Woman doctor shares journey into heart of Islam
Women in Saudi Arabia
by Dr. Qanta Ahmed
Associated Press/Canadian Press
August 18, 2008
[Note: Dr. Qanta Ahmed is now working with the Center for Islamic Pluralism. This news story originated with the Associated Press.]
Canadian Press, August 18, 2008
CHARLESTON, S.C. — Dr. Qanta Ahmed's journey into the heart of Islam began as a spur-of-the-moment decision to practise medicine in Saudi Arabia.
Despite misgivings about women - even doctors - being treated as invisible in the country, the 40-year-old assistant professor at the Medical University of South Carolina says she took a chance and stayed there for two years.
Reflecting on her experiences almost decade later, she sees her memoir, "In the Land of Invisible Women," as part of a needed "jihad of the pen" by articulate, moderate Muslims. Her hope is that a book written by a Muslim who grew up in the West can, in some small way, bridge the divide of understanding between the Middle East and Western culture.
"One of the central errors westerners are constantly assaulted with is the use of this term jihad," she says in an interview at her condominium overlooking Charleston's peaceful Ashley River. "The central jihad for all of us is to constantly improve and be the best we can be and try to adhere to some very pure ideals."
She also hopes it might help dispel what she says is a misconception that Islam advocates violence.
"This is absolutely heinous and false," she says. "Islam values life above anything. We are taught in the Quran that man's right to life exceeds even God's rights on man."
Ahmed's "In the Land of Invisible Women," will be published next month by Sourcebooks Landmark.
"The book is important because in this country, in the sound-bite generation, stereotypes pretty much prevail," said Sourcebooks Inc.'s Tony Viardo. "When Americans in general think of Muslims, really the radical Islam aspect of it comes to mind. Where we think this book is really important is that is humanizes Muslims and builds bridges between the two cultures."
Ahmed, who is of Pakistani descent, was born in Britain and had advanced medical training in the United States.
In Saudi Arabia, she found a land with tremendous wealth, but one where women remain largely invisible, even highly trained female doctors working side-by-side with male colleagues. It is a land where women must, in public, be shrouded in an abbayah, a flowing robe; where women can't drive and must have a male relative or guardian's permission to travel.
She stayed in Saudi Arabia from 1999 through 2001, leaving in the months after the 2001 terror attacks. She writes of her anger in seeing highly trained physicians laughing and others buying cakes and celebrating the news of 9-11.
But she also found a connection she had never known to a religion she had practised her entire life after going on the Hajj to the holiest sites of Islam.
There is much confusion about that religion, she says.
In modern Islam, she says, "you see so very few articulate moderate voices coming out. Where are the movies? Where is the music? Where is the poetry? Where are the books to counteract some of this (violent) ideology?"
A decade ago, Ahmed, a pulmonologist and sleep specialist, had to decide about her future when her visa to practice medicine in the United States expired. She wanted to practice in the Middle East because its medicine was more American than in her native Britain. She told a recruiter she would go anywhere but Saudi Arabia.
But then came an offer to practise medicine in a modern hospital drawing patients from all of Saudi Arabia. She took it, despite initial misgivings about living in a land of strict religious rules where the death penalty is administered by decapitation.
"'What's a year?"' I remembered thinking to myself, as I had signed the contract recklessly, flicking through pages ignoring bold capitals announcing the death penalty," she writes. "In a thoughtless flourish I found myself now subject to the laws of Saudi Arabia, decapitation included."
Ahmed says it was a paradox to live in a land with such rigid laws but one that was enthralling and spiritual.
She made the Hajj to Mecca, the journey every able-bodied Muslim who can afford it is obligated to make at least once.
Many make preparations months and even years in advance. Ahmed went almost by chance, deciding only a week before when a colleague convinced her that she might never get another chance.
Approaching the Ka'ba, she felt small among the tens of thousands of pilgrims.
"The next thing you notice is the diversity of race and physical features and age and nationalities and languages, and that's when I immediately felt at home," she says. "If you don't quite fit in with the culture or you don't fit in quite with the family where you come from, you have a place you fit in spiritually."
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