Image: Cosmetic procedures in Saudi Arabia
Hassan Ammar  /  ASSOCIATED PRESS
A doctor uses a machine to heat up the skin of a patient receiving treatment to lighten her skin at a clinic in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Saudi clerics say cosmetic procedures and surgeries are OK if they are done to reverse damage from an accident or to fix a body part or feature that is causing grief to a person.
updated 8/2/2009 12:24:03 PM ET 2009-08-02T16:24:03

Hidden beneath robes and veils, women's bodies in Saudi Arabia are undergoing a transformation.

Over the past few years, plastic surgeries and cosmetic procedures, hallmarks of the western world, have begun booming in this place where religion covers every facet of life — even those cloaked from head to toe.

Clerics are grappling for the first time with particularly delicate questions: Does Islam frown on nose jobs? Chemical peels? How about breast implants? Does it matter that the results will never see the light of day?

One of the clerics with the answers is Sheik Mohammed al-Nujaimi, and Saudi women flock to him for guidance about going under the knife.

Al-Nujaimi draws his guidelines from the consensus that was reached three years ago when clergymen and plastic surgeons met to determine whether cosmetic procedures violate the Islamic tenet against tampering 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 al-Nujaimi. "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 on streets in Riyadh, the capital. Their front-page newspaper ads promise laser treatments, hair implants and liposuction.

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

Liposuction, nose and breast jobs most popular
Al-Otaibi cited a study according to which liposuction, breast augmentations and nose jobs are the most popular among women, while men go for hair implants and nose jobs.

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

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Sarah, an unmarried, 28-year-old professional woman, pointed out in an interview that underneath their robes, women go in for designer clothes and trendy haircuts to be flaunted at women's 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 contemplating having 22 surgeries, including a breast lift, padding her rear and reversing her down-turned lips into a smile.

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 al-Sheikh, a Saudi doctor who spent almost 14 years in the U.S., most of them at Harvard, said demand in Saudi Arabia is in line with increased global demand. But what he sees more of in the Arab world, including Saudi Arabia, is a customers for procedures that enhance 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.

'Every face has its own features'
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," al-Sheikh, 43, told the AP. "If something is done on a famous figure it becomes iconic in our world even if it doesn't look esthetically appealing."

He said when he returned to the kingdom 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 in surgery prompted Saudi 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."

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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