The Womanhood Issue

The Culture of Hiding Women’s Faces in the Gulf

It remains customary in more conservative communities for the face to be hidden.

By Rym Tina Ghazal

Rawan Al Mahrouqi’s artwork distinctly features blurry or no faces as part of her commentary on the tradition of hiding women’s faces. Image courtesy of Rawan Al Mahrouqi.

Every face tells a story, and a woman’s face inspires many stories.

In contrast to the humorous, yet deep insights of the late Irish writer and poet Oscar Wilde, who infamously coined the saying ‘a woman’s face is her work of fiction,’ Arab poets and writers have, for more than a thousand years, composed some of their greatest work using a woman’s face as a canvas for their love, seduction and heartbreak.

Coyly she withdraws, shows us a cheek, a lip, she a / gazelle of Wujra, – yearling the fawn with her,’ wrote poet Imru’ Al Qays, whose words are forever immortalized in the Al Mu’allaqat, the pre-Islamic ‘suspended odes’ or ‘hanging poems’ that remain one of the Arab world’s most cherished literary treasures.

Women were often compared to beautiful, slender gazelles, who it appears were able to cast spells over men by simply gazing back at them with charming, kohl-filled or even date-coloured eyes.

As for the moon, so for the sun: from both / She draws her power; moon pearls grace her mouth, Solar fire crimson her lips…’ wrote the 12th-century Andalusian poet Ibn Quzman.

A woman’s face is a work of art. It is her jewel. It is her identity, tied to the identity of her family and tribe, where it was and remains customary in the more conservative communities for it to be hidden, protected as it has been in other ancient cultures where the elite women of important families often hid their identity and wore veils.

In today’s world, where there is a great push for everyone to be ‘plugged in’ and seen and followed on social media, and even to look a certain way, there is a lot of pressure on traditions and social norms.

Omani social media star Ashwaq Al Maskery. Her face is always covered with a mask or digital avatar. Image courtesy of Ashwaq Al Maskery.

One of the trends that sets women apart in the Arab world, particularly in the Khaleej (Arab Gulf States), is that some avoid completely showing up on camera or having their photos published in public and media outlets, whereas others continue to engage with the public but only through voiceovers or innovative photos that simply focus on their hands and feet or that are taken from the back so to protect their identities.

One of the ways 28-year-old Omani social media star Ashwaq Al Maskery – who is more famously known as ‘elshog’ – works around this is by creating digital avatars, a cartoon version of herself.

‘I want people to focus on the message I am trying to send through and not how I look like or what I am wearing,’ says Al Maskery, who wears the digital character as a mask at public social events. ‘The icon resembles the character that I use to represent me as a visual brand. I want people to embrace who they are, and even if they have the barrier of not being allowed to show their faces on media, [I want them to know] that they can do it differently and still get their message through to the world.’

Besides privacy, one of the reasons this trend continues is because of the fear that exposure to the public may actually affect a young woman’s future and even lead to blackmail.

This feature article is part of The Womanhood Issue. To continue reading this article digitally click here to buy a digital copy of the issue. To read the entirety of this article in print, click here or here to order a print copy of the issue.

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