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Under Saudi veil, nips and tucks

With clerics giving the OK, women, and men, in the conservative

August 23, 2009|Donna Abu-Nasr | Abu-Nasr writes for the Associated Press.

RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA — Does Islam frown on nose jobs? Chemical peels? How about breast implants?

One of the clerics with the answers is Sheik Mohammed Nujaimi, and Saudi women flock to him for guidance about going under the knife. The results may not see much light of day in a kingdom where women cover up from head to toe, yet cosmetic surgery is booming.

Religion covers every facet of life in Saudi Arabia, including plastic surgery. Nujaimi draws his guidelines from the consensus that was reached three years ago when clergymen and plastic surgeons met in Riyadh to determine whether cosmetic procedures violate the Islamic tenet against tampering with God's creation.

The verdict was that it's halal (sanctioned) to augment unusually small breasts, fix features that are causing a person grief, or reverse damage from an accident. But undergoing an unsafe procedure or changing the shape of a "perfect nose" just to resemble a singer or actress is haram (forbidden).

"I get calls from many, many women asking about cosmetic procedures," said Nujaimi said in an interview. "The presentations we got from the doctors made me better equipped to give them guidance."

In recent years, plastic surgery centers with gleaming facades have sprung up in Riyadh, the capital. Front-page newspaper ads offer laser treatments, hair implants and liposuction.

Relatively rare only 10 years ago, the centers now number 35 and are "saturating the Saudi market," Ahmed Otaibi, a Saudi skin specialist, was quoted as saying in the Al-Hayat newspaper.

Otaibi cited a study that found liposuction, breast augmentations and nose jobs are the most popular procedures among women, while men go for hair implants and nose jobs.

Saudi women see nothing incongruous about undergoing plastic surgery and then covering up in robes and veils.

Sarah, an unmarried, 28-year-old professional woman, pointed out that underneath their robes, women go for designer clothes and trendy haircuts to be flaunted at women-only gatherings, shown to their husbands and exposed on trips abroad.

"We attend a lot of private occasions, and we also travel," said Sarah, who declined to give her full name to protect her privacy.

She said she is considering 22 surgeries, including a breast lift and padding her rear.

She also wants the lips of Lebanese singer Haifa Wehbe, and less flare to her nostrils, though so far her plastic surgeon has refused to do the nose because he doesn't think it needs altering.

Ayman Sheikh, a doctor who spent almost 14 years in the U.S., most of them at Harvard, said demand here is in line with an increase globally. But what he sees more of in the Arab world, including Saudi Arabia, is customers who seek procedures that change the face to the point where it no longer looks natural.

The trend is being set by entertainers whose pouty lips, chiseled midriffs and enhanced breasts are seen on TV across the Arab world.

Not all customers seek religious sanction, and not all surgeons abide by the clerics' guidelines, so a woman is apt to pick a surgeon depending on how liberal he is.

"People are overdone by design or by mistake," Sheikh, 43. "If something is done on a famous figure it becomes iconic in our world even if it doesn't look aesthetically appealing."

He said when he returned four years ago, patients initially came with requests for one performer's nose or another's cheeks, but that stopped after word spread he was a conservative who believes "every face has its own features."

The boom prompted columnist Abdoo Khal to write a piece titled, "We don't want you to be Cinderella."

"Women's rush to undergo plastic surgery is an obsession resulting from a woman's insecurity," he wrote, "and it consolidates the idea that women are for bed only."

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