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"In the Land of Invisible Women" - Book Review

Updated on August 11, 2014

A self discovery of a new culture and an old religion

Do you have preconceived notions of how women are treated in Middle Eastern countries? What rights they have and how they are treated by men in those societies? Regardless of where you stand, as you work through the book "In the Land of Invisible Women" you might find your beliefs challenged. Not just once, but multiple times might you find your opinion on culture and religion flip as Qanta Ahmed experiences different situation while living in Saudi Arabia. Before starting this book (or this article) take a moment to open your mind knowing that what we read in the paper might be just one perspective on a complex social structure.

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A culture of wealth, prestige, and intolerance

The story of Qanta Ahmed, a British board certified doctor begins her visa to England expires and she must spend some time away from the country. She decides to take advantage of an opportunity to practice as a doctor in Saudi Arabia. While her family was Muslim, she did not grow up practicing and as a thoroughly western cultured woman, had some reservations about going to a country that does not have the greatest reputation for treating women. Yet with all of that weighing on her mind, she decided to take the chance.

Upon arriving in Saudi Arabia she doffs a head to tow covering, an abaya, for the very first time. This simple act begins a yearlong love hate relationship with this article of clothing. The practice of wearing an abaya, or full body covering, first started during the days of the prophet Mohammed who had only one building to be both his home as well as his place of prayer. To protect the modesty of his wives, the women took to covering themselves. After Mohammed's death, many women continued the practice voluntarily as a way to be more like Mohammed's wives. Only later did male leaders use this article of clothing as a means to repress women, forcing them to wear it or risk beatings or death. The latter was the world that Qanta was flying into. Religious police could exact stiff penalties to women who were not properly covered or showed immodesty in their opinion. Interestingly enough while Quanta first hated the abaya for the horrible swishing sound of cloth covering your ears, the oppressive heat wearing black cloth in the hottest summer days in the desert, and the humiliating nature of worrying that is your sleeve catches or a strand of hair is loose you could face a terrible punishment, later she found a certain comfort in the covering. She found that unlike back in Britain, she was not leered at or judged by men in how she looked. She could separate herself and observe others without them being able to do the same to her. She found it freeing to be out in public and know that she had some level of privacy anywhere she went. Perhaps it could be best summarized that the abaya had the potential to afford freedom but only when not forced at the end of a stick.

Other adjustments she had to get used to was the incredibly strong male dominated society. As a female doctor she had to work twice as hard and still not get the respect of many of the male doctors and administrators, or even get looked in the eye as an equal. Officially a male patient could not be unclothed in front of a female who was not his wife or mother regardless of her profession as a doctor. This led to tremendous challenges for Qanta who was trained to treat patients regardless of gender. The gender biases that made gaining the respect of colleagues so difficult also made treating male patients even more difficult. Some of the most frustrating periods that Qanta describe are those when she could truly help but was unable to due to cultural biases. Those biases continued through to the non-professional aspect of her life as well, where she was not allowed to be out without a male escort and if caught in mixed company without a male relative could face incredibly stiff punishments which could include beatings and incarcerations. At this part of the story it would be excusable for western readers to have an incredibly bitter taste in their mouth to Saudi Arabia and other countries with repressive regimes and possibly by extension their warped sense of Islam. Yet if we stopped here, that would only be half the story.

While in Saudi Arabia, Qanta was thrust into a country where religion is not only a part of the social fabric, it is intimately woven into every part of the social structure. Laws and authority cloaked themselves in accurate or sometimes perversely abstracted views of Islam. Yet some of the most wonderful parts of Islam were celebrated and shared with all people, including going on a pilgrimage to Mecca. Qanta at first was reluctant to take part of such a pilgrimage, but was then intrigued almost more as a tourist than as a religious experience. As she progressed in her journey she found that some women looked down at this fair skinned woman who claimed to be a Muslim but quite clearly was not a 'real' believer as she struggled with some of the prayers. She felt embarrassed almost as an outside or intruder. But then she started to meet people, to truly live the experience that is a pilgrimage. She found herself connecting with a heritage that dates back thousands of years, marching in a way that millions before her had done. Feeling a part of a large movement gave a sense of belonging and surprising to Qanta an incredibly close connection to G-d. This was the beautiful and welcoming part of Islam, a part that would stay with Qanta for the rest of her life regardless of where she lived.

Which unfortunately leads to the final aspect of her journey to the Saudi culture, that of the western and Jewish biases that are so apparent in news reports of that region. One of the hardest parts of the book to read as well as for Qanta to face was the horrible prejudices that she would face when working with well trained colleagues. Colleagues that in many cases were trained in the United States or Western Europe by Jewish professors, some of whom they would claim as friends, but of course would not stop them from spouting tremendous hatred toward not just a country like Israel and America but to all people of a religion and culture. This blanket prejudice could be partially understood even forgiven by one not educated or familiar with anything else, but those that were highly educated and had a chance to make friends with those unlike themselves and still keep those irrational prejudices, well that was altogether horrifying and sickening to Qanta (and this reader). The book ends with the attacks on 9-11 in the United States where Qanta witnessed patients, doctors, and nurses loudly cheering the loss of life and destruction in NY and Washington. How to explain a group and potentially parts of a culture that open cheers death and relishes in hatred?

"In the Land of Invisible Women" is a riveting book that takes the reader through all aspects of the culture in Saudi Arabia and its interpretation of the Islamic religion. We see the journey of a westerner trying to fit in, yet trying to maintain her own identity at the same time. We see both the beautiful love that can be religion and the black hatred of anti-Semitic and sexism that is associated with a portion of a culture (NOT a religion). With all that is taking place in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries in the middle east, this book is critical to understand the articles that show up in the newspapers as well as opinions on both sides of the world. A fast paced and intricate story that is sure to get your heart racing.

