When Saudi wealth manager Reem Asaad tried to determine whether or not the item of underwear she was buying in a Jeddah lingerie shop was the correct size or not, she almost came to blows with the male shop assistant.
“I couldn’t touch the product because it was sealed so I took a corner of the sticker off to see the design and the shop assistant told me I couldn’t because it would get him into trouble with the Mutawa, the religious police,” she tells Arabian Business.
Asaad ended up leaving the shop, not only furious that other shoppers had wrongly assumed she was being told off by the assistant for attempting to take the item without paying but because she had, like so many other women in Saudi Arabia, been forced to discuss intimate details with a man in a country renowned for its strict gender segregation.
Determined that something should be done to avoid other embarrassing incidents such as hers, Asaad set up a campaign aimed at forcing retailers in the kingdom to implement rules banning men from working in female apparel and cosmetics stores. The legislation had already been in place for several years, but it just wasn’t being enforced by authorities or retailers.
Nearly four years after Asaad launched her Facebook group, Saudi Arabia’s Labour Ministry announced it would close down any lingerie shop that failed to replace all male staff within six months. The move created thousands of jobs in a country racked with rising unemployment rates and saw Asaad ranked the third most powerful person in the Arab world in this year’s Arabian Business Power 500 list.
The decision to ban men was a significant move away from the kingdom’s strict restrictions it interprets from the Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam. Men and women are strictly segregated in public, a rule that has shut women out of sales jobs in malls and stores.
In a country where women are banned from driving and need permission of a close male relative to work and travel, the decision to ban male employees in favour of women was seen as a significant push by the ruling Al Saud family to give more women rights in addition to tackling rising unemployment rates.
While Asaad admits she had no dialogue with officials in the kingdom — “I think there were decisions in the making that we did not know of but you get accustomed to that in Saudi” — there is little doubt that her campaign helped raise public awareness both in and outside of the kingdom.
Asaad’s Facebook campaign initially started as a consumer rights issue before snowballing into a women’s rights issue after gaining more than 6,000 supporters in just one year.
“Some of the practices were completely unacceptable. For instance, there was no return and exchange policy. I understand that for hygienic reasons you can’t try [some items] but if you can’t see what you are buying, how are you supposed to know what fits?”
Article continued on next page