By Ila Ananya
By now, we probably know a lot about Eman Ahmed.
We’ve been told that she apparently weighed 500 kg and hadn’t left Egypt (where she lives) in 20 years (some say 25), and that in February 2017, she was flown to Mumbai for a bariatric surgery in an EgyptAir cargo plane. India Today has even referred to her weighing a “mammoth 176 kilos”. Some reports say a crane, a modified goods truck, and more than 100 labourers were needed to help shift her from Mumbai airport to Saifee Hospital, whose first floor was modified to create an open balcony into which Ahmed’s bed could be lifted by the crane.
Essentially, we have a blow-by-blow account of Ahmed’s life, with photographs, videos, and constant — almost fascinated — updates on her weight. So many details, when we probably shouldn’t know even her name. After all, Ahmed is one of the thousands of medical tourists who make up what is considered a growing sector in India, one that a consultancy report estimates will grow to $8 billion by 2020. And all of them are entitled to privacy, particularly when they are ill and far away from home.
Unfortunately, Ahmed’s story has dovetailed into two of India’s favourite obsessions — a woman’s weight and playing saviour.
The media (not just in India but everywhere) recognises only two types of fat women. One is the funny fat kind, making fun of herself and ready to be made fun of. The other kind of fat woman who is acceptable, belongs to the “before” section of a dramatic makeover.
In the first few weeks of reporting, the media was drooling over the tasty contrasts that Ahmed’s story offered. After all, as they report, Ahmed went from being confined to her bedroom in Egypt with “a view only of her ceiling”, to losing 50 kg in a hospital in February, which meant that she could fit into a wheelchair.
By April, news reports raved that she had lost 250 kg in all, and had even “touched her face with her own hand, following which she blew a kiss to her doctor”. By now, there was no restraint, and Ahmed was not a person anymore. Zee News also ran a 20-minute-long segment on her, using her as a cautionary tale to warn everyone in India about obesity, assuming and claiming that she was absolutely in control of her weight gain.
Just look at the headlines during this period. Except for those run by The Week (who had a whole spread on her), we couldn’t find too many pieces with headlines that didn’t refer to Ahmed as “the world’s heaviest woman” — a title that appears to have become permanent once it was employed. If Times of India ran the headline, “India to help with medical visa for Egyptian who’s world’s heaviest woman”, it soon became “Here’s how to lose 200 kg in 6 months: World’s heaviest woman’s challenge” in Hindustan Times. If you thought this would stop once Ahmed’s surgery was completed, headlines such as India Today’s, only became about how Ahmed is “no longer” the world’s heaviest woman.
Unfortunately for the media, the twist was not one they had planned.
Different media reports have described her as having a combination of medical problems, including lymphedema, a chronic condition in which excess lymph nodes collect in tissues causing swelling and elephantiasis. None of these health crises have headline-chic, though. What the headlines can’t get enough of is the imagined enormity of Ahmed. Look as hard as you like, it’s hard to find anything about Ahmed the person. All you will learn is how much she weighed and her medical history, and that the money to bring her to India was crowdfunded.
Ahmed who is 36-years-old and lives in Alexandria, has transmuted into a carnival attraction — even the name the media has given her (“the world’s heaviest woman”) will remind you of a poster from a travelling circus or a Victorian carnival. Zee News reported that Hrithik Roshan would love to dance with her. The question is, is Ahmed dying to dance with Roshan? We don’t know. Particularly now, after the latest twist.
Last week, Ahmed had moved to a hospital in Abu Dhabi after her bariatric surgery in India. But the latest twist to what has become an obsessive media spectacle is that her sister, Shaimaa Selim, has announced that the Saifee hospital in Mumbai lied about the extent of her sister’s weight loss to cash in on the media sensation that her story has become, and that she has been “destroyed” by treatment.
It’s true that bariatric surgery can have complications (including haemorrhage, blood clots and bowel obstruction). The Guardian also reports Selim as saying, “Since [the surgery] she is not able to talk, she is connected to this feeding tube… she is not able to move, she looks bluish, no improvement”, and that the doctors had ignored a possible stroke. The doctors who treated Ahmed have reportedly resigned in protest, and are demanding an apology from Selim.
Shobhaa De points out, “Public opinion damned Shaimaa [Selim] as all sorts of unsavoury stories did the rounds…Whatever she said was derisively dismissed and there were insinuations galore to suggest she was a money-grabbing sibling, who was having such a good time in Mumbai that she had no intention of leaving in a hurry”.
Strangely at this point, the media mostly just wanted to quote Muffazal Lakdawala, (Ahmed’s doctor) on the improvement Ahmed was showing. Because who trusts fat women or their relatives? Suddenly, the national media was that uncle whose pot-belly precedes him by 10 minutes, but lectures women about “letting go” after marriage. Mumbai Mirror, which had unending coverage on Eman, even ran a piece with the headline, “No smile from Eman saddens her doctor”, as if to say “so sad, after all his efforts, he only got accusations”. Everyone just wanted Eman to lose weight for her own good.
So, we had a good stew going with the fat woman, unreliable woman and good doctor ingredients. What would give it a solid tadka? The delicious MSG of nationalism (not to be confused with the nationalism of MSG).
On April 25, Midday ran a story quoting Selim’s serious complaints at length. Selim also alleged that doctors at Saifee Hospital (who had continuously released photos and videos of Ahmed – and it’s unclear whether they had consent to do so) had been lying about the extent of her weight loss. The doctors say Ahmed lost 250 kg. Selim says they did not have the facility to weigh her before surgery.
It also quoted Lakdawala as claiming that officials in the Egyptian consulate were “ashamed” with Selim’s behaviour. You know we can all think of things that the government machinery of Egypt should be ashamed of. How about this or this? But oh no, sharper than a serpent’s tooth is a mythical overeater’s sibling.
Do pay attention to a significant allegation from Selim. She said that it “was Dr Lakdawala who approached her in Egypt, offering to perform a life-saving procedure. ‘I didn’t even know Dr Lakdawala. It was he who approached me. He asked me to tell the world that I sought him out’.”
If you doubt that nationalism is boiling away in the Eman Ahmed stew, do check out the comments under a Hindustan Times story. The comments seem to indicate how Ahmed should be grateful to India, the mighty saviour. One comment, for instance, says, “Why don’t they just deport her right away”, before, of course, going on to calling her an “ungrateful muzzie wretch” and saying, “they bite the hand that feed them”.
Yes, come to India, all you medical tourists. Ideally, you should be white and non-Muslim, but if you insist on being otherwise, please be something we can tack on grotesque headlines to.