What does this mean to us now?

Unfortunately intolerance and prejudice is just as prevalent today as it was throughout history. Especially after 9-11 there has been a tremendous outpouring of hatred toward Islam and the Middle East in general. So terrible the backlash that I have seen facebook posts from those whom I thought were far more reasonable using 9-11 and other violent acts in the Middle East as proof that Islam is a religion based on violence. On the face of it based on what we see in the media once could almost understand the sentiment. However by that same perspective we could say that Christians who joined the Ku Klux Klan were equally representing christianity with violence. One of the wonderful things about this book was it showed another side of Islam and Middle East culture in general. It showed that there can be beauty in religion when not interpreted by a leader for their own violent purposes. It showed that there are two sides to every stereotype. In this day and age when there are terrible things that take place in all parts of the world, from all religions or all walks of life we need to remember to keep an open mind and not group people together.

As Marthin Luther King once said; 'Hate begets Hate, Violence begets Violence, Toughness begets greater Toughness. We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love"

Do you feel a country has a right to mandate women to cover themselves?

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What do you think of Qanta's experiences?

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    • PlethoraReader profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from Silicon Valley

      @Heidi Vincent: Could not agree more!

    • Heidi Vincent profile image

      Heidi Vincent 

      5 years ago from GRENADA

      Interesting but troubling.

    • PlethoraReader profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from Silicon Valley

      @JoshK47: Thank you.

    • PlethoraReader profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from Silicon Valley

      @TeacherSerenia: Thank you for sharing this. The most challenging part for me when reading this book is the dualistic nature of the burka. Some women feel more comfortable wearing it as they feel more private with their own looks, whereas of course others find it emotionally constricting. I think the key is regardless of how you feel on the clothing it needs to be your choice to wear it or not. Thank you for the comment.

    • PlethoraReader profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from Silicon Valley

      @bushaex: That is extremely disheartening to hear as I would have hoped we have moved beyond this as a society. Let us hope that wiser minds prevail.

    • bushaex profile image

      Stephen Bush 

      5 years ago from Ohio

      I live in Ohio which has a governor and state legislature that acts every bit as repressive as "In the Land of Invisible Women." Literally within hours of the most recent national elections, this group of narrow-minded legislators proclaimed their intent to continue a war on women via laws that restrict basic rights. SquidAngel blessings.

    • TeacherSerenia profile image


      6 years ago

      I have read this book and I too wrote a review almost 4 years ago - November 2008. I wrote my review on my blog. This is the link if you wish to read it.

      Even here in Canada I still see women wearing the all encompassing burka and I want to go up to them and tell them - you are in Canada now - your husband and your family do NOT own you. You are NOT their property. This is a FREE country.

      There are thousands of muslim women and girls in Canada wearing the hajib - that's OK - we can still see their face.

      But the Burka? NO - its too much. Just a few weeks ago I saw not only a woman wearing the all-over burka, but with her she had a girl - (maybe aged 8 to 10 years old - judging by her height - since I could not see her face) - ALSO wearing an all over burka and this was in CANADA!! I was gobsmacked and totally SHOCKED that this family puts this young GIRL into a hurka in a western country. I wondered what abuse this girl is going to suffer in her lifetime. I bet she will be married off before she is 18.

      I was totally SHOCKED!!!!!

    • ViJuvenate profile image


      6 years ago

      There is good and evil in all countries, in all cultures, in all colors. The best we can do is refuse to take part in evil and work for the Kingdom of God. There are no perfect governments, all are capable of being corrupted by corruptible humans. Good lens. Thank you.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      I am glad I live in America. As you have said, "Unfortunately intolerance and prejudice is just as prevalent today as it was throughout history."

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Thank you very much for sharing this - very well presented.

    • PNWtravels profile image

      Vicki Green 

      6 years ago from Wandering the Pacific Northwest USA

      Your review has inspired me to this book on my reading list. I recently returned from a brief trip to a country where most of the population was moslem and it was interesting to learn more about the religion and customs, but the restrictions on women participating in so many things that I enjoy made me feel very uncomfortable.

    • indigoj profile image

      Indigo Janson 

      6 years ago from UK

      An excellent review of what sounds like a fascinating book. I agree that the issues connected with Islam and Middle Eastern countries are complex, even the dress issue is not straightforward in the context of their religion and culture. I can understand how even this part of Quanta's experience had a positive side, as our western cultures have become ever more ready to judge a woman on how she looks rather than her qualities and achievements.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      thanks for sharing this

    • Diana Wenzel profile image

      Renaissance Woman 

      6 years ago from Colorado

      A powerful experience for Quanta and all who consider each learning opportunity presented in this book. Thank you for introducing me. I can very much appreciate the journey you are on in your quest to read award-winning books in this genre.

    • VeseliDan profile image


      6 years ago

      Thank you for sharing this lens with us!

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      very informative page and well worth the read!

      I also have a selection of poetry that I have written personally so if you can comment and tell me what you think i'd appreciate it very much.

    • profile image

      Donnette Davis 

      6 years ago from South Africa

      I haven't read the book. Congratulations on a fantastic matter-of-fact review.

    • aka sakabato profile image

      aka sakabato 

      6 years ago

      This sound interesting. Going to put it up on my 'to read' list.

    • Inkhand profile image


      6 years ago

      The most interesting part of the book for me was finding out how Dr. Ahmed dared to cope with radical Islamic fundamentalism. You can't help but be moved by her courage and optimism. A great review lens.


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