Saudi Arabia: Contrasts and Contradictions Never Cease

I recently received a set of articles which showcased the contrasts and contradictions which exist in every facet of Saudi Arabia.  One of the contrasts is that there remain women in the Kingdom who do not believe in ever showing their faces once their menses began.  This is a cultural custom yet some judges have upheld decisions that a woman has been able to obtain a divorce from a husband who has attempted to see his wife’s face without her consent.

Why would such a custom have started in the first place?  Is it really natural for a man to never see the face of his wife?  Or natural for a brother or a father to never see the face of his sister or daughter again once she started her menses?  What is it specific to Nej’d that such a custom can continue to exist in today’s time?  In other parts of the Kingdom today as well as in the past prior to the discovery of oil, the Bedouin woman would work outside with a scarf or shawl to shield her from the piercing sun as needed.  Otherwise her face remained uncovered and unobscured.

When the article cited below in its entirety states how these men father children with the wife whose face is always covered, that makes me squirm.  For is not intimacy and the gift of giving one’s self to the other the most precious gift of all, prior to the birth of children?  Yet how can there be the same connection of intimacy when the face remains unknown?

I try to understand the culture where such customs began and continue to exist.  Yet it still seems to me that by withholding ones face from a spouse would place a barrier which encourages a lack of full intimacy and partnership regardless of how many children have been conceived.  As I read the article and came to the portion where a husband describes how he could not identify his own wife in death until her face was covered saddened me.  I believe I would respect a woman who adheres to such a custom but I don’t know if I would be able to ever understand it.

Can any American Bedu readers shed light on exactly how such a tradition started and why?  Additionally I look forward to hearing the views of readers about this cultural tradition which remains in practice today.

Saudi women’s veil versus modernity

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


  • 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.”



21 Responses

  1. It is indeed a strange custom. It is customary in some marriages for a couple not to see one another’s private parts. Perhaps what you describe could be better understood if we were to assume that other peoples’ defintion of bodily privacy extended to, or involved, parts of the body not normally deemed private.

    It was mentioned, on another blog, that some women who cover their faces in this manner are, neverthless, not prudish about breastfeeding openly, sometimes in the presence of men.

    Perhaps the situation of the husband could be likened to that of a blind man.

  2. I think the following suggests that they view the face as highly private since the students’ recations are what you might expect if someone else were to be expected to reveal a part of their body deemed private.
    “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.”

  3. This blog explains an incident that happened to me. I am a hygienist and I had a patient come in and flip the veil up, she did not take it off so I could work. I did not understand why in a closed room with NO men that she did not take it off. I worked fine with it flipped but felt strange that I did not get that connection of seeing her face.
    I see more and more women with out a veil.

  4. Can I just say something?

    this is a sick tradition.

    It sickens me to hear of these stories. I get acid reflux just thinking how a woman could possibly be programmed from childhood to think that their face is something private that cannot be shared even with those she loves.

    I cannot understand why Saudi scholars continue to enable such a sickening disease. If anything this kind of extreme face veiling should be banned.

    (I’d go so far as to say that the niqab should be banned, but I’ll get the typical responses)

    The tribe can control the emotions between married couples and make sure that they cannot fully love and be intimate with each other.


  5. In our society, too we need to examine our cultural practices. I don’t think we have anything as extreme as face covering, but an outsider looking at the US might wonder about some kinds of plastic surgery and ask why kind of people allow themselves to go under the knife for frivolous reasons.

  6. Very interesting comments all around. The analogy of the husband to a blind man struck a chord. Yet it would not only be the husband who is in essence blind, but any children as well.

    I agree with occupied that the tradition does preclude a couple from achieving a deeper sense of intimacy.

  7. I am so confused by this post that I feel like crying and being sick. What is wrong with people? My husband on a recent trip to Saudi said that some of the population literally seem inhuman and yet he wasnt rude enough to say animals.

    To me it just seems similar to animals in the sense of not being able to think and rationalize but they are worse than animals because Allah s.w.t. DID IN FACT give us the ability to think and in fact encourages us to do so.

    There is no way that anyone can explain to me how a woman could possibly be fooled into thinking that this is modesty. I wear the niqab and of course understand the Islamic thinking behind it, and yet there is no possible way I can understand this.

    It is just unwomanly to deny a child the sight of his mother, I cant bear to think how that child came to be!!!!!!!!!!!!! I know that most Arab couples do not marry for love, but for crying out loud, they expect it to come and with that or perhaps beacause of intimacy! I am shocked beyond belief and honestly disgusted…………..

