"You’re lucky you are cute. If you weren't, you wouldn't be sitting here next to me." I can't tell you how many times my husband has said that to me over the years. While I feel like he is mostly joking, deep down I can't help but think that there must be some truth to it. Lucky for me, he still thinks I am cute at age 65. Lucky for me, he likes chubby women! I've even asked him, "What if I were grotesquely disfigured in some kind of freak accident or a fire?" He says that it would be a deal breaker for him - and again, I feel like he is joking, but I certainly hope I never have to find out.
The thing is that many, if not most, Saudi men probably feel this same way.
I remember back almost 40 years ago when I first met my husband at university and I was getting to know him and his friends. I would ask them a lot of questions about their culture, religion, education, views on life, and their thoughts about women. I can recall asking several of his friends what qualities were they looking for in a wife? Every single one of them answered, "She must be beautiful."
Surprisingly there weren't any other real attributes they were looking for in a woman. Personality didn't matter. Intelligence didn't matter. Neither did kindness, character, or even if she was an all-out bitch. Physical beauty was the number one most important asset these Saudi men wanted in a woman. Interestingly enough, the Koran is quite explicit about what type of woman a man should seek out when searching for a mate – and it’s not physical attractiveness. Devotion to her religion is the quality that the Koran says a man should look for.
I know this makes my husband and other Saudi men sound like they are extremely superficial, and in this area, maybe they are. But one needs to understand certain realities about the Saudi culture. Extreme gender segregation is enforced from the onset of puberty. Dating is not allowed. And not only is it unacceptable to mix socially with the opposite sex, but it is also against the law - and one can be imprisoned or even lashed for being alone with a non-relative of the opposite sex. Realizing these things, it’s easier to understand why physical beauty is so important to Saudi men. In very conservative and traditional families, a couple may only meet face to face once prior to marriage, so first impressions are very important - and let's face it, in this situation looks matter.
Some of my friends have told me about their relationships with their Saudi husbands. Some of them are constantly belittled by their husbands about their weight or their cooking. Several of my friends have had weight loss surgery and some have had cosmetic surgery. Some of them are persistently threatened with the very real possibility of their husbands taking a second wife, and several have even had to endure the pain when he actually went through with it. Still others have been physically abused by their mates, while some are pressured to change themselves to be more to his liking. I have always figured that my husband chose me because of who I am, not because of what he wanted to change me into.
Every morning at breakfast over our coffee, my husband looks at me across the table, with my disheveled hair and puffy eyes, and he tells me how beautiful I look. And throughout the day when I least expect it, he repeats it again, and again. I know I am lucky that he still sees me as that pretty young thing he first laid eyes on so long ago. Even when I make him upset or do something mischievous, he still sloughs it off and says, “You’re lucky you’re cute!” We rarely fight or get upset with one another. Our marriage is an easy going one of mutual respect and lots of love. He makes me laugh. He makes me happy. He makes me feel special - and beautiful.
I can only wonder how I got so lucky.