In the Land of Invisible Women

Cover of "In the Land of Invisible Women:...

By Qanta Ahmed, MD; @2008; Sourcebooks, Inc.; 437 pages.

I came to this book with very little knowledge of Islam or of Saudi Arabia. This was a fascinating read, and I highly recommend the book. While structurally the book reads like a series of ideas that the author felt compelled to cover, the book is loaded with interesting factual information—it is a must read for anyone planning a trip to the Kingdom.

What is certain from the very beginning is that Ahmed did not like to veil. I came away from the book thinking that veiling might be ok if it weren’t mandatory. The fact that women can be harrassed if not properly veiled offends my Western sensibilities. Also, what’s up with men wearing white (a heat repelling color) in a hot climate and women having to wear black (a heat attracting color)? That ain’t right.

I was shocked to learn that women are not allowed to purchase music. I love Arabian music, and I simply can’t imagine not being allowed to listen to it or purchase it on my own.

Throughout the book, I was haunted by the question of what does a woman do if she has no male figure in her life to drive her, accompany her, or do all the other things that only men are allowed to do? Women are like possessions.

Ahmed’s writing is engaging, and every night I looked forward to sitting down and reading more about her experiences. I was fascinated by her spiritual experiences during Hajj, but also upset that only Muslims are allowed entry. The recurring theme of this book seemed to be: “you’re not in the club.”

Ahmed’s coverage of the relationship between the Muttawa and the Saudi royalty was very interesting.

One thing is certain, I would not do well in the Kingdom. I’d slip up and get into some kind of life-threatening trouble.

In the Land of Invisible Women was a fascinating adventure into a place I will probably never go. I give it two thumbs up and a wiggle.

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10 thoughts on “In the Land of Invisible Women

  1. The story you have mentioned is a small jigsaw piece of something larger that we are witnessing. To that effect I wrote a post on the Arab Spring coming to Bangladesh. What is happening at the moment, and how events will bring about change to the Islamic world quickly and swiftly before you and I know it. Read on. Hope you like it.

    http://nareshnayak.wordpress.com/2013/02/17/the-rajib-haider-death-is-the-arab-spring-coming-to-bangladesh/

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  2. Wordwabbit,
    You mentioned the Saudi royal family has a interesting connection with the Muttawa religious police. Can you please elaborate there? THAT is my missing piece. I know that the Muttawa is like the SS Gestapo which even Germans in political positions refused to touch – they were very powerful and a law into themselves. I feel that the Muttawa comes under the direct command of the clerics and not the royal family. These clerics are the ones financing worldwide Islamic aggressions. I could be wrong though. Please reply.

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    1. This is just the impression I got from the author of this book. I know very little about either. In the book, she was very much afraid of the Muttawa, and it seemed that they were lurking everywhere ready to hand out discipline. This author only provided her firsthand accounts of her personal experiences. She didn’t delve too heavily into history or politics.

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      1. The Muttawa is the Gestapo Police of the Saudi system. They derive their powers from the Qu’ran and as such I believe have very little accountability. This could be the only reason why everyone is afraid of the Muttawa. Since the rule of law does not exist in the conventional sense, these ex convicts are a law into themselves. This draws parallels to the SS Gestapo in Nazi Germany. Even the Nazis were afraid to cross the Gestapo. It was Col. von Straufenberg who dared to arrest the SS Chief when he arranged for Hitler’s failed bombing.

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  3. From the book, there is definitely some friction between the royal family and the Muttawa. I guess what I saw as “interesting” was how the Muttawa could exist at all without the support of the royal family, which it appears not to have.

    Chapter 24 talks about the Gestapo-type raids of the Mutawaeen.

    From Chapter 24:

    “…the Saudi National Guard force had been created precisely to counter the Mutawaeen threats to the monarchy.”

    Chapter 21:

    “Their [Muttawa] omnipresence in Saudi life was physically and psychologically oppressive. The Muttawa are part of the Committee of Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. They operate under command of the Saudi King and are empowered to arrest or apprehend individuals if accompanied by Saudi police, with whom they usually patrol. There are naturally no female Mutaween…”

    “Riyadh, I had soon discovered, was a hornet’s nest of Mutawaeen. I had spied the Men in Brown patrolling in squadrons of brownness as they drummed shoppers into the mosque in Deera at prayer time. Salaat (praying) was mandatory! Banging their staffs on the railings of shops or the glass counters of display cabinets, they swarmed into shops, malls, and the labyrinthine jewelry market to ensure all business was closed to observe prayer…”

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  4. I have not read this book (I probably should) but two other books which I enjoyed showed the life of women in a repressive society: The Bookseller of Kabul and Reading Lolita in Tehran. Life is Kabul after the defeat of the Taliban was not as restricted as what you describe, but the position of women in the family was one of total domination by the male relatives. Young women did not want to marry into a large family because, as the newest member, you became the servant of everyone. Reading Lolita in Tehran was a chilling account of how the repression grew, restriction by restriction. You could be pulled in for wearing the wrong color socks. The concept seemed to be that men were so sex-crazed that any little thing (a colorful sock, a lock of hair) could set them off, so it was the woman’s responsibility to NOT be provocative.

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