Monday, June 9, 2008

Beauty in Arabia

For Saudi Arabian women, physical beauty is vitally important. The greatest asset that an Arabian woman has here in this society is a pretty face. I learned this early on when I first met my husband back in our mid-20s, when I was much thinner, cuter, and younger. During get togethers with his Middle Eastern friends, the topic of pretty women would often come up, and they all always agreed that a woman’s physical beauty is much more important than her intelligence or her personality. I remember thinking how shallow Middle Eastern men must be if the attribute of a nice looking physical appearance was really what they look for most in a woman.
“What if she’s pretty but a real bitch?” I asked several of Adnan’s friends. “It doesn’t matter as long as she is beautiful,” I recall them saying. I had a very difficult time understanding this perspective of theirs. Personality and intelligence were the qualities I had always found most attractive about a man. Of course there had to be some kind of physical attraction as well, but that certainly wasn’t what I ever considered the most important thing I looked for in a man.

Now that I have been living here in this country for eight months, it has shed some light on my understanding of why Saudi men place such a high value on a woman’s beauty. Since dating is not allowed and many couples barely know each other when they decide to wed, first impressions are of the utmost importance, and being fair of face weighs in heavily in this situation. It’s no secret here that a beautiful woman is much more desirable for marriage than one who is not so pleasing to look at. Physical beauty is really all Arab men have to go on to make their decision about who they want to spend the rest of their lives with. The number one goal in life for most women here is to marry, have children and take care of her family. The Koran commands marriage. In fact, it even instructs men to marry not based on the female's beauty or wealth but on her devotion to the religion. This is in direct contradiction to my knowledge of what Saudi men look for in a mate.
Most women here in Arabia have very long and lustrous hair. Everybody in the world knows that most men prefer long flowing hair over short hair. I had wondered why many women wore the hijab (head scarf) wrapped so tightly around their heads, which is not exactly the most flattering way they could wear it. And basically, this is the reason they wear it that way - so they WON'T look attractive. I have also since learned that Muslim women are not supposed to wear their hair on top of their heads to give them height, as this makes them appear more attractive when wearing the hijab (hair covering) and this is against Islam. I have seen some younger women in the malls who are probably more vain than religious and wish to appear more attractive, so they might give themselves an added little boost on top of their heads under their hijabs. These are the same women who wear makeup to the mall as well, which is not supposed to be worn if you are to be seen by men other than your husband. I know that I feel better about myself when I wear a little makeup, but here I am not supposed to except to a wedding where only other women will be there. I am not supposed to wear makeup to family functions either because my brother-in-laws or nephews might get turned on by my exquisite beauty.
I don’t know whether men here fancy straight or curly hair, but I seem to think that this might just be a personal preference. My husband definitely favors soft straight hair like mine. I don’t know if this is because his hair is very frizzy, er, I mean, curly. It goes back to that grass is always greener philosophy. We always seem to want the things we don’t have, don't we? I myself wouldn’t mind if my hair had at least a bit of a wave to it. My son has curly hair also and he too would prefer to have straight hair like mine. He would love to have blue eyes as well, instead of brown eyes.

Women with lighter eyes and fair skin are also more desirable here in Arabia too. Light eyes are rare within pure Saudi families, however people from other countries such as Turkey or Egypt who have settled here have brought some light eyes into the population.
As far as skin color goes, the preference here is definitely for lighter skin. Women with darker skin here though actually stay lighter because they are never exposed to the sun, therefore their skin never tans or freckles, stays softer and doesn‘t wrinkle as much or as early as their American counterparts who have spent lots of time outdoors.
 My skin feels like sandpaper compared to the native women who have been covered up here all their lives. Score a point for the abaya!

