Saudi Shenanigans: Who sells lingerie to women?
In a new edict, shop owners will now have to employ women as salespersons in lingerie shops, which were earlier manned by men.
BY A CORRESPONDENT
May 15, 2006
In conservative Saudi Arabia, lingerie shops will now be manned by women. According to a new law, lingerie shops will now have to replace salesmen with saleswomen. So who have the Saudi women been buying lingerie from so far? You guess right, men! In a society where women are not allowed to venture out of their homes and speak to strange men, they have actually been buying their undergarments from men all these years. But, of course, since most of the salesmen are Pakistani, Indian, of Filipino and don't really count as 'real men', it doesn't really matter.
Of late, many women have been writing in to Saudi newspapers complaining of the acute embarrassment in buying undergarments from men. So how does the government solve this problem? Presto, women who face major restrictions when it comes to work will now work as saleswomen. And the shops will be screened with separate entrances for women so they do not have encounter men.
According to the Labor Minister Dr. Ghazi al Ghosaibi, this law has been driven by the concern for women’s role and their participation in society’s development and has been in the works for 25 years. So, for 25 years, no one noticed the anomaly in men selling undergarments to women in a conservative society such as Saudi Arabia? This is considered a major step in women's liberation in a country that does not allow women to drive or vote.
Shops selling underwear alongside other clothes and goods, including the long black abaya cloak women must wear in public, have two years to make the switch. Funds will be available for women to be trained for the jobs.
The change will be implemented in two phases. In the first phase beginning June 18, women will be provided jobs in shops along main streets, central markets, and major shopping centers. Then, in the second phase that will begin in 2007, women will be able to work in shops selling abayas and readymade outfits.
Of course, things may get a little awkward because as of now a lot of men also buy lingerie for their wives. Ironically, the edict is opposed by the hardliner factions in Saudi who do not want women to work, never mind if they have to buy lingerie from men. They don’t like the idea of women being employed in shopping malls. The idea of women working is too much for religious authorities, let alone working in a non-segregated milieu.
In reality, the lingerie dispute is an example of the growing differences in the Saudi society between government reformists and the hardliners. The reformist movement is slowly making small changes and gaining strength by the day.
According to Iyad Madani, the Minister of Culture and Information, a ban on the book “The Girls of Riyadh” written by a Saudi student is going to be lifted. The book has gay characters and drunken muslim teenagers living the good life in a city.
Recently, a British Council photographic exhibition was allowed that even had an image of a woman with her arm draped across a steering wheel.
Already there are women in banking and business. In December last year, two women were elected to the board of Jeddah's Chamber of Commerce and two more were appointed some months later.
As of now, the government is playing it smart and safe. Their agenda is
to open job opportunities for women. For starters, the lingerie saleswomen job can be pushed through because they can cite the ridiculousness of women having to buy lingerie from men.
As for women working in a mixed environment, the ministry has again circumvented the issue by insisting that shop owners shroud their shops so no one can look in and also have separate entrances for women.