People without faces?

15 Jun

There is a slightly odd phenomenon that exists  in The Land of Sand. The reason for it is completely beyond me.

I have absolutely no issues with the rules and traditions of Islam and will never try to push the boundaries or question the rules here, partly because I am terrified of the consequences of doing so but mostly because I am a visitor in this country and need to show respect in a land not my own.

There are very strict censorship laws in Saudi Arabia. Magazines, books, music, websites and the like are all heavily censored. Nothing quite like being a breastfeeding mother with a serious bout of mastitis and not being able to google any kind of medical information regarding the issue as your search contains the word ‘breast’. 

You also aint gonna find a Cosmo, Heat or even Marie Claire magazine on the shelves here. The magazines that are allowed into the country, regularly have pages torn out of them. The typical photo of a woman in a fragrance advertisement with a low-cut dress is a big no-no so as a result one might buy a women’s’ magazine and find that it is falling apart because so many pages have been ripped out. Alternatively, someone has sat and coloured over the exposed skin in a photo with a black marker. It is always coloured very neatly and the rest of the outfit is left in pristine condition! How long do you think that must take? I can just imagine a whole department of men sitting  in a government office somewhere in the “censorship department” colouring in woman’s bodies all day, for a living.

My absolute favorite are the adverts containing women in bathing suits. Here is one such ad:

Don’t you love the ladies in their bikini’s with wetsuits underneath? Must have been a really cold day, although the guys seem to be coping okay with the temperature.

I understand the underlying reasons why some websites are blocked, books banned or music confiscated. Anything of a sexual nature is considered offensive to the religion and I respect that it be banned from a country that is the Home of Islam.

But this is the thing that I find particularly strange:

This is a large image in a storefront window in a mall. I am stumped as to why she has lost her face and arms. As a woman I am required to wear an abaya when I leave our compound and enter public areas but I do not need to cover my face. Sometimes we are asked to cover our heads but generally it is acceptable to leave your head uncovered. Not all Muslim woman cover their faces either so what is up with this?

And this?

This guy, also in a storefront window, has had his eyes pixellated (for want of a better word).

Also, this is not the case in all storefront windows. In fact, these two pics were the only two I spotted throughout the entire mall. When we first arrived in The Land of Sand 2 years ago, there were many more of these censored photos than exist now. We shall miss this strange phenomenon if it disappears entirely. It is a dying art form, I tell ya.


66 Responses to “People without faces?”

  1. trapperhoney June 15, 2010 at 1:10 pm #

    this is wild.

  2. dennisfinocchiaro June 15, 2010 at 2:26 pm #

    Wow, so interesting! Thanks for sharing.

  3. sumthin2hope4 June 15, 2010 at 2:27 pm #

    Wow, that is something. Thanks for sharing that, I never really thought about how far the censorship went. Taking the time to black marker out the pages? Too much time on their hands.

  4. vijay June 15, 2010 at 2:41 pm #

    Weird dude!

  5. PeacockWings June 15, 2010 at 2:43 pm #

    the wetsuit under the swimsuit is pretty interesting, but even as you stated that is wild about the faces..
    doesn’t make sense to me, but it probably does to them! (or i hope so)

  6. bookjunkie June 15, 2010 at 2:55 pm #

    this is the most fascinating blog I have come across. Thanks for bringing us the insider view 🙂

    • dustbusting June 16, 2010 at 5:39 am #

      Thanks for the lovely compliment. You are most welcome, I am lucky to live in such an interesting country!

  7. essentialsimplicity June 15, 2010 at 3:04 pm #

    When reading something like this it makes you truly appreciate how much freedom we are afforded.

  8. Seuhle June 15, 2010 at 3:04 pm #

    That is quite an extreme censorship. When I came to this page, the first thing I did was scroll down the page to look for photographs. And I found the first picture perfectly normal, nothing fishy…

    It was only until I read “Alternatively, someone has sat and coloured over the exposed skin in a photo with a black marker.” that I burst into laughter. This is really amusing, haha. Such neat colouring.

  9. ofsoundandfury8 June 15, 2010 at 3:27 pm #

    Yes. It is strange for us to see this censorship and fear of the human form. Maybe not fear, per say, but more like…. dislike? Distrust?
    But I guess, for the Muslim people it is quite normal. Who’s to say that they’re wrong? Believe what you believe, and let them believe what they believe.

  10. taylor June 15, 2010 at 3:33 pm #

    wow – i’m astonished that workers are paid to color in those photographs so tidily! so sorry that the censorship has affected your own medical research negatively, though. that’s got to be frustrating.

