Book Review: In the Land of Invisible Women
Monday, October 1, 2018
Review of In the Land of Invisible Women by Dr. Qanta Ahmed
After she was denied a visa to stay and practice in the United States in 1999, Dr. Qanta Ahmed, a Pakistani British Intensive Care physician and sleep specialist, accepted a position as an ICU attending a hospital in Saudi Arabia. Her memoir chronicles her experiences living and practicing in Riyadh, including a religious Hajj, with vivid imagery and editorial insights.
Dr. Ahmed's memoir explores the role of a female doctor in restrictive Saudi Arabian society. As a Muslim woman with a Western education, she is part citizen, part anthropologist. Though triple boarded and thoroughly trained, Dr. Ahmed's female status relegates her to second-class medicineship, forced to sit quietly by when berated by male colleagues and even disrespected by subordinates. And yet, Dr. Ahmed is keenly attuned to the subtle sensitivities that emerge in this society and comes to appreciate them. Though she herself feels oppressed by the abaya, or veil, she comes to respect the commitment to modesty that it can represents. She basks in the camaraderie between intellectual Saudi women and grapples with their acceptance of the seemingly sexist norms of their environment.
In addition to her role in the hospital, Dr. Ahmed's encounters with the healthcare system reveal some troubling truths about Saudi medicine. She describes the frequency of child mortality in car crashes, for example, as a direct consequence of unsafe behaviors that are culturally embedded, such as allowing children to drive or sit on the lap of the driver. In another instance, the strict rules of Saudi Arabian law force the ICU team to maintain life support on a brain dead teenager to prevent the teen who stabbed him from receiving the death penalty.
From a literary perspective, the book is quite wordy and somewhat repetitive. The reader gets a bit bogged down by strings of metaphors, especially those describing the features of Western culture that percolated to the East. The vision was often clear the first time, yet Dr. Ahmed insists on giving the reader another version.
Ultimately, Dr. Ahmed doesn't create the arc of a memoir that one would expect, where the writer looks over a period of their life and analyzes it with fresh perspective. At times it feels more like a collection of deeply descriptive anecdotes than a story with a progression. Dr. Ahmed flips back and forth between adoration and disdain, feeling connected and separate. And yet, this dialectic of accounts is perhaps the truest telling of her story; her experience and feelings towards it are fundamentally complicated to her. She can't draw clear conclusions and doesn't necessarily want the reader to do so either. In this regard, the story is disarmingly honest and approachable. Her thoughts on leadership in medicine and the role of a physician are one facet of the intricate picture that she paints, which encompasses the full spectrum of her approach to Saudi Arabian society and her place as a woman in it.
By Rachel Grosser