I chose to read Qanta Ahmed’s In the Land of Invisible Women (2008) after seeing her in an interview on CNN not long after the Paris terror attacks in November of 2015. She described the Paris attacks as not only an attack on Paris, the west, and modern society but also an attack on Islam itself. Her Paris insight intrigued me and her book was equally provocative.
Ahmed’s revelations are very candid and go to the core of some of the most important questions related to the role of Islam in countries throughout North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Saudi Arabia is the focus since that is where Ahmed’s 2-year experience as a Muslim, U.S.-trained physician with British passport and Pakistani cultural background took place. One of the most startling realizations I had from reading her book was that, although Saudi Arabia is a long-time diplomatic and trade ally of the U.S., there are numerous conditions imposed on women in particular that are clearly human rights restrictions that the U.S. has yet to acknowledge.
This book was cathartic in many ways, recounting dozens of experiences that I encountered while living in Qatar. Qatar is not nearly as restrictive as Saudi, and the privilege of men in both countries is much freer than for women, but I could definitely identify. Some of the issues Ahmed encountered were having her passport taken away upon entry to the country, living in an expatriate compound, being required to dress in culturally-defined ways (wearing hajab and abbayah for women), and witnessing the extremes of luxury among nationals and privileged expatriates while observing the destitution of others. In Ahmed’s words, “Saudi Arabia was many things to many people: to the rich, a land of boundless wealth; to the poor, a prison of abject poverty; to the expatriate worker, a land of contrasts and inconsistencies, an ever moving labyrinth of contradiction, not wholly one nor wholly the other.”
Ahmed is a faithful Muslim, and her call to the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca would cause her to deepen her faith and to see the goodness of many people she encountered. “The frenzied, fascist supremacy of Wahabiism had simply been washed away by a torrent of truth: the multiracial, spiritually hybrid Muslims now flooding Mecca,” as Ahmed reflected afterward.
Based on the title of Ahmed’s book one might expect to read of disenfranchised and desperate women. To the contrary, she shared numerous stories of strong, bright, beautiful and hospitable Saudi and expatriate women. These stories were particularly compelling and conveyed an unrecognized resource that is contributing to the changes underway in Saudi and many other Muslim countries.
The saddest stories recounted by Ahmed were those involving extremely careless and dangerous exploits with fast cars and SUVs, abused wives and children brought to the emergency room, and “repressed, inhibited men” who were like men in other countries but who chafed as “the strain of their leashes wore thin.” She described the Saudi man she would come to love as, “impassive, a Saudi sphinx, something in which I had learned he was masterfully practiced. Positions of authority in the Kingdom demanded an inhuman ability to conceal one’s authentic opinions.”
Although Ahmed’s time in the Kingdom was short, her love impossible to enact, and the intellectual and spiritual tensions many, she could see that things are changing. Curiosity is required of anyone who seeks to understand Islamic societies, the Middle East, or other developing countries. The bottom line for Ahmed – “Alhumdullilah, we have every thing in the Kingdom we need to solve our own problems. We just have to have courage.”