Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Eternal Veil

Imagine a man that has never seen the face of his wife, ever. How about a son or a daughter that does not know how their mother looks like?

Such men and women still exist in Saudi-Arabia.

Recently in the news was the story of a Saudi man that had never seen his wife's face. After 10 years of marriage the man had become too curious to control his desire to look at the woman he married. He had made the mistake of trying to sneak a peak under the veil at night. The wife had however woken up and now wanted a divorce. She had "lost face" so to say.

The women that practise this custom of never revealing their faces come from a very small majority from certain tribes of the Najdi region.

What's most peculiar is that some of these women refuse to remove their veils even in the company of female relatives including their own daughters, sisters and mothers!
How does this effect the child?

This reminded me of how I found out about this custom through a patient of mine.
She was being treated for cancer and was on the ward with her two daughters who acted as her sitters (caretakers). The daughters were perhaps 7 and 15 years old, hard to say because of the veil.

I remember going about my normal routines measuring her blood pressure and asking her some questions and making a note to myself that I had not yet seen their faces. I wondered why the patient and daughters all sat in the room eating in their colorful dresses without abayas but they hadn't removed their niqabs (face veils).

I then requested for the patient to remove her veil for me to check her and made a gesture with my hand indicating she lift her niqab. She went ballistic!
She shouted "haram" at me and I could see I had upset her but I still didn't realize what I had done.
On the side note, some Saudi patients might be a "bit" demanding or like some nurses say "crazy" so I just thought of her behavior as the norm, smiled and left her.

Later on a female physician told me that these bedouins (she referred to them as nutters) never removed their veils, not even in presence of women. She said it has nothing to do with Islam, it's just their tribes that have these weird traditions of hiding the women's faces. The permanent veil imposed a huge problem as to how to treat this woman and it was driving the doctor crazy.

The patient had demanded an all female medical team and none of the male doctors were ever allowed to enter the room. The major issue was that she needed surgery and it didn't look like it would be possible to accomplish with her remaining veiled the whole time.
The veil would of course be in the way of surgical procedures and it would be an infection risk but the patient insisted she keep it on.

The next time I saw the patient I asked her why she always kept the veil on. At that time my arabic was still very basic and I was not able to understand her funny accent either. She kept repeating "lazim" which means "have to". So I never really understood what were the reasons behind it nor was I able to find out at what age they started veling the daughters. Did they actually veil babies?

The woman and her daughters seemed very comfortable with the veil and at night when I entered the room all three had them securely on. I wondered do the veils come off when they are in the bathroom or shower? It was as if it was a part of their bodies.

In the end the patient was discharged with her eternal veil and no procedures were done. She had refused life saving surgery rather than removed the veil.


Soile said...

What an amazing story. I had no idea that there was a tribe living like this!

Falaxy said...

The world is such an interesting place : )

Felicia said...

Wow, refusing neccessary surgery because of the niqab?!? I also read a story about a man who couldn't identify his wifes body after she had died. He needed to put a veil over her face to identify her. Its certainly interesting!

Layla said...

Felicia believe it or not it's actually quite common for Saudi patients to refuse all sorts of treatments including surgery for the most peculiar causes.
The reasoning behind this is that they trust Allah to cure them without the treatments.

gotcha said...

There are certain christians that will not go to the doctor here in the US because they believe in faith (prayer) healing. There have been infants and children die because of this as they will not seek medical attention. In almost all of the cases the children would have survived had they got the proper medical attention. Of course if it is the adult it is their decision but with a child it is different. It is a long jail sentence often and child services are brought in to ensure the safety of the surviving children.

Ahmed said...

hi, i wonder how would their ID cards would look like?!

Anonymous said...

Interestingly, when you go to the other end of Africa from Saudi, you find the Touaregs, some of which have very strong veil taboos (as I would call them) - the difference is that women don't cover their faces, but men do. And the men have similarily strict rules of who and when can see their faces. Imagine then a mixed family of both traditions, they could go to town incognito taking their veils off, and wouldn't know each other!

Anonymous said...

Great writing! This blog post doesn't surprise me, as I have already known about these odd, yet interesting women. However, it does still strike up my curiosity every time I hear about them.
I remember my first exposure to a group of women who never removed their veils. This was in Al-Ain, United Arab Emirates. I'm guessing that they were not as strict as the Saudi tribe, but in front of me, and several others (only women) they did not remove their veils. My sister told me how she accidentally bumped into one of them coming out of the bathroom. The poor woman gasped in shock while quickly covering her face using her scarf. I chose to wear a veil myself, and I would only do this if there were a strange man around.
I am still curious if these women show their faces to their children and husbands. I don't think that they were as rigid as the Saudi women.

Layla said...

thanks for sharing your experience! I guess it depends on the tribe how rigorously they keep the veils on but these Saudi women didn't allow even children to see them..

Layla said...

Wow that is fascinating, never heard of such a thing!

Layla said...

I'm guessing they don't have ID cards? Only mentioned on the husbands or fathers family cards?