You'd think that after working for 13 years in an intensive English program where 30% of the students are Saudi that I'd know more about Saudis than I do. The truth is that they're still mysteries to me in many ways. This book was quite an eye-opener for me because it set apart some of the concepts that are culturally Saudi versus being inherent to Islam. I've read other books such as Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women which were written by non-Muslims who visited Saudi Arabia. However, the distinction this book has is that it was written by a Pakistani/British/American Muslim woman who went to Saudi Arabia to work in the medical profession. As such, I think it probably gives a much more fair analysis because she didn't go into Saudi Arabia as a gawker.
I think that many times non-Muslims tend to lump every Muslim from the Middle East into the same category and assume that every Muslim country is the same as Saudi Arabia. I have to admit that even having had Muslim students for so many years and even having traveled to a Muslim country, I've not made the distinctions I should have between them. There's a strong difference between what is dictated by law in some countries like Saudi Arabia and what is dictated by religion. When left up to choice rather than law, you'll find some Muslim women who dress fairly western, others who choose to cover all but their face, and still others who prefer covering all but their eyes.
Qanta, the author of this book, was invited inside of many Saudi homes during her stay in the Kingdom. She learned some very interesting things as she talked candidly with her hosts. One thing that was shocking to me was that, as late as 1978, Saudi women were not required to cover their heads in public. This requirement came about as a result of the alliance between the king and Wahabis in government. The Wahabis are an extremely conservative sect of Islam. It's members of this group that wanders around public places as religious police. My students tell me that they can demand to see your marriage license and throw you in jail if you're together with your spouse in public without it.
Qanta went into Saudi Arabia expecting to find more Muslim women, especially in the medical profession, who thought more like she did. And she did find women who wished for more freedoms outside of their homes and at least one woman in the medical field who had decided to stay single so that she could maintain her autonomy. However, she found great differences as well. She was surprised that a female surgeon would be willing to marry in order to be allowed by her father to study abroad. She also couldn't wrap her mind around why an intelligent woman would divorce her husband because he wanted a second wife yet dream about becoming someone else's second wife so she'd be mainly free with the sugar daddy benefits of marriage. Even when she thought she found a western-minded doctor to be the object of her affections, she discovered his truly Saudi roots when he insisted on driving her and colleagues over 100mph on the highway for fun.
One experience that I really enjoyed having through Qanta was her hajj to Mecca. I never realized what preparations go into the journey and that there are so many rituals to fulfill while there. It was interesting to see her extremely logical mind be softened by the spiritual experience that she had there.
In contrast, I was very shocked at the experience Qanta had a few days before the end of her work in Saudi Arabia on September 11, 2001. I really did not expect her intellectual colleagues, many who studied medicine abroad, to react as they did to the twin towers falling in New York City. Many clapped, laughed, and said the USA deserved what they got. One person even bought a cake to celebrate. Those who said that the USA deserved what they got said that it was because the US supports Israel and that they've not cared when other countries have been bombed by terrorists. This brought so many memories flooding back from some of our own Muslim students on that day and the FBI visits afterward.
I finished that chapter feeling very sick to my stomach. I can't imagine being in that type of threatening environment on that day as a single woman from New York City. Yet, Qanta returned later to Saudi Arabia and said that so many of the Saudis' opinions of the USA had changed since she was last there. More had studied abroad and they felt more connected to the world through the internet. She seemed to think that if the same event happened today that the reaction would be different. I hope so.
I strongly recommend this book to anyone curious about Saudi culture through the eyes of a western female Muslim. Her experience was probably more extreme living in the more conservative Riyadh than it might have been if she'd worked in a more liberal city like Jeddah. But I think that's one of the things that makes her story interesting.