Ruined by Reading

In the Land of Invisible Women

Posted in Book Reviews, Culture, Memoir, Religion by M on March 29, 2009

Title: In the Land of Invisible Women
Author: Dr. Qanta Ahmed
Pages: 464 pages
Genre: Memoir
Rating: 5/5

I was a little hesitant to pick up In the Land of Invisible Women when I first saw it in the book store based on the title and image on the front cover. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few years, you’ve also been bombarded with the typical veiled and mysterious women gazing out from magazines and book covers. I’m sure you’ve also heard time and time again about how Muslim women are abused, mistreated, without rights, etc. Upon closer inspection I realized it was written by a Muslim woman, so I gave in and picked it up, and I’m glad I did.

In the Land of Invisible Women is the memoir of a Pakistani, British-born, American trained doctor, Qanta, and her time living and working in Saudi Arabia. Coming from a moderate Islamic background, and raised in the West, life in the Kingdom came as quite a shock to her.

Although written by a Muslim woman, I still expected it to be about how Saudi women are helpless and need to be liberated by the West. It wasn’t that at all. Qanta encounters many strong, highly intelligent and diplomatic women while in the Kingdom and learns to appreciate and attempts to understand all the struggles they go through in order to get to where they are. In the Land of Invisible Women is also about a personal journey she goes through to learn more about her religion and become a better Muslim.

It is to be expected that Qanta would encounter several controversial issues while living in Saudia, one of which was the issue of veiling. Upon her arrival she was immediately confronted with the issue of wearing the hijab and abaya. She was reluctant at first, unable to understand the point of it, seeing it as only a symbol of oppression:

“This veiling was an anathema to me. Even with a deep understanding of Islam, I could not imagine mummification is what an enlightened, merciful God would ever have wished for half of all His creation. These shrouded, gagged silences rise into a shrieking register of muted laments for stillborn freedoms. Such enforced incarceration of womanhood is a form of female infanticide.”

Later she comes to realize how it is as much a symbol of oppression as it is a symbol of feminism and liberation for many women:

“In some respects the abbayah was a powerful tool of women’s liberation from the clerical male misogyny. I would be reminded of the abbayah as a banner for feminism time and again as I encountered extraordinary Saudi women who would work alongside me.”

One of the most uplifting and interesting parts of her memoir was the chapters in which she describes going on hajj – the pilgrimage to Mecca. She had never planned on attending while in the Kingdom, but made a last minute decision to go. It is here that the reader not only gets an intimate glimpse at the rites involved in hajj, but also Qanta’s biggest transformation:

“I stepped forward lightened, free, absolved. In a cast of millions, in that moment of electric intimacy, my Maker welcomed me. Like the Prophet had said, “If you take one step toward God, He takes ten steps towards you. I could feel him hurtling towards me, a colossal, joyous Father. I stood before Him, at last, His child.”

But Qanta doesn’t just address religious issues. In the Land of Invisible Women is filled with Saudi culture, which seems to often be very conflicting and always caught between tradition and modernization. She discusses the life women lead behind closed doors and out of the abaya. She addresses the prevalent racism against people of darker skin in the Kingdom, and how it even rears its ugly head while on hajj. There are also many encounters with the religious police, which some live in fear of. But Saudi society is not just made up of orthodox, oil rich, racists. Saudi society is incredibly and delightfully diverse.

I found Qanta’s writing to be descriptive, insightful, and easy to understand, but at times it did seem like she was being a little over-dramatic. I also felt that she introduced several characters, only to drop them from the story completely and sometimes re-introduce them several chapters later. It made it difficult to keep up with who was who. She also discontinued some of the very interesting story-lines, like her very innocent love affair (if you could even call it that) with one her superiors only to conclude several chapters later.

I really enjoyed In the Land of Invisible Women and was very pleasantly surprised by it. I have no way of knowing if it accurately represents Saudi culture and society, but it doesn’t paint Saudi women as ignorant and helpless, and it doesn’t demonize Saudis in general. It depicts a Saudi Arabia much different from that seen on CNN. And as a Muslim, I feel that she accurately represented Islam as a merciful and peaceful religious, despite some of the ultra-orthodox crazies she had to deal with.  Qanta is intuitive and highly intelligent as well as observant, which makes her the perfect person to deal with the numerous complex issues that popped up in this book.

This review counts towards the Orbid Terrerum 2009 challenge.


5 Responses

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  1. The Sunday Salon: Book Addiction « said, on March 29, 2009 at 6:20 pm

    […] In the Land of Invisible Women by Dr. Qanta Ahmed Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Sunday Salon: Monday Salonscrappin’ away!Surprise…no thank you!Books To Take On Vacation […]

  2. S. Krishna said, on March 30, 2009 at 3:35 am

    Great review! I wasn’t sure about this book, but you’ve made me want to read it!

  3. Richard said, on March 31, 2009 at 4:03 pm

    This sounds like a really interesting piece of work, so I hope your other OT Challenge books live up to the standard that’s been set! Until then, I look forward to hearing your thoughts on “The Coming Plague,” which freaked me out a little (in a good way) when I read it a while back. Your blog looks cool–I’ll have to return to see more of it!

  4. Elizabeth said, on April 5, 2009 at 1:03 pm

    I had been unsure of this book , as well – now I am definitely going to add it to my list. Thanks!

  5. jilmavi said, on June 6, 2010 at 2:49 pm

    I was hesitant for the exact same reasons, but will definitely pick up a copy once I return home.

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