A Female Doctor's Journey in the Saudi Kingdom
Qanta Ahmed, a young British Muslim doctor, takes a position at the top hospital in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on a whim, hoping for adventure and acceptance in the Middle Eastern Kingdom. What she comes to experience during her two-year stay is shockingly different.
In the Land of Invisible Women describes Ahmed's encounters with sexism and racism in the Saudi Kingdom, as well as the humor, honesty, loyalty, and love that she eventually finds. She exposes some of the mysteries of the women behind the veil, and explains what it's like to don an abbayah [read: burqa] and become one of the invisible.
Invisible and Safe
We traveled in a taxi to the center of the city. Along the way, Maurag taught me never to hail a cab curbside but instead to rely on the hospital’s own car service. In Riyadh, there was still no enforced registration of licensed taxis. A lone Western woman could be vulnerable alone in a taxi, and how could one tell a genuine taxi from a predator?
My dark Asian skin was an added conundrum. Veiled, I could pass as Saudi, and a lone Saudi woman in a taxi was almost in a worse predicament than a non-Saudi. A Saudi woman with no honor or protection, just where could she be going shamelessly unchaperoned? That would be the received message. She would be inviting danger.
The driving in Riyadh was deadly. Turbocharged testosterone without creative or sexual outlet translated into deadly acceleration. The road was supposedly a six-lane highway into the city, but additional lanes appeared at will.
Someone passed us on the hard shoulder traveling at least one hundred miles per hour. I feverishly followed the speedometer in which our un-seat-belted driver displayed no interest. We ourselves were already seventy-five miles per hour in an old South African rust bucket. I began to feel angry with the driver. I stupidly clutched onto the flimsy scarf over my hair. “Shweh,” (Slow) was falling on deaf ears. I felt feeble and increasingly powerless.
Mall Shopping in Riyadh
At last we reached a mall. From outside it was an elegant glass and marble structure, shining with chrome staircases. It was modern and familiar in its Western design. The al-Akariyah shopping center was inviting, ablaze with neon and fluorescence. Inside, Saudi men and women rustled purposefully, focused on Thursday night shopping. The paucity of color was striking; aside from the black
abbayahs and white thobes, no other color was apparent. Stocky figures were cast into sharp relief against the gleaming marble canvas; black, veiled silhouettes enshrouding women trailed behind the white-clad, plump men who had married or fathered or been delivered of them. I was entranced.
Little children were shorter versions of their parents, small girls no more than six in abbreviated shrouds, their abbayah hems getting stuck in their brightly colored, open-toed jelly sandals. Their clumsy tumbles reminded me that a childhood was encased within these opaque sarcophagi. Little boys, scuffed and stained, tumbled along in short white robes
hurrying to keep up with Dad, always ahead of their sisters, already exerting an infantile male supremacy.
I noticed mainly families with many children, three or four at least to every mother-shaped veil. Saudi children ran amok, far ahead of the parents. Waddling women hurried hopelessly to keep up, clumsy platform shoes and billowing abbayahs impeding their progress. Under askew hems, I could see Riyadh was the home of the rubberized platform sneaker. I watched the clumpy shoes carry ballooning sailboats of veiled women back and forth over the marble causeway. The Dior handbags and Fendi footwear I had seen Saudi women in London wearing were nowhere to be seen. Things were much more kitsch at home.
At the perimeter of the mall, Saudi bachelors condensed in groups at mall entrances, barred from entering during family time when only married couples and women could shop. Security guards dotted the mall in clusters, accompanied by policemen. The officers were dressed in militarized uniforms and red berets, a brief relief of color in the bloodless scene.
The Muslim Madonnas
Women without families, like us, patrolled in clutches of twos or threes. Many women were Western. It seemed al-Akariyah was a favorite mall for the expat worker. Caucasian faces stared out of the black regulation abbayahs, chatting with one another easily blue eyes peering out of the Wahabi garb, faces often smiling, strangely relaxed. Here and there a wisp of blonde inveigled its way out of the veiled blackness. Sometimes, a Swedish accent punctuated the air, ridiculously displaced.
There were other women out this evening too. Young Saudi millenials patrolled the mall, their pallid anemia partly visible behind hijabs. Some talked incessantly on cell phones, eagerly surveying goods. Wealthier teens wore slim-line microphones under tightly bound layers of veils, microphones nestling provocatively in front of the invisible fullness of lips concealed within.
Everywhere I looked, headpieces peeped out from behind headscarves, so many Muslim Madonnas, engaged in secretive, coquettish flirtations, perhaps with their Bluetooth boyfriends.
I watched them closely. The girls often giggled but always quietly, no raucous, jaw-splitting guffaws. These girls were uncomfortable even containing such covert gaiety, ever-vigilant of an impending capture. They were very controlled, with years of training, always hiding their stolen snatches of happiness. Clearly these women were unmarried. There were no entourages of children, no awkward newlywed husbands, no pregnant bellies suggested by the folds of their abbayahs. These were the swinging single Saudi women, the hip elite of Riyadh. I wondered if they were having some kind of fun.
We cut through a food court. I watched people eagerly lunging forward to place their orders for kebabs, ice cream, and juices. Children clamoring, jostling against adults, the unruly wait dissolved into small puddles of confusion.