    Perhaps I am taking this to far, I just dont understand and dont want to.

    Rasulallah s.a.w.s. said to men that before intimacy to have forplay such as kissing or coming with flowers (something to that effect) imagine having sex but not seeing her! I am flabbergasted and repulsed……..

    And truthfully women are the ones responsible for this idiotness, I would rather have my feet bound like in China or be circumcised!

  8. Even most Saudis have trouble understanding this.

    It puzzles me how this could happen. The thing is the religious establishment condems this act of covering to the husband.

    But as seen in Saudi, Cultural practice seems to weight heavier than religion in some cases.

    The judge cannot force a woman to uncover to her husband, its her choice, all he can do is tell her its not right and accept the divorce if she asks for it.

  9. I am wondering do they look in the mirror? Does the woman even ever see her own face?

  10. I think around the world there have always been beautification rituals or cultural practices that do not make any sense whatsoever to those outside that group. It’s just mind boggling to think a husband did not even recognize his OWN wife without her veil. Personally I dislike the niqab because I grew up in the West with it’s boggy men, thieves, bad men (even our heroes who mask to keep themselves mysteriously hidden kind of bother me at times) cultural references. To many in the US who are used to fairy tales, movies, and television/literary shows bad men as masked men. So when I see a niqabi my first gut reaction before the brain kicks in is that of fear and disgust. That I think is one of the things driving the whole European ban or soon to be banned niqabi laws.

  11. ASTOUNDING!!… i really couldn’t believe that such traditions are present. It defies logic and Islam. Not to mention natural behavior. I think with time it will wear out.

  12. i think the key word in Saleh’s words in the article is ” we have no choice”….

  13. As I understand from earlier talks on this subject with women in Saudi is that they do remove their veil to wash and clean but in privacy. Some of the women who veil full time but are perhaps more modern in their thinking will unveil with other women but only when they are away from any family, tribe or friends that may know them. However there are others like the younger women described in the article who were so uncomfortable with removing their veil that they left school.

  14. I have never understood this custom but to based on nothing more than pure ignorance! And I’ve wondered how much of this has to do with low self- esteem and/or self-consciousness?

    In my years here in Saudi I have met a few Bedu women who keep their faces covered in front of everyone, their own family included.

    When questioned about their actions they ignorantly justify it by saying it is haram to uncover! I felt so sorry for them albeit briefly. I mean really…WHERE IS THEIR COMMON SENSE?

    Years ago I went to a ladies only fun park. I was sitting happily with a group of friends and we (as most women in the park) were completely uncovered sitting comfortably and enjoying the night air. A group of young women passed us in a very peculiar way. They were uncovered, no abayahs, no head scarves yet they had their faces covered…albeit with rather flimsy, thin niqabs. They were dressed provocatively with very curvaceous bodies and wore lovely eye make-up. They laughed and talked loudly as if they didn’t have a care in the world. My friends and I were puzzled. These women were surrounded by women only. They had left little else to the imagination so what exactly was stopping them from removing their flimsy niqabs, which incidentally sometimes showed the sides of their made up faces!??? My friends and I stayed a few hours at this park as did the aforementioned women and they never once (at least not in our view) removed their face coverings! Very odd indeed!

  15. @Simple Saudi.

    please provide a reference to scholars who have vocally condemned this practice.

    Thank you.

  16. I can imagine doing it as revenge.
    If I am to be a subhuman non-sentient being, I am not allowed legal identity, I am married off to some dude I don’t know and don’t care for, my children are not mine, I have no say about my own future or any part of my life?
    Then nobody will ever get to see my face again. The only thing in my life left I would have control over.

  17. maybe these women have big hairy noses with boogers…and blackheads the size of craters after she sqeezes them…if she does. no, it’s her breath, ya..gia in jed

  18. @gia,


  19. @Gia,
    Regardless of what we might think of such a custom, what you said doesn’t befit a Muslim.Isn’t that, after all, what some folks hostile to niqab say about the women who wear it?

    I remember when I was in school,there was a teacher who accompanied us on a school trip to Paris. She went to great lengths, in spite of her advanced age, to emulate the Barbie doll type look and was also said to have gone under the knife-it certainly looked like she had.

    A couple of my classmates, in that Russian run hotel plastred with Cyrillic notices, had to make some request of her which involved knocking on her door. For a few moments my classmates wondered whether they’d knocked on some other guests door in error. Without her makeup she looked radically different.

    We all wear masks of some sort, even if it’s not a physical mask it might be a metaphorical mask to which the likes of Frantz Fanon refer to.

  20. Never seen his wife’s face? bizzare.

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