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

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A strikingly honest look into Islamic culture?—in particular women and Islam?—and what it takes for one woman to recreate herself in the land of invisible women.

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 of Saudi Arabia is a world apart, a land of unparalleled 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.

Very few Islamic books for women give a firsthand account of what it's like to live in a place where Muslim women continue to be oppressed and treated as inferior to men. But if you want to learn more about the Islamic culture in an unflinchingly real way, this book is for you.

"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

ISBN-13: 9781402210877

Media Type: Paperback(New Edition)

Publisher: Sourcebooks

Publication Date: 09-01-2008

Pages: 464

Product Dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 2.00(d)

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.

Read an Excerpt

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.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: The Bedouin Bedside

Chapter 2: A Time to Leave America

Chapter 3: My New Home, a Military Compound

Chapter 4: Abbayah Shopping

Chapter 5: Invisible and Safe

Chapter 6: Saudi Women Who Dance Alone

Chapter 7: Veiled Doctors

Chapter 8: The Lost Boys of the Kingdom

Chapter 9: A Father's Grieving

Chapter 10: An Invitation to God

Chapter 11: The Epicenter of Islam

Chapter 12: Into the Light

Chapter 13: The Child of God

Chapter 14: The Million-Man Wheel

Chapter 15: Committing Haram

Chapter 16: Calling Doctora

Chapter 17: Daughters of the Desert

Chapter 18: Next Stop: Absolution

Chapter 19: Prayer under the Stars

Chapter 20: Between the Devil and the Red Sea

Chapter 21: Mutawaeen: The Men in Brown

Chapter 22: Single Saudi Male

Chapter 23: The Calm before the Storm

Chapter 24: Wahabi Wrath

Chapter 25: Doctor Zhivago of Arabia

Chapter 26: Love in the Kingdom

Chapter 27: Show Me Your Marriage License!

Chapter 28: An Eye for an Eye

Chapter 29: Princes, Polygamists, and Paupers

Chapter 30: Divorce, Saudi-Style

Chapter 31: The Saudi Divorcée

Chapter 32: Desperate Housewives

Chapter 33: The Making of a Female Saudi Surgeon

Chapter 34: The Hot Mamma

Chapter 35: The Gloria Steinem of Arabia

Chapter 36: Champion of Children

Chapter 37: 9/11 in Saudi Arabia

Chapter 38: Final Moments, Final Days

Afterword: Rugged Glory

Endnotes

Bibliography

Reading Group Guide

Acknowledgments