When women go to weddings here, many of the woman wear a ton of borderline clown makeup. We are talking dozens of Tammy Faye look alikes slithering around in low cut backless evening gowns.
Now remember, men and women do not ever mix socially here, so women dress like this for other women only. I just think that they would look so much prettier with less makeup, but apparently they like the Tammy Faye look.
Something interesting about a Muslim woman’s beauty regimen I have learned about since I’ve been here concerns her eyebrows. I first noticed one day that my unmarried niece’s black thick eyebrows had the hairs on the top and the bottom of her eyebrows bleached a whitish yellow, leaving the hairs in the middle the dark natural color. I had never seen anything like this before, so I asked her about it. She bleaches part of her eyebrows which are naturally so thick and dark and heavy to make them appear thinner and more shapely. The part that is left natural is indeed very dark and thick - I even thought she had applied black eyebrow pencil but she hadn’t. Two of my nieces have to do this procedure to their eyebrows about once a week, as the bleaching gradually darkens back up with washing and showering. The dye job is done with a lightening powder and a cream base that they mix together and carefully apply to the hairs they wish to disguise. She leaves it on for about an hour, until it is a pale yellow color. Her mother’s eyebrows are not so heavy and thick, so she only does hers about once a month and only leaves the mixture on for about half an hour. Unless you look really closely, the bleached parts are not really noticeable and tend to just blend in and appear like skin.
 According to Islam, women are not supposed to pluck their eyebrows because they are not supposed to change things about themselves because God made them that way. Actually, what I read says that the women who plucks her facial hair is "cursed." (And by the way, filing the teeth and getting tattoos are also forbidden.) However, as I understand it, it is okay to dye parts of the eyebrows so they appear to be thinner and a different shape. I personally don’t quite understand the difference of why bleaching is allowed and plucking is not. Plucked eyebrows grow back and aren‘t a permanent solution, just like the bleaching is only a temporary fix. So why do Islamic women feel the need to do this at all if Islam says not to change the way God made them? Aren’t they changing their appearance as well by bleaching their eyebrows? Does it have to do with vanity and feeling attractive? If so, is this Islamic?

Women here are not supposed to make themselves appear attractive to other men. This is why they wear abayas, veils, cover their hair and are not supposed to wear makeup except for their own husbands or for other women. This society totally hides women from being viewed by other men, yet there is such a high value placed on a woman’s physical beauty. I’m figuring women do things like dying their eyebrows because it makes them feel more attractive, like I feel when I wear makeup - but to whom? To themselves? To other women? I just find things like this very confusing. I would love to understand this, but unfortunately the explanations I got from my hubby and his family didn’t clarify things for me and just confused me even more. To me, this is a very murky area.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

I've Been Tagged: Let's Hope...

OK, I have been "tagged" by 3 of my cyber friends and fellow bloggers...

Aafke of "Clouddragon" Aafke has recently written some wonderful blog posts about the dress and customs of her native Holland that I hope you will check out.

Brandy of "American Muslima Writer" American Muslima Writer, who is from Arizona like me, lives in the UAE with her Lebanese hubby and their two kids. She writes some really thought provoking blogs about all different sorts of subjects.

Alajnabiya of "Climbing Walls" Climbing Walls by Alajnabiya is written by an American Muslimah who lives in Palestine. She writes about the frustrating and sad situation in her country, posts photos and videos, and I have learned so much about the struggles that go on there from her.

Here's what's involved with being tagged...


1. On your blog, post the Rules & 10 things you have HOPE for in your life.
2. LINK Tag to 5 people (we want hope to spread to people!) and LINK the person who tagged you.
3. Comment/Notify the 5 People they’ve been tagged.

10 Things I have Hope for in my life ...
1. World peace.
2. No more racism or discrimination.
3. An end to world hunger and suffering.
4. No more bullies.
5. Good health, success, and wealth for me, my family and friends.
6. No more corrupt politicians.
7. That George Bush and his gang will be brought to justice.
8. To live in a cooler climate, in a place like Gig Harbor, Washington, or maybe Holland.
9. Happiness for everyone!!!
10. To be a perfect size 6, and to be able to eat whatever I want.

And here is the list of victims I have decided to tag for this one:
(supposed to be 10, but there's no way I can do that many!)

- Cheela of "Through Irish Eyes"
- Chitra of "Always in the Kitchen"
- Umm Zubair of "I Have a Feeling I'm not in California Anymore"
- Eman of "Saudi Woman's Weblog"