David E. Miller
Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (AHN)
For Fatma Qaroub, a 28-year-old personal trainer from the Saudi commercial capital of Jedda, buying lingerie has been an embarrassing affair. Every time she went shopping, she would encounter male vendors who would ask her about her measurements, her preferred style and whether she was married or single.
Qaroub was fed-up. So she started a Facebook page titled "Enough embarrassment," which quickly garnered 11,000 supporters. Other women initiated campaigns to boycott Saudi women's clothing shops that employed men only.
It seems that the pressure has finally borne fruit. King Abdullah issued a list of decrees pertaining to employment in the kingdom a week ago. Among them, an order to "feminize" women's clothing shops in Saudi Arabia within the month. Males employees are out and, because the sexes are forbidden to mix at the workplace, they will be replaced by women.
"This is a very important decision for women," Qaroub told The Media Line. "Female unemployment was the main reason for my campaign, but also the unnecessary shame women face."
An ultra conservative kingdom governed by the orthodox Wahhabi stream of Sunni Islam, Saudi Arabia imposes strict gender segregation in the public sphere. 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. Last month, Labor Minister Adel said companies would be able to keep an expatriate employee on their payrolls for no more than six years and that some businesses might lose the right to hire foreigners altogether.
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.
While women work as doctors and journalists and in business, retailing is considered to be especially sensitive because it is difficult to segregate male and female shoppers. The Saudi-owned daily Al-Hayat reported that 15 female cashiers were re-hired this month in the Carrefour shopping center in the eastern city of Al-Khabar, nine months after the Labor Ministry forced them to quit.
The solution was to create a sex-segregated checkout line. "We won't allow [gender] mixing," a Carrefour employee assured viewers on the Arab satellite channel Al-Arabiya. "Families will be serviced by female cashiers whereas single men will work with male cashiers."
Qaroub said that due to the wide media coverage her campaign received, she has found that men have become more supportive of "feminization" than women because they now realize the humiliation their wives suffered.
Women's organizations in Saudi Arabia estimated that as the decision is implemented, as many as 5,000 jobs will immediately become available. But Saudi businessman Fawwaz Al-Hakir was much more optimistic, telling Al-Arabiya that as many as 500,000 jobs for women would materialize within three years. He said more positions would be needed as women begin frequenting clothing shops without embarrassment.
But Eman Al-Nafjan, a Riyadh-based blogger and feminist activist, questioned the new decision, saying the devil was in the details.
"It's not very clear how they will implement the decision in one month's time," Al-Nafjan told The Media Line. "Even people who are supportive of the decisions have many questions."
Al-Nafjan said women are only employed in "women only" malls, which exist throughout the kingdom, but are of lesser quality than regular malls. She said the short time slot for implementation outlined in the decree was unrealistic.
"Today, women mostly work in the education, health and banking sectors. Saudi women don't know how to work in shops," she said. "Will all the current salesmen be fired?"
The decision was framed by the government as an employment issue, not a women's rights one. Al-Nafjan admitted that the decision contributed in bettering the skewed Saudi labor market. She said that during a recent visit to a mall, she was pained to encounter a female college graduate working as a security guard at the entrance to a fitting room in a clothing shop, while expatriate male vendors manned the cashiers.
"I have nothing against foreign workers, but why are we importing expats when we have all these women who are desperate for a job?" Al-Nafjan said she believed between 85-90 percent of sales clerks in Saudi shops were foreign.
Following the royal decision, Qaroub said she would abandon her "Enough Embarrassment" Facebook campaign, substituting it with a new campaign titled "The Embarrassment is Over." The new campaign will focus on the need for training women to work as shop vendors.
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