RIYADH, 4 September 2003 — One of the most remarkable among the many and varied tribal customs that survive in Saudi Arabia is one that forbids anyone at all seeing a woman’s face. In parts of the Al-Kharj region, not even a woman’s husband and children are permitted to see her face uncovered.
In interviews with Al-Kharj residents, Sayidaty, a sister publication of Arab News, heard that often the first time even a daughter sees her mother’s face is after the mother’s death.
“I always dreamt of seeing my mother’s face because I am a woman like her,” resident Hissa Al-Massareir told the magazine. “But because of customs and traditions in the family, this was impossible. It was only when my mother died that my dream came true,” she added.
Al-Kharj native Muhammad Abdullah has never seen his wife’s face. “We’ve been married for ten years and I’ve never seen it, not once,” he said. The burqa — the garment that covers all of head except the eyes — “is stuck to her face 24 hours a day,” he said.
This is not for want of trying. “One day I tried to remove the burqa while she was asleep. She was furious. She left and went to her parents’ house and returned only after I had signed an undertaking that I would never attempt to do such a thing again.”
Saud Al-Otaibi also found his wife fiercely loyal to the custom. “I tried to blackmail my wife by saying I’d marry another woman if she didn’t show me her face,” he said.
But he was in for a surprise. “Instead of giving in she said, all right, marry someone else. And she set me up with a friend of hers who wasn’t so strict in her adherence to the custom, and I married her.”
Others report that they have become so used to not seeing the faces of even close relatives that they would be shocked if they did.
“I have never seen my mother’s face,” Ahmed Bikhait told the magazine. “I tried many times but was always rebuffed. By now I’d think it weird if she suddenly unveiled her face,” he added.
A woman in her sixties explained that this tradition, like many others, is disappearing fast. “We have inherited these customs from time immemorial, and they are normal to us,” she said. “But of course our children don’t believe in these traditions any more.” The imam of a mosque in the region, Ayid Al-Dosari, said there was no sin in a woman unveiling her face to her husband or children and the phenomenon had to be attributed to tribal customs rather than religion.
“This has nothing to do with Islam,” he said. “It’s simply one of the traditions that some tribes follow.
“In Islam, a husband can, of course, see the whole of his wife’s body. The face is the least he’s entitled to,” he said.
“But these are inherited customs and these people follow them. There is nothing I can do about that,” he added.