Male and female retail employees in Saudi Arabia will be forcibly separated by a partition while working, according to the official Saudi Press Agency.
The strict guidelines contained in a memorandum of understanding between the Ministry of Labour and the Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV), the kingdom's religious police, states that the partition must be at least 160cm high and that retailers have 30 days to install them before risking punishment.
Saudi women have only recently been allowed to join the workforce, and only in restricted roles such as salespeople in lingerie and cosmetic stores or in government-run, all-female factories.
The Saudi Ministry of Labour has pushed to further open up the workforce to women, with the unemployment rate among Saudi females reaching 36 percent according to the Central Department of Statistics and Information. Saudi women account for only 7 percent of citizens employed by private companies.
Religious conservatives have put up a strong resistance, claiming that mixing genders at the workplace would lead to the Westernisation of Saudi society.
In December, CPVPV chief Abdul-Latif Al Alsheikh criticised the Ministry of Labour for failing to maintain a “good, clean environment” for women working at retail stores.
According to the Saudi Press Agency, this public criticism probably prompted the ministry to seek a compromise in order to continue implementing its policy to employ more women.
Saudi Arabia is one of the most conservative societies in the Middle East, employing strict gender segregation across much of everyday life.
Minister of Labour Adel Fakeih last year said resistance by religious conservatives was making it difficult to implement the ministry’s women employment policy, but he denied allegations of Westernising society. “We want to open a whole new world for women, and at the same time will be in tune with our culture with how we’d like our families to continue to be,” he told the Washington Post in November. “We don’t want necessarily to copy a Western lifestyle.”
* Story originally reported by Riyadh Bureau