There was no distinct line; it was every man for himself, literally. Nearby, anxious, powerless women waited patiently for their food, eternally dependent. I failed to find any mixed groups. The segregation was pervasive: Saudi from non-Saudi, Muslim from non-Muslim, men from women, married from unmarried. Saudi Arabia was about separation even for the Saudis.
Finding the Right Abbayah
We scurried toward shops in the back of the mall. Here were lines of stores, each a purveyor of polyester incarceration. I looked through shop windows. They displayed seemingly identical black cloaks. I followed Maurag into one store. Entering, we ducked under a low beam. The floor was saturated with blood-colored kilims, rich in their authenticity, yet soiled by the puddled umbras of garish strip lights. The smell alone suffocated me in the heavy, hot lighting and stifling atmosphere of warm wool and dusty abbayahs. Around us, attendants looked on intently.
Every assistant was a male Saudi. The men were dotted around edges of the kilims, like so many sentries. At the time women were forbidden from assisting in shops in the Kingdom and even now can only serve in gender-segregated malls which have developed in recent years. Strangely, therefore, only men could sell abbayahs. Their accumulating colognes reached a critical mass of sickly sweetness. They were all in their early twenties, dressed in white thobes and mascara-like beards, the careful grooming marks of their significant vanity.
Abbayah shopping was like renting a graduation gown, deadly dull. Racks and racks of black cloaks and matching scarves, hanging from their perches, stretched in every direction. Perhaps label shopping would help. I started looking at price tags and was surprised to see some were SR 1800 (in excess of $5000). Many were decorated with fine needlework, sequins, mirrors, or even Swarovski crystal, priced far beyond my reach.
In that store, Maurag the Australian showed me more about Muslim covering than any woman in my family had ever done, idly mentioning rumors of blue abbayahs being worn publicly in more liberal Jeddah; unthinkable here in Riyadh. I couldn’t believe women there were still excited at the prospect of reform in the shape of relaxation of legislated color.
Years later, self-expression in Riyadh has evolved to an abbayah trimmed in Burberry plaid or, for the more daring, embroidered animals, flowers, celebrities, or even slogans stitched into the sleeves or the backs of the abbayah. I was left to choose one of my own.
Giving the Garment New Life
Perfunctorily, I picked one. I tried it on inside a curtained alcove. The abbayah had three tassels on the front and at the corner of each sleeve. It was one of the cheapest there. I watched as the lifeless abbayah took on life. Mine.
The ugly neckline was boat-shaped and secured with cheap studs. An internal tie at waist level made of limpid cord held the abbayah together. A plain black scarf of slippery polyester completed my new about-town ensemble. I should have done a “sound-check” before buying it; that stereophonic rustling would drive me nearly mad later on.
As I fastened the abbayah in front of a mirror inside the makeshift dressing room, I watched my eradication. Soon I was completely submerged in black. No trace of my figure remained. My androgyny was complete.
I looked at my face in the mirror, my dark eyes assessing my new public persona, my thick hair squashed completely out of sight. What a small head, I thought to myself, surprised at my resilient vanity. My head seemed out of proportion, not a good mast for a veil. I looked more closely. The veil was a strangely inviting prison. I could be Saudi, I thought naïvely. In this I was one of the crowd, I thought, suddenly excited. I would move within this society unremarked upon. Who knew what I would see or learn with my unseen eyes.
I paid SR 270 ($70) for my abbayah, hurling the garish notes at the attendant. I wanted to wear the abbayah out of the store. The attendant boxed Maurag’s old abbayah (that I had now discarded in place of my new one), handling it as carefully as if it were a Balenciaga gown. It seemed stupid to take such care over the black rag. He handed the box to Maurag, who appeared completely unmoved at my transformation; she had seen such metamorphoses already. Ignoring her lack of enthusiasm, I stepped out of the store, eager to try my new armor.
Inside the Abbayah
Immediately, I felt safer. This veil would deflect intrusive male gazes. I was shielded, impregnable, and most importantly of all, completely concealed. The abbayah was easy to move in, not at all binding or restrictive of my movements. The abbayah I had chosen was very lightweight (in anticipation of the superheated summer to come) and I moved ahead rapidly, unencumbered at my normal Western pace. I was enthralled at my total obliteration.
My social suicide had begun. In some ways, my womanhood couldn’t wait for this strange rebirth through my own obliteration, one which would enable me to live and work within this Kingdom. Inside the abbayah, I felt oddly free.
I was discovering what many Saudi women already know: that the only way to enter the public space and participate in public life in the Kingdom was behind the shield of an abbayah. 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.
Yet there would be plenty of times when I would abhor the compulsion of this incarceration. Only later would the magnitude of my silent contract, the chains of my unseen pact with the world of Wahabiism, begin to dawn on me. Though itself literally weightless, for me and many other women, Western and Saudi alike, my abbayah was to become one of the heaviest burdens I would bear in Saudi Arabia. Only the mantle of my womanhood would weigh more.
In the Land of Invisible Women: A Female Doctor's Journey in the Saudi Kingdom
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This article was last modified on June 5, 2018, 9:10 am