  11. Club Dine In! June 15, 2010 at 4:04 pm #

    Freshly pressed again! Thanks for showing us another culture that is difficult for us in America to understand.

  12. JamesBrett June 15, 2010 at 6:31 pm #

    back when i used to be a model in the middle east, it was always fun to sharpie-color all my skin before our shoots. [it saved the skin censor nazis a lot of time…]

    • dustbusting June 16, 2010 at 5:42 am #

      You funny man!

      • JamesBrett June 16, 2010 at 8:17 am #

        uhh… not joking.

      • dustbusting June 16, 2010 at 10:16 am #

        Seriously? That sounds too weird to be true

      • JamesBrett June 16, 2010 at 3:10 pm #

        okay, i was joking

        … about being a model in the middle east. but, wow, we used to color our bodies with sharpies all the time.

        you’re doing a great job on your blog, by the way. i noticed it’s only been up a relatively short time — congrats on being popular.

      • dustbusting June 16, 2010 at 4:35 pm #

        You had me going there for a while! Thanks for the compliment. I am very surprised by the response to my little ol’ blog, started purely to let friends and family back home know what we get up to. It’s been fun.

      • JamesBrett June 16, 2010 at 6:32 pm #

        i guess sarcasm and general silliness don’t come across as clearly in type.

        is it off-limits to ask what you guys are doing in saudi arabia? and if not, what are you guys doing in saudi arabia?

      • dustbusting June 17, 2010 at 1:11 pm #

        Super secret stuff! You know that if I tell you, I will need to send my people’s people over to Africa to…well…do the stuff that they need to do to you. Kidding!Seriously though, my husband Olaf is in communications for a large company here and I now spend my days raising our little person. We have lived in Doha, Qatar for 2 years as well. We seem to have a bit of a thing for the Middle East

      • JamesBrett June 17, 2010 at 2:10 pm #

        generally, i wouldn’t be concerned about someone sending the “people’s people” over because it’s a long trip and i’m hard to find.

        but you guys are in saudi, which is considerably closer than much of the world. and your people just might be the kind of people who can find their way in rural tanzania.

        i probably am speaking where i shouldn’t because i’ve never visited… but i don’t envy you living in the middle east.

  13. thecodger June 15, 2010 at 6:55 pm #

    This is fascinating stuff! Thank you for sharing your experiences with us. To think that over here, they show almost anything on TV, even for embarrassing personal products…seeing the way they live over there is quite a change of pace! It’s rather refreshing in a way, like the way it used to be over here.

    The Codger

  14. gealach June 15, 2010 at 7:18 pm #

    That is really interesting. My husband has worked with the Arabic translations of the IKEA catalogues, and they actually replace all photos that show women, only men and children are allowed (girls up to 8-9 years).

  15. bluejay June 15, 2010 at 7:49 pm #

    This reminds me of the time back home when I opened my latest issue of the National Geographic, crisp and new off the press, to find that that month’s issue had an article (with photographs) of some of the pygmy tribes living in Africa. And then I noticed that each photo had been very carefully and neatly coloured in with black marker to cover their exposed nipples…

  16. makuluwo June 15, 2010 at 8:41 pm #

    Haha funny stuff! Well if you’re genuinely wondering why.. the whole sexual-nature-censorship stems from islam’s belief in modesty and averting from anything materialistic (which includes vanity, lust, blah blah) in order to focus on a highly spiritual way of life. Muslims believe worldly things detract from their focus on spiritual matters.

    So the woman’s face was blurred prolly because she was very beautiful and someone thought the same as what someone thought when they coloured those girls in bikinis, censoring something that seems to condone materialism. It might not seem like it but the laws really apply to men too- they might not have to cover themselves as much (that’s to do with the notion that men are more easily distracted by physical looks than women are) but islamically they’re supposed to dress plainly and be demure and what not around women too. Either way it’s basically the same concept as the life of a nun or monk, minus the celibacy, and definitely not as dreary.

    As for the eyes.. there’s an islamic verse in one of the scriptures that says you shouldn’t draw or sculpt humans because it can lead to the art being worshiped (idolatry), it’s a verse from a time when people worshiped statues as opposed to god. Sooo, today most people believe the eyes are the soul and give life to any drawing or picture, so in relation to the verse some practicing muslims censor them in their drawings. There’s also a verse that says angels don’t enter a room in which there are pictures of living things, prolly also related to that verse.

