In the Land of Invisible Women

In the Land of Invisible Women

by Qanta Ahmed, MD

About the Author

Dr. Ahmed is currently an assistant professor of medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, and Assistant Director of the MUSC Sleep Disorders Laboratory. She is a quadruple boarded in internal medicine, pulmonary disease, critical care medicine, and sleep disorders medicine. She continues to practice intensive care medicine. She became a fellow of the American College of Chest Physicians, a Diplomat and member of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.

Reading Group Guide

1. Saudi Arabia has been described as a schizophrenic state. What are the complexities of the society you can identify that are revealed in this book?  Would you agree with this description? 

2. Virginity has a medicolegal value in Islam, leading some women to seek hymen reconstruction out of desperation.  Is such an intense value of chastity an alternate form of oppression?

3. While male supremacy is state legislated in the Kingdom, there are certain situations in which men are oppressed as well as women. What are the tools of this male oppression and how effective are they?

4. What should we aspire for in terms of Saudi-US relations? How can we be better understood? What can we do to better understand the Saudis?

5. Dr Ahmed repeatedly reminds readers of the compassion of the Islam religion. Can a mandated Islamic Theocracy truly be Islamic?

6. While some women reject or resent the veils they are forced to wear and customs they are forced to obey, others wholeheartedly embrace them. Why do you think they do this?

7. With so much social pressure to conform, it is no wonder so many do so. There are several people Dr. Ahmed meets in Saudi Arabia who refuse to conform at enormous personal risk. What do you think gives them the courage to defy the rules and mores of their own government and society?

8. Have you ever personally encountered an injustice that horrified you, but you were afraid to speak out about it fearing of some kind of reprisal? If you had the courage to speak out the injustice, what gave you that courage?

9. What do you think of the way Dr. Ahmed prepared for this journey? Would you prepare differently? Do you think it would have dulled the shock if she had known more about the traditions, culture and politics of Saudi Arabia before she left? Why or why not?

10. Early on in the book, she wonders at the behavior of the boy struggling to make sure his mother’s veil is kept on during her surgery, “Didn’t he know God was Merciful, tolerant and understanding and would never quibble over the wearing of a veil in such circumstances, or I doubted, any circumstances?” There are many examples throughout scriptures of all denominations of Gods acting in ways that cannot be described as merciful, tolerant, or understanding, and there are many people who don’t feel this way about God. How do you think peoples’ and cultures’ ideas about Gods’ personalities are shaped?

11. When Dr. Ahmed boards the plane for Saudi Arabia, the pilot prays in Arabic, which strikes her as a noteworthy and soothing ritual. Do we in the United States have any rituals that might strike an outsider as odd, but are soothing to us?

12. Dr. Ahmed writes, “No central air, when it would be over 120°F in the summer? I wondered of the furnace of summer ahead.” The author faces many challenges, both physical and mental, in this trip. Do you think the kinds of challenges faced by someone moving to a landscape and a culture entirely different than their own are something that we have the strength for throughout our lives? Or that it is something that we can only throw ourselves into with the energy and strength of youth?

13. On a daily basis, are there things you would rather not do in order to fit into society and not cause a fuss? Do you these simply simple acts are as oppressive as those experienced by Saudi women?

14. In Saudi Arabia, it is very difficult to get to know your husband or wife before you are married. Very few people in the United States would make such a large commitment having never spent more than a few hours at a time with the other person. However, some Saudi marriages are successful, and very happy. How do you think some people can make these types of marriages, so different than our own, work?

15. Some Saudis are so exasperated by the confinements of their home, that they choose to leave Saudi Arabia, even though all their family and friends continue to reside in the Kingdom. What kind of personality do you think it would take to make such a dramatic step? Are you surprised more people don’t do this, given the dramatic restrictions of life in Saudi Arabia?

16. The law in Saudi Arabia is remarkably harsh. Beheadings, lashings, and other brutal treatments are not uncommon outcomes of criminal trials. In contrast to most other countries, why do you think Saudi Arabia continues to adhere to these customs and traditions?

17. Dr. Ahmed encounters many people with a very literal interpretation of the Koran. What do you think about literal interpretations of religious texts? Do you feel it is possible to be faithful, while not following or believing in every tenet of your faith?

18. The Mutaween (the religious police) are a constant, and often terrifying, presence in this book. What do you think could motivate someone to so violently guard his faith?

19. Dr. Ahmed has a very unique experience on 9/11 in Saudi Arabia. Why do you think so many Muslims expressed approval about 9/11? Was it just the brainwashing of their society, or was their reaction due to some deeper reasons?

20. Dr. Ahmed has an amazing religious experience at Mecca. Have you ever gone on a religious pilgrimage, or encountered a deep symbol of a particular faith? What affect did that have on you?


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