“In the Land of Invisible Women” by Qanta Ahmed

I have recently been reading a memoir by a British lady, of Pakistan origin, who undertakes a position as a medical doctor at a hospital in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The book is beautifully formatted, with a cover decorated in Islamic art and design, with each chapter laid out to chronicle another adventure in Dr Ahmed’s journey in the Kingdom. The hospital is the books pinnacle focus, and from this centrifugal point disperses a whole array of multi-coloured facets about practicing medicine in one of the most strictest Muslim countries in the world.

The opening scene to the rest of the book depicts an instance where a female patient requires treatment whilst still wearing her abbayah. This is a clothing garment that covers the woman fully, veiling her head and face also, and only allowing the doctor’s gaze to recognize the eyes. Dr Ahmed describes her frantic relative, frantic with concern but a concern split between stabilising his mother’s physical ailments, which were quite serious, and maintaining his mother’s religious, personal, and spiritual dignity by ensuring the abbayah remained in place.

Later on in the book, Dr Ahmed vividly conjures a scene she encountered where a group of Bedouin women crouched down on the floor whilst gathering together in support of a dying relative. Dr Ahmed informs us how the male relatives of the patient at first attend the bedside. Whether the patient be son or daughter, mother or father, the female relatives are not permitted to visit until the situation is deemed as either the patient begins to recover, or the severity of the condition means that the family need to say goodbye.

This approach is an expression of the men’s love for the women, an act to protect their mothers, wives, sisters, or daughters from upset until the will of God be known. Whilst the book is an endeavor to share the experiences of a Muslim educated in the UK and USA, and how they contrast with the ways and customs of the Saudi culture, I gained an insight into the ways in which religion, tradition, culture, and belief (to use such terms in an arbitrary way) interweave in medical practice.

This is important to bear in mind during the clinical encounter. The image of the lady, veiled, and hidden from the doctor’s gaze is extremely powerful.

In our eager and rush to delve into the human body, to discover what material secrets are being whispered between cells of the blood, organs, and tissues, and the causes and effects of the thousands of physiological processes that modern medicine has named and classified, there is also a body contained in the relation between doctor and patient that cannot be unmasked, unveiled, through examination.

Such is the encounter between a patient and doctor that beyond the body exists symptoms of the person laying on the hospital bed, amidst the brawl of tubing and machinery, and the eyes that stare upon us, perhaps not noticed until the contrast of the veil reveals them, are the diagnostic vision for how this person in all of their vulnerability and being, needs to be treated.

The reference for the book is:
“In the Land of Invisible Women; A Female Doctor’s Journey in the Saudi Kingdom”, by Dr Qanta A. Ahmed. Published by Sourcebooks, Inc. USA. 2008.
ISBN: 978-1-4022-1087-7