Saudi women’s veil versus modernity

Husband has not seen wife’s face despite 10 years of marriage

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.”
 

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