Saturday, August 20, 2016

In the Land of Invisible Women by Qanta Ahmed, MD (Book Review #39 of 2016)

In the Land of Invisible Women -  Qanta Ahmed, MD (4.5 stars)

I recently reviewed a host of books on the history and development of Islam and Middle Eastern history (list at bottom of this post). I also read several which included some critiques along with views to the future and reform. I then worked through a list of books by Muslim women, most of which bring light to and critique inhumane practices found in their home countries. Included in this list was Nick Kristof's Half the Sky which looks at women's rights globally, and I'm also including another by someone who left Islam after an extensive intellectual and spiritual search. This book review is in the context of all of those books as a whole. The list (some reviews forthcoming):

Reform and human rights:
Infidel - Ayaan Hirsi Ali (4.5 stars)
Heretic - Ayaann Hirsi Ali (4 stars)
Headscarves and Hymens - Mona Eltahawy (4 stars)
I Am Malala - Malala Yousafzai (5 stars)
I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced by Nujood Ali (4.5 stars)
In te Land of Invisible Women -  Qanta Ahmed (4.5 stars)
Between Two Worlds - Zainab Salbi (5 stars).
City of Lies - Ramita Navai (3 stars)
Half the Sky - Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (4 stars)
Seeking Allah Finding Jesus - Nabeel Qureshi (4.5 stars)

Another book I strongly recommend with this one:
Desperately Seeking Paradise - Ziauddin Sardar (5 stars)

The author contends in the prologue that things have gotten "much better" since she wrote the book, but a recent PBS Frontline documentary I saw seems to show it's not by much. The religious police still patrol the malls and public squares bashing anyone exposing too much skin or anyone who might dare to sing or play an instrument. Like Mona Eltahawy, she has become a critic of the hijab and supports the ban on them in France, which also makes her a target of criticism by various groups. Dr. Ahmed notes that the abaya, the full-length robe worn in Saudi Arabia, is ironically sold only by men.

Dr. Ahmed is a practicing Muslim of Pakistani descent, she grew up in England and studied medicine in the US. Like many physicians who study in the US, it is difficult to get a visa or eventual green card, so she took a position with Saudi national health affairs, working at a hospital. 80% of doctors in Saudi Arabia were expatriates at the time. The job brought her opportunities to learn a new culture, make the hajj, be a huge help to and example for women, and deal with great culture shock.

While she has more education and experience then male colleagues, she has to deal with their consdescension and subtle harrasment. She could have a patient dying on a gurney but have to be patient as the male doctors do their elaborate Saudi greetings before getting to work. Early on, she tells the ridiculous story of dealing with a patient whose body was mostly uncovered, but her family made sure to cover her head with a veil. Dr. Ahmed can operate on people in Saudi Arabia, but like all women, is forbidden to drive a car. As a single woman, she has to deal with the plight of being an "unaccompanied woman." A single woman she knew is denied attending a distinguished fellowship abroad by her father who insists she get married first so she be she won't be unaccompanied because that would would bring him dishonor at home.

Similar to Ramita Navai's City of Lies (on Iran), and Mona Eltahawy's Headscarves and Hymens (Saudi Arabia and Egypt), Qanta Ahmed's work breaks the veneer of the Kingdom. The move toward greater conservative Wahabbism came after 1979, when conservatives were increasingly given power (I recommend The Seige of Mecca by Yaroslav Trofimov to help understand this). But the religious laws and police only force underground what exists. She notes that as a doctor she saw evidence of much of the widespread drug and alcohol abuse among men. Indifelity can be covered up via hymen reconstructive surgery, which is also used by married couples. Ahmed sees much homosexuality actively covered up. She also sees many children coming in having been raped and abused, and the absence of social services in Saudi Arabia condemns them to return home to the environment in which they were abused.

Islam itself painted over the historic pagan practices practiced in places like Mecca before the time of Muhammad. She notes the various beliefs and superstitions held by patients that may be contrary to Islamic teaching. Parents, for example, see their children as intercessors on behalf of their parents in front of Allah. This comforts the parents in the event of the death of the child. Parents also believe God takes away one child in order to give them another, more pious, child.

