Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
Decades of embarrassing sales pitches from men over panties, bras and negligees officially come to an end in Saudi Arabia as a government decree that salesmen must be replaced by saleswomen comes into effect.
The kingdom's lingerie shops are expected to hire some 28,000 women to take over jobs from men in more than 7,300 shops. The move is expected to boost employment for the country's women, even if they still have to be driven to their place of work because the country still bans female drivers.
King Abdullah, who has promised to improve the status of women and create more jobs for Saudis in the private sector, last summer issued a list of decrees pertaining to employment in the kingdom including an order to "feminize" women's clothing shops.
The decree came after a successful boycott campaign, including on Facebook, by women tired and embarrassed by having to shop for intimate apparel in the presence of men. Still, it took nearly half a year to put the decree into practice.
"Jan. 4. Women officially allowed to work openly in malls!" tweeted Eman Al-Nafjan, a Riyadh-based blogger and feminist activist.
Well not all women. Fahd Al-Tukhaifi, an assistant undersecretary for development at the Ministry of Labor, made it clear to store owners on Monday that their saleswomen must be Saudi citizens and that any shop hiring foreign women would be punished. The ministry says that over 28,000 women have already applied for the jobs, Arab News reported.
There are lots of other requirements, among them that female staff must wear traditional abayas or uniforms that mimics them, that ladies' rooms be provided for them and that department stores have specially designated female-only sections.
Not everyone was happy with the news. Saudi's top cleric, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al-Asheikh, blasted the new ruling for contradicting Islamic law, or shariah. He warned in his Friday sermon that employing women at shops where they interact with men is a crime. The fact is much lingerie is bought by men for their wives, so the new regulation turns the tables on gender segregation.
"The employment of women in stores that sell female apparel and a woman standing face to face with a man selling to him without modesty or shame can lead to wrongdoing, of which the burden of this will fall on the owners of the stores," the mufti thundered.
An ultra-conservative kingdom governed by the orthodox Wahhabi stream of Sunni Islam, Saudi Arabia imposes strict gender segregation in public spaces. But the kingdom is also under pressure to create jobs for Saudis, especially for women who are increasingly educated and demanding opportunities outside their traditional place in the home.
Even as rising oil prices and production are fueling strong economic growth, unemployment is over 10 percent. In 2005, when the pressure to "Saudize" the labor market was less intense, the Labor Ministry gently requested lingerie shops to replace male salesmen with women. But the decision was never implemented until now.
Hiring female store clerks may go toward solving another problem bedeviling Saudi women - the fact that most clothing stores do not provide dressing rooms for women to try on clothing before they purchase it.
"Why? Because they are illegal!" explains blogger Susie of Arabia, an American living in the kingdom. "Since most sales positions in [Saudi Arabia] are jobs almost exclusively limited to men, even in women's clothing and lingerie stores, there are just too many wild X-rated possibilities that could conceivably happen in these changing rooms."
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