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Saudi women have been burdened with several social customs imposed on them as though they were inviolable religious injunctions. Islam, apparently, is not the only factor shaping the Saudi social life, as many outsiders or even some within the Saudi society itself are inclined to assume. It is closely tied to the local customs and traditions.

It has also been observed that such customs have a tighter hold on the Saudi people than the religious values, particularly in case of some conflict between the customs and the religious teachings. For instance, Islam does not insist that a woman cover her face while wearing a hijab (head cover). At the same time, women of conservative or tribal families conceal their faces as though they are observing an indisputable religious rule. Any one who dares to challenge the practice would be punished psychologically and at times even physically. While Islamic law permits a man to look at a woman when he is seeking a spouse, some Saudi families deny this right, resulting in bizarre situations such as a bridegroom being unable to identify his bride. In some extreme cases a husband would never be able to identify his own wife because certain tribes do not allow women to lift their niqab (face-cover) even in front of their husbands.

Another Saudi custom, not related to Islam, is brides demanding fabulous sums of money as dowry, particularly if the suitor belonged to a different tribe or region. Regional or tribal spirit pervades some sections of Saudi society to such an extent that the major Islamic principle that the noblest of the people are the most pious is very often ignored. The present Saudi society regards family, wealth and position as the yardsticks to measure the nobility of a man.

I have been a witness to how an inconvenient social practice the face veil can become in a different social environment. A married Saudi woman used to attend classes in an American college where I was studying. She was fully veiled including her face, hands and feet. She was religious and well behaved but presented a picture of depression and sadness. However, after a few weeks she used to remove her face-veil and gloves the moment she entered the college campus. She would not veil her face until the time her husband came to pick her up. I believed then that wearing or not wearing a veil was a purely personal matter. However I observed a markedly positive change in her classroom conduct with increased participation in the academic activities after she removed her face-veil.

I would like to point out the psychological significance of the change in her without criticizing a cultural tradition or religious practice.

A social custom would lose its meaning in another society where that custom would be judged by a set of different values. After all a people’s evaluation of a custom is based on a set of social and psychological factors that vary from culture to culture. This woman felt very comfortable covering her face while she was in Saudi Arabia. But when she moved to a different society, the US, she had to interact with men of different cultural and religious values. In this new society body language plays a major role in human communications. In US or any other society, a man or woman finds it very difficult to communicate with a woman if her face is fully covered. This naturally leaves a woman with face-cover in a state of depression and isolation. The matter becomes worse for the Saudi woman when the Muslim women from other countries appear without a face-veil. The inevitable result is that others label Saudis as "rigid," "fundamentalist," "alien," or "barbarian."

This Saudi woman might have suffered too much stress and tension while attending classes but would not dare discuss her difficulties with her Saudi husband. Instead she removed the veil when her husband was away.

A Saudi woman veils her face because it is the expression of modesty and dignified conduct in the Saudi society. In the US society where she is studying, leaving the face uncovered is never considered an immodest act. In the American culture, a woman wearing her skirt just below the knees is considered more modest than the one wearing the skirt above the knees, while in Saudi Arabia covering the face and head is considered more modest than covering the head leaving the face unveiled.

Modesty is a relative term with varying definitions depending on the society in which one lives. The husband of the Saudi woman did not understand the relative meaning of the modesty but like several other Saudis transplanted the Saudi modesty to the United States on the understanding that face-veil is an inviolable religious stipulation. Islam is not a religion with complex customs though some people strive it to make it a difficult one to live with. The woman’s husband did not hesitate to shave off his beard when he found that his beard was unacceptable to some of his teachers at his college. Ironically enough, there is a contradiction here. The Prophet, peace be upon him, recommended wearing a beard as a virtuous act.

The husband removed it in order to win social acceptability while he did not allow his wife to remove her face-veil though it did not involve violating any religious rules.

This happens often at most places away from the watchful eyes of the tribe or family. Saudi women remove their face-veil because they are fully aware that the face-veil is only a cultural practice and not a religious order. When they find themselves in a changed cultural situation as required by their job, studies or some other factor, Saudi women can be seen making some adjustments in their cultural behavior without compromising their religious values.

– Dr. Maha Al-Hujailan is a medical researcher at King Khaled University Hospital in Riyadh.


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