The most moving experience Dr. Ahmed has is in making the Hajj. She does this as a well-off foreigner who can afford a hotel room. She notes the plight of most pilgrims, sleeping outdoors, sometimes even under vehicles, under the sun and elements. Ahmed studies the history of the Hajj itself; she notes the deeply-rooted pagan rituals around the Hajj that are now considered Islamic, as the polytheism that existed in Mecca before Muhammad is painted over like many of the other cultural beliefs and rituals she observes. Saudis themselves look down on the other nationalities visiting, something that is contrary to the spirit of the Hajj. The Saudi authorities are also increasingly trying to segregate the Hajj by gender, contrary to historic practice. Like many, the author sees this as increasingly trying to marginalize women. (Oddly, Saudi women splurge on nail polish when they are menstruating because they do not pray when they menstruate; they do not believe you can wear nail polish when you are praying.)

During her prayers at the Hajj, Dr. Ahmed encounters other English-speaking women who help her understand the Hajj as well as speak and read Arabic. While making prayers one day, another women accosts her in Arabic for exposing the tips of her ears, as though she is "naked." Other women correct her practices. She goes from goat to hero as a doctor, however, providing much-needed medical care to some of the women there. The women become very appreciative of her education and profession.

The minute details of the love aspirations of friends were a bit much. Some women want to marry for love, others for money, most are woefully unprepared for marriage and intimacy.  The internet opened up forbidden communication between men and women, leading to much romance but also jilted would-be lovers. Many Saudis divorce because the husband wants a second wife, (many more end simply because of relational/cultural/communication complications). Some of the women professionals use younger underlings as sex partners as sort of an escape. As a foreigner, Ahmed could not openly date a Saudi man but strikes up a relationship with one of her colleagues. Her crush is not very religious, does not pray, and treats her with respect. Dr. Ahmed cites Ziauddin Sardar's work (Desperately Seeking Paradise), and I remember his lamenting at how much Saudis were trying to both industrialize the Hajj and ruin the spirit behind it. Like Sardar, the pure unity of engaging the Hajj with thousands of others moving in unison, despite different nationalities, genders, and income, clearly moves Ahmed and it appears this is what keeps her bound to her Muslim faith despite all other misgivings.

As an American, maybe the most shocking/disheartening piece of new information I gleaned from the book was Dr. Ahmed's description of her educated physician colleagues openly celebrating the attacks on September 11th, even bringing in cake to celebrate because America "deserved it." She notes that the director of the hospital condemned the celebrations but many of her colleagues took part. She remarks with horror that women doctors who had just delivered babies and saved lives were now watching television and applauding murder.

The afterword to this book was recorded in 2008, and in an interview she says things are rapidly changing for the better. The internet and satellite television have brought different experiences to Saudi households. Lebanese television, in particular, portrays women as powerful and educated. Saudis now have plenty of access to Western treatment of women. As I noted at the beginning of this review, this does not appear to have moved the ball much in terms of womens rights and religious freedom in the Saudi Kingdom. Perhaps now that changes are rapidly happening due to the prolongued fall in oil prices, things will get better. But it appears that conservatives are instead consolidating power and simply demanding more strict reforms in response to their growing frustration. Since publishing the book, Dr. Ahmed has been accused of being a "Zionist" for having spoken at a university in Israel and denouncing the various academic boycotts against Israel. (She notes in the book that Jewish expats have serious problems in the Kingdom.) I'll be interested to follow her journalistic writing and the rest of her career. I give this book 4.5 stars. A truly unique perspective on Saudi Arabia.

Other books read on Islam before or concurrent with this one:
A History of Islam, The Middle East, and Arab nations:
A Very Short Introduction to the Koran - Michael Cook  (4.5)
A Very Short Introduction to Islam - Malise Ruthven (3 stars)
In the The Shadow of the Sword - Tom Holland (4 stars)
In God's Path -  The Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Islamic Empire - Robert G. Hoyland (4 stars)
Great World Religions: Islam (The Great Courses)- John Esposito (1.5 stars)
Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes - Tamim Ansary (4.5 stars)
Brief History of the Middle East - Peter Mansfield (3.5 stars)
History of the Arab Peoples by Albert Hourani (4.5 stars)
The United States and the Middle East 1914-2001 (Great Courses) by Salim Yuqub (3.5 stars)
Islam Unveiled - Robert Spencer (1.5 stars)
Lawrence in Arabia - Scott Anderson (5 stars)

Desperately Seeking Paradise - Ziauddin Sardar (5 stars)
Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz - Islam and the Future of Tolerance (1.5 stars)
Reza Aslan - No god but God - The Origins and Future of Islam (2.5 stars)

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