    Hope that answers your question! I know, way-haay too much information and I bet you knew half the stuff I rambled about, but I’m bored, online and high on cupcakes.. a deadly combo! 😛

    Shif from Sri Lanka

    • dustbusting June 16, 2010 at 2:48 am #

      Thank you. Things always make more sense when we understand them better.

  17. foodvixennyc June 15, 2010 at 8:48 pm #

    Wow, incredible. I just saw a documentary earlier today about the injustice toward women in the Middle Eastern world. This is a fascinating post! Very informative and engaging.

  18. sbg June 15, 2010 at 9:37 pm #

    Hi, maybe I can shed some light:

    Some, and again I say it, SOME Muslims ascribe to the view that if you depict the creation of God in literal form (through art, and though I haven’t seen it much before, photography) then it is like playing “creator” yourself. I believe it is seen as a challenge to God.
    So from this theological view, which the theologians in Saudi Arabia do hold apparently, it is safer to mar some aspect of the visual representation so as not to fall into displeasing God. Thus, it is an act of faith in their eyes – to airbrush, pixellate, etc.

    As for the covering up/coloring in, every culture has their own understanding of decency, modesty, public space and the limits of sexual exploitation. To each his own, huh? 🙂

    (And I’m so glad you’re trying to understand and not just blanket a culture with tired stereotypes and stock assumptions. Kudos for you and your blog!)

  19. Jaime June 15, 2010 at 9:58 pm #

    That’s very interesting. I especially think the wetsuit underneath the bikini is a bit much (especially when the guys can go sans shirts).

  20. heyimconner June 15, 2010 at 10:21 pm #

    coloring bodies with black marker for a living. now that’s odd.

  21. peelingtheorange June 15, 2010 at 10:24 pm #

    My cousin use to say that when one goes into a house we must respect their politic. It’s true, and can not imagine what is to live in a country with so many deifferent costumes so far from where you come from. But I guess (I didn’t read your other posts jet) that you also have great experiences from there. And the food, the language, the people, that must be really awesome. My guess is that you can find the most amazing people in the planet right in that spot, just around the corner. Great Post! Thanks for sharing! Keep it coming!
    ~Great Love to you,
    Mirian from peelingtheorange. “)

  22. citysoliloquy June 15, 2010 at 10:58 pm #

    How bizarre, especially the people employed to marker out unsuitable images and the wetsuit/bikini combo. Thanks for the insider’s view. It really makes me appreciate our freedoms.

  23. jana June 15, 2010 at 11:06 pm #

    I am in awe of the tremendous differences that exist across cultures. And I am thankful that you reminded me of them, and how important it is to respect them.

  24. shenanitims June 15, 2010 at 11:06 pm #

    Reminds me of how I once read that in Japan there’s a fetish for mouth covering. Pictures of girls wearing surgical masks and such. Going so far as to distort a girl’s mouth in the photo if she’s not covering her mouth.

  25. Matt June 16, 2010 at 1:01 am #

    That’s odd on so many levels.

    I can understand the arms (body) and Islamic people getting uppity about that.

    But….the face? And not on every poster? Maybe it’s just the belief set of those inside or those that laid the posters.

    The bathing suit thing is ridiculous. I don’t mean to criticise other beliefs but I think covering women is outdated and redundant. I think the reasons behind the burka and other such coverings are shameful and childish….

    It’s a bit sad….

  26. angirach June 16, 2010 at 2:29 am #

    Well the reason I would say for it, in strict Saudi Arabia is that they do not even want to acknowledge the alternative. It is insulting for them to think that Saudi Arabia women really do not notice the coloring of the skin and think that maybe it is doctored or changed in anyway.

    I just got done reading Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. It’s a good read, touches hugely on the culture of Saudi Arabia and what it means to be a woman in a muslim country.

    Thank you for sharing.

  27. Lulu June 16, 2010 at 4:12 am #

    I respect any beliefs, and cultures. I am not surprised that this the Land of Sand has such, hmm, rules.
    Congrats for being freshly pressed again! it really shows how open we are to differences.
    Interesting post

  28. littlelamblx June 16, 2010 at 5:17 am #

    I wonder how they go about censoring websites…

    • -Durk- June 16, 2010 at 12:54 pm #

      The Internet “feed” into the country in general is filtered. Firewalls or software is used to filter out sites based on key words and such and the sites are simply blocked. China is famous for it too, even going so far as to asking Google to manipulate their search results. Google gave in for a bit, I think they have since changed their minds. You can look on for more info on countries censoring the Internet.

