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
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.”
Article continues on
A similar directive in 2006 was never implemented. It was
opposed by religious hardliners who are against women working in a mixed-gender
Brand manager Azzam said the female staff will be given
general as well as brand-specific training. The switch at La Vie En Rose, which
has 30 stores in the kingdom, and La Senza, which has 45, should happen by end
of September, he said
Rabih Masarani, site manager for Bodique boutique, said one
of the brand’s 11 stores converted on Sept. 5 at a mall in the western seaport
city of Jeddah. Azzam and Masarani said the male workers will be provided jobs
in other establishments owned by their companies.
Nawwaf al-Harbi, 26, has yet to be told whether he will need
to change careers. He was hired in July by a new store after selling makeup for
10 years. Standing in front of a display of lacy thongs, some decorated with
sparkling hearts, al-Harbi said he doesn’t think the government’s effort will
“When I was selling makeup, women would always tell me they
hate buying from female staff because they felt they were being judged,” said
Al-Harbi said he took a two-day course on selling lingerie
items carried by the store, and didn’t feel embarrassment during the training.
He said his sales technique depends on the kind of shopper who walks through
“If she looks conservative, I leave her alone,” said al-Harbi.
“If she looks curious, I approach her and show her the rest of the collection.”
University student Shadi al-Salem, 22, said in an Aug 6
interview in Riyadh he supports the new law because it “bothers me that
salesmen ask intimate questions.”
To avoid such exchanges, some women take along a male
relative. At a Riyadh store recently, a man with a salt-and- pepper beard stood
in front of an underwear collection called “Hello Sugar” as two women, totally
covered in black, pointed to the items they liked.
Kholoud al-Fahd, 33, chose another solution. She shops in
Bahrain, a short distance from her home in Dammam in the Eastern Province after
a salesman three years ago picked an orange bra and told her it would suit her.
“I cursed him and left the store,” said al-Fahd, 33, who
helps run the family’s interior decorating business.
Another reason she shops in Bahrain is that fitting rooms
are banned in Saudi stores, which means women end up buying items that don’t
Subscribe to Arabian Business' newsletter to receive the latest breaking news and business stories in Dubai,the UAE and the GCC straight to your inbox.