Monday, May 08, 2006

Plastic Surgery Under the Veil 

Many Saudi women live their lives hidden under veil and burqa. We are told they are happy about this -- that it frees them from that nasty Western focus on female appearance and sexuality, helping to really empower them as women in their own right.

I must confess, I was a bit skeptical of these girl-power, female-empowerment claims. I'll admit they seemed to me little more than weak apologetics for keeping an entire society's wives and wombs under control and out of sight, especially when I read about things like the fact that many Saudi men don't even want their wives' and sisters' names used or even known in public:

Nobody disagreed that traditions, mostly accumulated in the last 30 years, insult women by hiding their names. We disagreed on explaining the tradition.

The writer who came from the tribal South assured us that it didn't use to be like that 30 years ago. The men in his village knew all women by the face and name. Today, thanks to the neo-Islamists, they all cover their faces and hide their names

Instead of referring to your wife, sister or daughter by their given names, you say my folks or dependents, he noted. "Last week, I was called to my son's school because he was in a fight. Why? His classmate kept telling him his sister's name. Yes, she is my sister; my son's response was every time. Finally, my son told his friend: I know your sister's name, too. The boy went bananas and into big fight. What my son didn't know in the beginning of this episode was that the boy meant it as an insult. This was common. It shouldn't, and we, opinion and society leaders, should fight it. The least we could do is to announce our daughters' names in their wedding invitation cards."

[Another eye-opening story via Arab News who, whatever their views about Israel, regularly provide informed insight into Saudi culture.]
Maybe you can see why that would leave me skeptical, wondering whether all this veiling and hiding is really for the unnamed and unknown womens' benefit.

But now I'm not even skeptical anymore. It appears Saudi propenents of veiled modesty are succeeding in combining conflicting worlds -- MTV meets Taliban -- and despite the plastic surgery, it's getting ugly:

The demand for plastic surgery in the Kingdom has increased at least tenfold in the last five years, according to Dr. Mamdooh Ashy, a consultant plastic surgeon at a Jeddah-based private clinic.

Women make up 70 percent of the demand, he said, adding that the Kingdom's market is competing with Europe and America in the number of patients.
One could be forgiven for wondering why these fully empowered women, free of decadent Western focus on female beauty and sexuality, would feel the need to surgically improve their veiled appearance. Is it to get a part in Saudi music videos? Is it to be pretty enough to appear on the cover of a Saudi fashion magazine? No, those are burdens only Western women are free to carry.

As far as I can tell it must be to please their husbands, who would be among the few who see their wives' unveiled and unburqa'd appearance. In which case, how uplifting has all that veiling and hiding been if Saudi women still feel a Western-level need to modify their appearance to please the men who supposedly love them so purely?

Apologetics aside, veiling is not the answer if all it does is free men to continue nurturing their basest natures. And yes, while Judaism also has a concept of female modesty, I would say that it too is only really leveraged when it is coupled with a change in male attitude.

I wish Arab News continued success in pulling the veil back from the eyes of Saudi society, and that their stories should begin to exert a little real influence for change. Saudi Arabia has tapped its oil wells but not its human potential, and that's a shame.

If you really, really liked this -- or even really, really hated it -- there's lots more: