A Female Doctor’s Journey in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia by Qanta Ahmed

mamakats’s review: Something in the title should have said it all: “a female doctor’s journey…” is not exactly an artful use of language. In fact, that kind of descriptor almost sounds clinical in a most unattractive sense. So it is not all that surprising that at the end of this read I am left with a dry, sort of anesthetic feel for the text. And the disappointment in that sentiment is that I was drawn in and engaged until the fragments just fell flat. This is a story that has all the components of offering up, not only substantial scholarship, but a riveting tale as well. An educated woman, born and raised in England, educated in the United States, being unmarried and choosing to live under the dictates of the veil to work in Saudi Arabia just prior to the events of September 11, 2001. If one is looking for a light read that just touches on the important topics of the day, this is an excellent choice.

After reading the book, I am sure that Dr. Ahmed would be an excellent practitioner to care for others in her careful thoroughness. The author is clearly educated, and quite observant to those around her. I suppose this is where the story of Invisible Women fails most miserably for me. Dr. Ahmed is meticulous in describing the minutia of her work. She is specific in defining the presentation (including naming the brands of their clothing) of the people in her adopted Saudi Arabian home. The feelings she shared about her Hajj and elicited about the scenery were all palpable. Yet, when I reached the end of the book, I felt certain that I had read too many uses of the word “beautiful” to describe every woman that Dr. Ahmed saw unveiled. Rather than really getting into the experiences of the women she knew and herself in wearing the abbaya, the author seemed to gloss over its significance. There was so much to cover: the politics of the veil, the choice in wearing one, the return to ‘freedom’ and life without a veil, the gritty politics of working in a predominantly male community and being acutely aware of life outside of the religiously conservative policing of the Muttaween. These divergent components of the book seemed to overwhelm the passion and relationship to the story, Dr. Ahmed used several footnotes and the text is lost for all the scholarly referencing without any real substance.

I can only guess that the failing here occurred because Dr. Ahmed was insecure in focusing a critical eye on those whom she grew to care for and even admire in her time in Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, sharpening that critical eye to analyze one’s own experiences, choices, and circumstances is a difficult and sometimes daunting task. To get to a successful place with all that the book tried to accomplish, Dr. Ahmed might have chosen to write a fictionalized account rather than reveal an alliegance to maintaining loyalties and relationships through the telling of this story. The premise of her tale has a lot of resonance at this point in history. The author had a rare and unique opportunity to expose her naiveté in taking an employment opportunity that had such significant challenges to her sense of self, her identity and the role of women in the world (not just the Middle East or the United States). Without turning that observant eye inward – to the self – and to the psyche – she missed an opening toward real understanding. And in the end, I fear Dr. Ahmed squandered a chance to make a significant challenge to the stereotype-ideas that plague the Muslim people. This could be a thrilling account of personal experience living under the rigid regime of the conservative Muslim community and the everydayness of life in an abbaya (veil) from the perspective of western eyes. And worse, the author bashfully apologizes for being a storyteller who, “failed to meet her task with justice” in the closing chapter. That just might say it all.

a bitchin feminista mama at the intersection of political quagmire and real life.

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