"In the Land of Invisible Women" - Book Review
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.
Image Credit: Amazon.com
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"