Mar 20 2011
Saudi women’s veil versus modernity
Husband has not seen wife’s face despite 10 years of marriage
By Staff , Published Sunday, December 05, 2010
After nearly 10 years of marriage that produced five children, Mufleh Mohammed of Saudi Arabia still has not seen his wife’s face.
Mohammed Hilal, another Saudi husband, could not identify his wife who was killed in a road crash until her veil was put back on her face.
Mufleh and Mohammed are among many Saudi men who have never seen the face of their wives as they insist on sticking to ancient tradition of keeping their face covered even in front of their relatives or husbands in defiance of ongoing changes brought about by the advent of oil and a massive foreign influx.
In a report on such habits, the Saudi Arabic language daily Alhayat said many women in the conservative Gulf Kingdom that controls nearly a quarter of the world’s oil still defy the winds of change and stick to their ancestors’ traditions.
Even after they get married, they never remove their burqu (face veil), leaving their husbands guessing how they look like. Mufleh is one of those husbands.
“My wife still keeps her face covered all the time even in front of her family and relatives because she has been accustomed to this since she was a child… I have to respect her wishes and not insist on seeing her face,” he said.
“I cannot deny that the woman’s habit to cover her face in front of her family and inside her house is a tradition that my tribe had inherited from our ancestors… but I have thought that social changes and openness will alter some of these habits since they have nothing to do with Islam… but they have not changed… although I have been married to my wife for nearly 10 years and have five children from her, I have not seen her face even once in my life.”
Most Muslim women in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf crude producers still wear face veils as part of long-standing traditions dating back before oil was struck more than half a century ago. But some of them, mainly the new generations, have started to unveil their faces while keeping a scarf on their heads.
In Saudi Arabia, local women taking off their face veils in public still face the wrath of the feared Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, which usually deploys thousands of its members in public places to warn unveiled women. Women with “seditious” eyes must fully cover their faces.
Such practices run against recent statements by an outspoken Commission official, who said Saudi women do not have to veil their faces.
Sheikh Ahmed Al Ghamdi, head of the Commission’s Makkah branch, also said there was nothing in Islam to prevent women from driving.
Alhayat said Mohammed was another one among many Saudi husbands who are deprived from seeing the face of their wives.
“I could not identify my wife after she was killed in a road accidents…I asked security women to put the veil back on her face…after they did so, I recognized her and indentified the dead person as my wife,” he said.
The paper quoted an unnamed teacher at a literacy centre as saying she succeeded in persuading two of her female students to uncover their faces in class. But after a while, she noticed that they could no longer concentrate.
“They kept blushing and turning their faces away from their class mates although it is a female centre… after a few days, they quit the school,” she said.
Another Saudi women identified only as Ibta said she had agreed to her husband’s request to take her face veil off at home despite criticism from relatives. “My husband is an educated man so I agreed to his request… but my relatives then started to look at me with contempt and one of them later shouted in my face and said ‘shame on you… how could you do this,’….I stood their criticism with my husband’s encouragement,” she said.
But another Saudi man was not as open as Ibta’s husband. “I don’t see anything wrong if our women stick to old traditions,” said the man, identified as Saleh.
“Every society has its own traditions and habits and we have no choice but to respect them… we do not force them to do anything they don’t like, because some women in our tribe keep their face veil and some do not.”
From that article I remembered a Saudi woman from Riadh who saw the face of her mother the first time at her funeral, secretly she lifted the veil (as told in her life story, a book) .
How did it come that women in ancient times started wearing a full face veil in the vast Arabian desert? People inhabiting that huge inhospitable desert land were in the majority nomads living from their sheep flock and camels. Camel was and still is the Bedouins best friend. It is the “ship if the desert” and it is the source of meat and drink, milk and in Emergency (only*) blood from a vein on the neck when no water is available while a camel can survive for days with one drinking. Small farming communities existed in the oasis and in the coastal cities Mecca and some others flourished import-export caravan trade with spices and silk and other luxury items, badly needed vanities like pearls and perfumes by spoiled circles in Europe and elsewhere between the Mediterranean Sea and the East as far as the ancient China.
Let’s imagine the men going about their business looking after the animals. Tribal conflicts were every day matters, blood revenge the order. In that scenario especially the women were vulnerable and I can imagine why it became necessary to protect them, especially if they were still young and beautiful.
Bloody tribal conflicts were the menace of those times and until today tribal thinking is still strong in some areas. In fact Prof. Mohamed was invited to Medina as arbitrator between warring tribes and was able to achieve peace between them, the main reason why people of Medina converted to the religion he was preaching, to Islam.
It was the custom in those times that after lost battles women and men were taken prisoners and often sold as slaves, sometimes the women were married legally. We can understand why women needed special protection in those days.
Small scale model of an ancient Arabian city, at Tayabat House in Jeddah
But times change. Today those countries are predominantly Muslim and it should be without thinking clear that women are safe from male harassment without covering their faces. From religious point of view the face veil is not required and the most powerful argument against it is the fact that when women perform the ritual pilgrimage (Omrah and Hajj, equally required from both sexes if affordable), they are not allowed to cover their faces in the Grand Mosque of Mecca. And they mix with men while doing it. In the Quran there are only two Suras, which mention in some way the veil. One of them says that the wives of the Prophet are not like other women and one should talk to them through a shade. A word that can be translated in different ways, but the root word can be any garment, a curtains or similar. The face veil comes from that, a shade, a covering, a curtain.
The other verse is in my opinion misinterpreted. While the Prophet was talking about covering bare breast (often the case while nursing, especially slave women) some are interpreting it meaning as an order to draw the head cloth (worn against the heat of the sun) over the face to the bare breast.
This is my personal view and I can see that I am not alone in this. I think that to develop a country it cannot forgo the huge potential of half of its population! In those oil rich countries today the girls are getting an education but they find it really hard to get a job. Only in education as teachers in girl’s schools or as women doctors were jobs open, and only if male relatives agreed. But slowly they are getting out and taking on office and administration jobs that until now were done by foreign male employees.
And they are driving cars, occasionally. Until recently foreign male drivers were hired from abroad which is actually Totally against the same old custom that women cannot be in the same room without males who are not close relatives. But it is still just a modest beginning in many areas.
Not to forget the fact that the huge number of foreign employees and workers send their savings back home for families they are supporting. That money is away from the country where it would otherwise stimulate development of the society. The good side of it is of course that poorer countries without oil reserves are profiting from it.
(* Blood and the meat of swine and some other animals are forbidden in islam, but in order to save lives in emergency allowed.)
Salaam for later