Review: In the Land of Invisible Women

First of all, Happy New Year to every body.
I know I am uber late with this review, but then enjoy

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.

♥  Lara

Molara Brown


  1. Wow. I find the divorce permission rather unbelievable. Interesting review.

  2. I strongly believe that despite cultural boundaries women can be bold and make a difference in their society and your review of this book shows just that.

  3. I enjoyed reading this book!

    Good for me that I live in UAE, the book became the topic of many conversations at work.

    1. Glad you enjoyed least I do not have to pay you back for buying the book :D.

      Happy new year!

  4. The book seems interesting. I'd like to read it. And I like your review.

  5. Please. That is some bullshit. So, instead of the male clerics FIXING THEIR MISOGYNY, women have to cover themselves in cumbersome and hot abayas to PROTECT them from male misogyny.

    What is feminist about that? What is liberating about that? I'm sorry but I think a lot of Muslim women like to deceive themselves.

    If you have to be covered at all times, locked up in the house and not allowed to go anywhere without a male escort to protect you from other men's lack of self control then how exactly are you liberated?

    Real liberation is getting the male half of the population to CHANGE THEIR DESTRUCTIVE BEHAVIOUR against women instead of putting the burden of male criminality and sexism on women.

    That's like saying, oh armed robbers may rob you so let me lock you inside the jail to protect you. Meanwhile the armed robber is walking around free in the street.

  6. hmmm,those defo gotta be reviewed. Not Fair.

  7. Nice review Lara. Happy New Year!

  8. I haven't read the book, but your review makes me want to, just to see through the author's eyes of life in Saudi. Irrespective of the open divorce laws, and the fact that SOME women are still able to work and all, it's definitely not a life I wish for many women. I hope one day they country will realize that covering and restricting women will not bring out 100% of what they can contribute to the society.

    1. The covering is not necessarily a problem to the women. For the non-muslims and those who did not grow up in such environment, the covering is an issue. The issues is the restriction, barring women from the society, silencing the voice of the women. Even the women who were lucky enough to study, become professionals and own stores were lucky to have a liberal male in the form of their father/husband who was wise enough to believe in the education of the girl-child.

      It is a society I would not be able to survive in. But for the Saudis this is life like they know it and it is not just religious but a political way of life.

  9. wow!! write good review
    happy new year Lara..wishing you a God-filled and wonderful 2013.
    you changed ur theme ba? cos ur blog does look different

    1. Yes oh, i changed the template...happy new year.

  10. Sounds like a good book. I am curious about places and cultures I don't know. As its easy to judge things from our own myopicness.
    I can understand how/why the abbayah can be liberating. At least it means they can leave their homes. Small steps I guess.

    1. Small steps and lets not forget this was Saudi of some years ago...there has been no drastic change but there has been some liberation for the women.