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 lingerie will soon come to an end. She may get her wish as stores begin implementing a July Labour Ministry directive to push male salesmen aside and hire women after a failed effort in 2006.
Managers representing three boutiques said this month 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 Labour 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 UAE, he said. The US 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.”