  29. savvy4u June 16, 2010 at 5:31 am #

    This is kinda crazy..Im sure they have their reasons

  30. lostbutf0und June 16, 2010 at 5:59 am #

    Wow,crazy…we all know that Saudi Arabia is pretty strict,but I never really imagined it like that…We are all so used to billboards,magazines,commercials, with half naked ladies (some I wouldn’t mind being a bit censored, lol)it’s just normal for us.
    Loved reading your piece, sooooooo interesting!

  31. kerrycharacters June 16, 2010 at 6:33 am #

    So here is the question… is it more perverse for a grown man to sit coloring in women’s bodies (carefully staying inside the curves) or just flicking through the magazine? I know which I think is more perverse! Great blog. I will be visiting again.

  32. Songbird June 16, 2010 at 6:53 am #

    How odd. the wet suits under the bikinis I get, but what could possibly be offensing about someone’s face or even arms?

  33. elteee June 16, 2010 at 7:39 am #

    Kudos for being Freshly Pressed again! Your positive outlook as an expat living in a country so different from your own is very refreshing. Thanks for sharing your tales.

  34. andydbrown June 16, 2010 at 8:45 am #

    People talk about “cultural differences” but the vast majority of Muslims I meet and know also think this is BIZARRE. It is a small group of power-yielding men who think they know what is best for the masses.
    Thank God I live in Oman where the “religious police” of Saudi Arabia are also seen as a joke!
    By the way, congrats on making freshly pressed. This is the 2nd time, isn’t it?!
    Great blog!

  35. soratothamax June 16, 2010 at 8:46 am #

    Yea, when I was in high school, there used to be a Muslim girl in my class who didn’t wear the normal gym shorts everybody else wore. She had to wear long jogging suit pants instead. And she had to eat lunch at a different time than everybody else because our lunchtime was the time she had to pray. So they believe in their women covering up. As far as the eyes thing, I don’t get it…what happened with it? you said they changed the eye color?

  36. lifeintheboomerlane June 16, 2010 at 8:53 am #

    Absolutely fascinating!

  37. tina June 16, 2010 at 10:14 am #

    well, thanks for sharing this..

  38. Nostra June 16, 2010 at 11:05 am #

    Would love to see more of these examples, very interesting

  39. ermadear June 16, 2010 at 11:35 am #

    very nice blog guys.
    please visit back..:D

  40. eviejane June 16, 2010 at 11:56 am #

    Wow. While I appreciate that culture’s views, I’m so glad I live in America.

  41. -Durk- June 16, 2010 at 12:49 pm #

    Congrats on being features on WordPress’ home page. I think “Land of Sand” is a super creative wording! And this post is very entertaining and informative! Great post! Please stay safe in the Land of Sand!

  42. -Durk- June 16, 2010 at 1:09 pm #

    “dustbusting” VERY CREATIVE TOO! Very good!

  43. Gayle June 16, 2010 at 9:41 pm #

    Congratulations, 2nd time round!! Loved reading all the comments.

  44. call2write June 17, 2010 at 5:31 am #

    Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!

    The cultural differences would definitely take some getting used to, and worrying about offending them by doing or saying something they consider wrong.

    Wishing you all the best during your stay in the Land of Sand.

  45. home jobs June 17, 2010 at 12:27 pm #

    I enjoyed this post.

  46. part time jobs June 17, 2010 at 12:28 pm #

    You have always nice things to post.

  47. Helette June 17, 2010 at 6:28 pm #

    Well done my friend!!!! You are making quite an impression out there! I’m so proud! Missing you lots!

    • dustbusting June 18, 2010 at 9:06 am #

      Yay! How cool is it to find a comment left by my favourite friend in the whole wide world! Thanks Lettie, we miss you guys too.

      • Helette June 18, 2010 at 1:17 pm #

        I don’t miss a post!!!! Your biggest fan for sure!!!! Keep it coming! 🙂

  48. alphredite June 18, 2010 at 11:29 am #

    On the positive note, it is astonishing to find out how women are REVERED there… (‘Revered’ is my euphemism for the absurd bowdlerization in your place which can also be a lucrative source of income for people there). I would definitely love to work all day pixellating faces of top models (lol)! Should you know of any hiring, pls let me know.
    Thanks for sharing this post. Amusingly informative!

  49. M. M. June 19, 2010 at 12:31 pm #

    I’ve never been to Saudi Arabia, but I’ve read a couple of books and the weirdness of this land fascinates me… I’d love to visit it someday and experience it myself. Although Islam is also observed here, things aren’t to such an extreme.


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