It’s a girl thing
Two years ago, the Saudi government passed a law allowing women to work in lingerie stores. If the law isn’t implemented soon, Saudi women have threatened that they will boycott the stores.
October 15, 2008 1:15 by kippreport
Who should sell women’s lingerie in the Kingdom? The question resurfaced after a Saudi woman initiated a boycott campaign against lingerie stores aiming to put pressure on shop owners to replace salesmen with women.
“We urge every man and woman to help our privacy from being violated by men to whom we are obliged to buy our intimate clothing items,” said the campaign’s leader, Reem As’ad. “It’s the most irritating experience so far to women.”
The petition targets lingerie store owners in Saudi Arabia in order to convince them to comply with a labor law that states that women should be replacing men in marketing and sales of women’s lingerie. Little momentum has been made to implement this initiative. With very few exceptions, lingerie store salesmen are just that: men.
“We only want to activate a law that was passed two years ago,” said As’ad, an economics professor at Dar Al-Hekma College in Jeddah.
She added the boycott would be the second step in the campaign. “First, we will communicate directly with CEOs and owners of stores, asking them to comply with the law,” she said. “If they do not comply then the boycott begins.”
The petition, which has been posted on different Saudi websites and circulated through e-mails last week, asks Saudis and fellow residents to sign their full names, ages and professions. Through the campaign website as well as other online forums, such as Facebook, the group is educating society about the importance of participating in objecting to men working in stores that specifically target women.
“It’s really strange that Saudi Arabia is the only country where you see men selling women’s lingerie,” she said. “Women walk around covered from head to toe, and yet they have to discuss the size and material of their undergarments with strange men. Isn’t this odd?”
Unless it’s a women-only place, Saudi women, who are required to cover up in public, can only buy their most intimate clothing items and cosmetics from men. Labor Minister Ghazi Al-Gosaibi passed a resolution for employing Saudi women in lingerie stores with the aim of bringing more women into the workplace. The official unemployment rate for women in the Kingdom is about 25 percent. However, if women not actively seeking employment due to social restrictions and few options (especially for under-educated women who might only be qualified for services-industry jobs wholly dominated by foreign men) were counted the number would be much higher.
Al-Gosaibi has said these businesses should be so fashioned that outsiders cannot look in, and larger outlets should have separate entrances to sections that sell women’s products. Enforcement of the decision has been postponed to give time for shop owners to redesign their showrooms.
But a source from the Labor Ministry, who didn’t want to be identified, said the failure of the plan thus far was due to influential religious circles that oppose the employment of women in general.
“The ban comes from a strict interpretation of the Islamic principle that women should not mix with men outside their immediate family,” said the source.
As’ad categorically rejects this view for practical reasons: Women will still leave the house to go shopping. “If this (the idea that women should not work because they might interact with unrelated men) prevents women from interacting with men, thousands still do so as customers,” she said.
Women are generally restricted to jobs where companies have specific areas designated for women employees (who in most cases are managed by men).
These tend to be larger companies seeking professional-grade workingwomen. Smaller businesses cannot afford to provide duplicate work areas to keep the genders separated and they also fear attracting the scrutiny of the moral police should they decide to make this leap by employing men and women in the same workplace.
Furthermore, Saudi Arabia’s heavy dependence on foreign labor, especially in the services industry, makes it difficult for even Saudi men to compete with the wages paid to foreign workers. This means that a Saudi woman is often the least appealing and most problematic employee for a smaller business to hire. Most would prefer to avoid the added investment, expense and social scrutiny this would impose.
But As’ad thinks that more must be done, and the most logical place to focus on is these retail outlets that cater to women — and also hospitals and clinics where men and women health professionals already mix with few problems.
Meanwhile, the public has a wide range of views on the issue.
Abdullah Al-Yahya, a human resources officer, wants women to work in lingerie shops but only if these shops are totally segregated and secured.
“We are a segregated society, so we have to find a way for men and women to work without mixing together,” he said.
But Mashaeal, an elementary schoolteacher who doesn’t want her full name to be used, said she supports the initiative when it comes to the lingerie issue, to say the least.
“The law should be enforced urgently!” she said, adding that she often feels uneasy going into a store with women’s intimate clothing and having to deal with a strange man. “I have to put up with inappropriate comments and gestures, sometimes from these salesmen.”
Lama Al-Otaibi, a high school student, doesn’t face any troubles interacting with salesmen in stores she frequents, but she said she would happily sign any petition that opens job opportunities for women in the Kingdom.
“Women have gained toeholds in business and medicine,” she said. “Why are they blocked in other fields because of their gender?”
The petition is the third action taken by a newly formed society that calls itself “Sawt Al-Mar’ah,” a society for protecting and defending women’s rights.