the Kingdom. She really didnt hold anything back. I got a new insight on what women experience in Saudi Arabia, and its not necessarily what you would expect.
I would defeinetly recommend it!
Charlotte Gillespie More than 1 year ago
This is a first-person account by Dr. Qanta Ahmed, a female Muslim physician. She spent two years practicing medicine in Saudi Arabia and offers a fascinating view into Saudi society and culture. Agreat read!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was wonderful. It was a fun and easy read, but also managed to be insightful and educational. I felt like I got a good personal look into the lives of women in the Kingdom. Well worth the low $7.99 eBook price!!
BATread More than 1 year ago
I love these kinds of books, we live in such an open society that it is interesting to me to see those who are so controlled by the men of their countrys. How these women can live under such barbaric rules and be thought of so little by the men of their country is indeed foreign to us who live in a country where women are treated almost as equals as men, except for maybe in the workplace, is so sad. I love to read these kinds of books. And these women have my sympathy. I thoroughly enjoyed this book at the same time I was appalled at how they are treated.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was an insightful and exceptionally well written book about the beauty and the beastliness of the Islamic faith. Thank God this brilliant author has used her gift of writing as well as her gift of medicine to bring her story to us. She presented a wide eyed portrait of both sides of her religion, the intended practice as she understands it in its beauty and purity as well as the very extreme deviant practice as defined by factions that intend to propogate hatred and dissention. As a devout Christian woman with the heart of a mother, healer and servant, I was moved by her honesty and ability to convey the complexities and opposing dualities of life for all women in the Saudi Kingdom. I was particularly moved by the recounting of her hajj to Mecca. I hope all people of faith, whichever brand they practice, get to experience coming into the real presence of God in as powerful a way as she was able to. This story is about faith, acceptance, defeating ignorance and, hopefully seeing the commonalities in all if our faiths rather than the differences.
franklymydear More than 1 year ago
This book has become somewhat dated as womens freedoms have improved since her stint in the Riyadh hospital but one wonders how much personal attitudes have changed and how much was imposed from the outside. The more interesting parts of this narrative came from the idea that as a darker skinned Muslim doctor, the author apparently thought she would fit in to this culture with more ease than most American Expats. However it appears that her gender and her origins (Pakistani American) significantly overpowered this, and even her more liberal coworkers had significant biases. THe writing is a bit choppy and at times vicious (for instance in the way she describes the physical attributes of people she has less respect for or who have less social standing) which made the book harder to read. But the vignettes are revealing, of the authors admitted weaknesses and those of the people around her. The profound anti Semitism of some of her associates, even after years on fellowship to American and Canadian medical facilities where they worked and socialized with much admired Jewish professors and medical staff was shocking, as was the celebration of the fall of the Two Towers on 9/11 by female OBGyns. Worth reading, but a book by someone who is from the area might be better if you have to choose.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Really enjoyed this informitive story, kept you wanting to know more about this country and the people. Adventurous, disruptive, and couragous women still fighting for some equality in the world.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I love the honesty and sincerity of her spiritual journey. The way she writes invites the reader to accompany her. As a committed Christian i appreciate learning more about Islam and the appeal it has for those who follow its tenents. Also appreciate her balance in presenting the disconnects between rhe legal mandates, religious mandates and the actual tenents of her faith.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The author surprised me with her spiritual openness and descriptions of the difficulties of living a "double life" in male-dominated Saudi Arabia. At first, I struggled to connect with her. But her hajj is fascinating, and I was hooked after that! Reading the book in a post-9/11 world helped me learn about that far-away land with it's old-world society.
Glori20 More than 1 year ago
A very informative novel giving one insight to the plight of the Muslim women through a professional perspective....in medicine. Unlike other novels where Muslim women were the main characters, Ahmed, writes in the first person and shares her thoughts as well as the biases that exist between Muslims from different countries and classes. Definitely an education when reading.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Brave. Personal.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
As an evagelical christian i never thought i would be able to befriend a muslum woman. As aa nurse midwife i have taken care of many women of different religious backgrounds. Becomming a gast griend with a Hassiidic jewess woman. Dr Qannta openn my eyes & understanding to women who love Almighty God. She brought insight to the life of a muslum woman & her love & worship of God. I highly recomennnd this book to any one who ewants to understanf thr Islamic woman. Thank you Dr Qanta for opening your life R Tryon RN
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
My big decison changed my life totally. Not the smartest thing I ever did. Came out just ok in the end. To all be careful.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I think this book was very fun toread and I learned a lot about the culture of people in the saudi kingdom. As a future female muslim neurosurgeon I feel the same sentiments and this book has allowd me a stronger grasp on my identity
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Memoirs are tough to review, yet cautious editing would have made for a better read.
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