When they leave their homes, the women of Saudi Arabia veil their faces and carefully shroud themselves from head to toe in shapeless black cloaks.
While their faces might be invisible in most public places, the kingdom’s female citizens spend more on hair and cosmetics per capita than almost any other women in the Middle East.
Saudi women trade beauty tips on Twitter and teenagers gather for “make-up nights’’, showing off their command of the latest “smoky eye” look. Meanwhile, the country’s radical clerics denounce them for “distorting God’s creation’’ and succumbing to temptation.
“Women of all ages spend more on their appearance,” says Jacqueline Clarke, research director of Diagonal Reports. “Hair salons are ahead of their counterparts in the US and Europe in using social networking sites, peer referrals, word-of-mouth and client recommendations for salon marketing.’’
Last year, Saudi women spent almost SR9bn ($2.4bn, €1.9bn, £1.6bn) on cosmetics, among the highest per capita sum in the world. Analysts forecast that the market will grow by 11 per cent this year. Most women prefer professional salon products, but official rules restrict licences for beauty parlours, leaving many of them vulnerable to raids by the r eligious police, known as the “mutawa”. Only by having a “dressmaker’s licence” – with tailors on the premises – or an owner with influential personal connections can a salon avoid their attentions.
The strict gender segregation practised in the kingdom, along with bans on many forms of public entertainment including cinemas and nightclubs, make weddings and engagement parties critical for Saudi women. At these occasions, they dress to the nines to impress each other and the mothers and relatives of eligible bachelors.
Noura Saed, 25, spent nearly seven hours and SR1,000 ($270) on her hair and make-up at a salon in Riyadh, the capital, for a friend’s wedding. In a typical week, she spends SR300 on beauty products.
“Weddings are the most important events and a good opportunity for us to dress up,’’ says Ms Saed. “Men often complain that we spend a lot on appearance. Well, if you live in Riyadh, what else can you do but shop?’’ Other social occasions that require a salon visit include birthdays, bachelorette and baby showers and even extending condolences.
In the past, upper-class Saudis followed beauty trends by travelling abroad. Today, satellite dishes and the internet allow all Saudi women to discover the latest look, with many craving the appearance of western movie stars or Arab pop divas.
“Women watch a lot of TV, so they bring me a photo of a singer or actress and say, ‘I want to look this way’,’’ says Iman Fekri, a beautician.
With more women entering the job market and graduating from universities, analysts predict that the country’s beauty industry will expand still further. Salons also provide an opportunity to meet friends.
“Saudi women spend a lot of time in the hair salon for socialising, and they buy higher end products,” says Ms Clarke.
Yet they continue to face harsh criticism. Sheikh Mohammad al-Habadan, a religious commentator, recently suggested that women should show nothing more than one eye in public. Revealing both, he said, could still promote lascivious thoughts.
Some beauty salons co-operate with such social pressures. They display stickers pointing out the dangers of damnation associated with plucking eyebrows or
showing made-up faces to anyone other than your husband.
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