By Lara Aromire
I must say curiosity led me to buy my copy of “In the Land of Invisible Women”, I expected to learn so much about what it means to be a woman in Saudi Arabia; we have all read or heard about how women have little or rights in the Saudi Kingdom, women are said to be abused, mistreated, they are not allowed to drive and how women are not allowed to walk on the street or in a car without the company of a man from the family. The author being a muslim herself, I expected to read an unbiased account of her experience.
Qanta’s pre-kingdom expectation was that her muslim background and multiple qualification would make her life easier in the Kingdom, but contrary to her expectations and dismay, life in the Kingdom is totally different from what she had imagined. Rather than be embraced, she was scorned and rejected and in the same place found honesty, humor, loyalty and love. Qanta’s first rude shock of the reality of life in the kingdom began the moment she landed at the King Khalid airport. Men stared unflinchingly at her unveiled “non-white” face. The gender segregation also began right at the airport. In the beginning, she found the hijab and abbayah, 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.”
In time, she saw this symbol not just as one of oppression and also one of liberation and feminism for the women. The shield of the abbayah was the only way many Saudi women could enter the public space and participate in the public life of the Kingdom:
“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.” (pg 48)
In the Land of Invisible Women is the memoir of a Pakistani, British-born, American trained doctor, Qanta Ahmed, who dared entered the Saudi Kingdom after her visa to remain in the USA was declined. The book asides from being about a personal journey of Qanta’s struggles in the male dominated society which is caught between and often conflicting tradition and modernization. It also tells the stories of the struggles of “elite” women whom the author encounters in the Kingdom.
Each chapter of the Land of Invisible Women mirrors the world of the Kingdom ranging from divorce (Saudi style) to Hajj. She discusses the life women lead behind closed doors and out of the abbayah and eyes of the Mutawaeen (the religious police), which the people both male and female live in fear of. Regardless of religious affiliation, the women must adhere strictly to the Sharia dress code of any abbayah which must cover the body and hair. No woman, Saudi or not was permitted to move about town without a male companion. The women were segregated from the men; couples were forced to always carry along with them their marriage certificate when in public to verify their relationship. She wrote about the racism against people of darker skin in the Kingdom, and how it rears its hideous head while on hajj. There was also the story of the “forbidden” innocent crush with one of her superiors and the story of the grieving parents who had just lost a child.
I was amazed like the writer to learn there had been a time before Saudi women were uncovered, no abbayahs or scarves and could go out alone without their husbands or male family member. A time before the menace of the Mutawaeen and the mandate of monolithic religion, that time was before 1979. Also unlike what we had with the Hajj this year (2012), women could perform the pilgrimage without a man accompanying them.
Also amazing to learn about is the Saudi style of divorce; never knew a woman could ask for divorce if the husband decides to take a second wife without the consent of the first wife. In fact the idea that the man has to seek the consent of the wife in the first instance is shocking.
I particularly did not like the writer’s depiction of the Indians she met during her time in the Kingdom. She assumed they were all Bengalis (a tribe in India) and her ignorance of the Indian race was well documented across the book. She finds “huge lines of impoverished Bengalis arriving to take up menial jobs. She imagines “a poor Bengali gardener”, there was also her description of the “South Indian check out boy who spoke in his native Hindi”.
Qanta also seems to have own bit of self esteem as she did not seem comfortable in her own skin among the “creamy” skinned and flawless Saudi women. Her gushing depiction of the individual beauty of each and every Saudi woman she met, the obsession and bid to outshine one another with brand names, grace and Jewellery.
The Saudi women are not particularly helpless despite the world’s view; the book shows how these women despite so many religious restrictions have grown to become strong and highly intelligent intellectuals contributing their bits to the development of the great Saudi Kingdom.
Writer: Lara Aromire is a daughter, a sister and a friend whose daily existence is all about finding herself and exploiting her potentials. She is passionate about Human Resources Management, Travel, Photography and leadership. She blogs at http://www.labyrinthsoflahrah.com and tweets as @lhararom