Saudi begins goodbye to male lingerie salesmen

Male sales clerks to be phased out as Saudi lingerie stores can hire women

The Saudi government has threatened in July to shut any lingerie shops still employing male clerks

The Saudi government has threatened in July to shut any lingerie shops still employing male clerks

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 new products.

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.”

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Posted by: Ennis Stallings

I wanted to comment about: ...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 new products.

Hilarious experience to ask a man for foundation and he (of creamy Syria pale skin) rubbed foundation on his head and said, 'This is good color for you, exact match.' I was too tickled so I chuckled and walked away. I also would like to mention I am African American and am dark brown in color.

Posted by: john smith

What a totally bizarre place!? Heavy curtains shielding a shop because women will be working there?? Honestly, i've never heard anything so bizarre. Why people would want to live in such a place is beyond me, its like another planet.

Posted by: asian

I think its a good sign. Women do feel embarassed buying from male salesmen. This is not just about Islam, its about morality. I have seen several Asian men (who are not muslims) buy lingerie for their wives. Why just lingerie, I think this should apply for all womens garments

Posted by: Hassan Abdulla

This is definitely not Islamic by all aspects. Islam is and has been spreading democracy and freedom of choice in all aspects of life as long as you do not harm your fellow human.

- Mr Taimur & Mr Mudassir, I guess you both would not mind my driver buying your underwear?
- Sonnydubai, am afraid that freedom of choice has nothing to do with centuries and light years.
- American in Q8, protection is needed but not stealing away their freedom of choice, after all we all need protection!!!

Posted by: Naomi McGill

I trained the historic 26 women that were trained in lingerie sales & fitting when I was visting KSA in 2009 assisting Reem Asaad with her campaign.

Its an important first step to see women working in the lingerie stores, the next step will be to have change rooms across KSA and all chain stores perform fittings, and have change rooms, instead of sending female customers to the bathrooms in the shopping centres

There is one store in Saudi that is already offering a western style service La Perla on Thalia St, Jeddah, they had change rooms which was unique.

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