When Saudi student Sarah Abdul- Mohsen asked the salesman for a nude, 32C padded bra, she didn’t expect an argument about her cup size. After all, Abdul-Mohsen was wearing the mandatory black cloak and veil that disguise her shape, in a kingdom where custom forbids men from looking intimately at women. “He told me, ‘No, you’re not a C,’” Abdul-Mohsen, who was buying the bra for a cousin, said in an interview at a Ramadan meal for women in Riyadh. “I felt disgusted. It felt very degrading.”
Abdul-Mohsen, like many women in oil-rich Saudi Arabia, is hoping that decades of embarrassing exchanges with salesmen about thongs, bras, frilly negligees and panties will soon come to an end. She may get her wish as stores begin implementing a July Labor Ministry directive to push male salesmen aside and hire women after a failed effort in 2006.
Managers representing three boutiques said last week their stores will soon be staffed by women, though the transition won’t be easy. Male guards may be stationed outside to keep men shoppers away, while storeowners are considering posting signs saying the establishments are for “Families Only” and hanging heavy curtains to shield store windows so that men won’t look in and see women working.
“It’s a good thing to happen, but it requires planning,” Ghaith Azzam, brand manager for La Vie En Rose, owned by Fawaz Alhokair Group, said in a telephone interview in Riyadh. He said another shop, La Senza, also owned by Alhokair, is making the switch too.
Saudi Arabia enforces restrictions interpreted from the Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam. Men and women are strictly segregated in public, including at schools, restaurants and even at lines at fast-food takeouts. That keeps women out of sales jobs in malls and stores — unless the store caters exclusively to a female clientele.
King Abdullah, who has promised to improve the status of women, opened the first co-educational university in 2009. He appointed the kingdom’s first female deputy minister, Nora bint Abdullah al-Fayez, the same year and has said he will provide more access to jobs for women. Women are still not allowed to drive, though.
The changeover at lingerie stores is part of an order by Labor Minister Adel Faqih setting a deadline for all-female staffs by the end of the year. The minister’s decision followed a royal decree by King Abdullah in June, carried by the official Saudi Press Agency, requiring that only women work in “shops selling women’s necessities.”
Saudi women have the lowest employment rate in the six- nation Gulf Cooperation Council, estimated at 12 percent in 2008, Hatem Samman, director and lead economist of the Booz & Company Ideation Center, said in an interview from Dubai. The employment rate for women was 25 percent in Qatar and 28 percent in the U.A.E., he said. The U.S. rate for women 20 years and over was about 55 percent in August.
The minister’s directive also includes shops that sell cosmetics and perfume, which have been given a year to replace their staff. Until then, women will continue buying make-up from men who smear lipstick or eye shadow on hairy wrists or rub cream on the back of their hands as they promote new products.
Saudi women have been pushing for women vendors in lingerie stores for years. In 2008, Reem Asaad, a financial adviser at a bank in Jeddah, spearheaded a campaign that has included postings on Facebook, letters to international lingerie stores that operate in the kingdom and workshops to train Saudi women to work as vendors. After Faqih’s new directive, Asaad says she feels women’s efforts have paid off.
“The publicity from the campaign bore fruit,” she said in a telephone interview from Jeddah. “The government has woken up.”
A similar directive in 2006 was never implemented. It was opposed by religious hardliners who are against women working in a mixed-gender environment.
Brand manager Azzam said the female staff will be given general as well as brand-specific training. The switch at La Vie En Rose, which has 30 stores in the kingdom, and La Senza, which has 45, should happen by end of September, he said.
Rabih Masarani, site manager for Bodique boutique, said one of the brand’s 11 stores converted on Sept. 5 at a mall in the western seaport city of Jeddah. Azzam and Masarani said the male workers will be provided jobs in other establishments owned by their companies.
Nawwaf al-Harbi, 26, has yet to be told whether he will need to change careers. He was hired in July by a new store after selling makeup for 10 years. Standing in front of a display of lacy thongs, some decorated with sparkling hearts, al-Harbi said he doesn’t think the government’s effort will succeed.
“When I was selling makeup, women would always tell me they hate buying from female staff because they felt they were being judged,” said al-Harbi.
Al-Harbi said he took a two-day course on selling panties, the only lingerie items carried by the store, and didn’t feel embarrassment during the training. He said his sales technique depends on the kind of shopper who walks through the door.
“If she looks conservative, I leave her alone,” said al- Harbi. “If she looks curious, I approach her and show her the rest of the collection.”
University student Shadi al-Salem, 22, said in an Aug. 6 interview in Riyadh he supports the new law because it “bothers me that salesmen ask intimate questions, like bra sizes.”
To avoid such exchanges, some women take along a male relative. At a Riyadh store recently, a man with a salt-and- pepper beard stood in front of an underwear collection called “Hello Sugar” as two women, totally covered in black, pointed to the items they liked. Picking a hanger with a white bra decorated with a pattern of red roses, the man asked the vendor if he had it in large.
Kholoud al-Fahd, 33, chose another solution. She shops in Bahrain, a short distance from her home in Dammam in the Eastern Province after a salesman three years ago picked an orange bra and told her it would suit her.
“I cursed him and left the store,” said al-Fahd, 33, who helps run the family’s interior decorating business.
Another reason she shops in Bahrain is that fitting rooms are banned in Saudi stores, which means women end up buying bras that don’t really fit.
“This is a country that covers you up and then sends people to strip you down,” she said.
(Photo Credit: cherrypatter)
Donna Abu-Nasr is the Bureau Chief of The Associated Press in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. She has been reporting on Saudi Arabia for AP since 2002. This article was originally published on Bloomberg.com.