Best of 2012: Reem Assad interview

Reem Asaad’s Facebook campaign against men working in lingerie shops in Saudi Arabia led to the creation of thousands of new jobs for women in the kingdom. She tells Claire Valdini how she did it
Best of 2012: Reem Assad interview
By Claire Valdini
Sun 15 Jul 2012 01:11 PM

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?”

“At a point in time, this was a consumer’s rights [campaign]; it was not really a women’s campaign at first. It started off as a personal thing and quickly it evolved into consumer rights. Then the women’s rights came later,” she says.

She adds that she doesn’t see herself as a women’s rights campaigner but more of an economic activist. “We are laying the groundwork for so many things. Saudi Arabia is a country in the making. It’s a relatively old country but there are so many ends that need to be taken care of,” she explains.

As her campaign gained in momentum in the kingdom, in February 2010, Asaad called for a two-week boycott of underwear stores employing men and instead asked women to shop in the minority of stores — mostly in the more liberal city of Jeddah — that do have female sales staff. The campaign gained significant traction across the world when international media outlets picked up the issue and started to report it.

“If you were to ask me how to describe the nature of the campaign I would definitely say it was media-supported and backed by some ideological [people] in the country who wanted to eliminate certain business practices,” says Asaad.

“There was significant support in Saudi. I had [Facebook] members from New Zealand, Australia and people from Sweden — human rights hotspots. The UK also contributed a significant amount of verbal support,” she adds.

But not everyone supported the campaign. Asaad admits she was approached by several leading retailers offering their support in exchange for her halting the campaign. Religious commentators, including the country’s most senior cleric, were particularly vocal.

Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al Sheikh, Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti, claimed that women working in lingerie shops contradicted Islamic law. “The employment of women in stores that sell female apparel and a woman standing face to face with a man selling to him without modesty or shame can lead to wrongdoing, of which the burden of this will fall on the owners of the stores,” he said during a sermon shortly after authorities announced their plans to crack down on retailers employing men.

But the decision to employ women in lingerie outlets isn’t just about females having access to correctly fitting underwear. The economic and social impact on the kingdom is considerable in a country where the government can no longer afford to reduce rapidly rising unemployment rates by creating public sector jobs.

Over one million Saudis are currently receiving unemployment benefit, with women making up 80 percent, officials at the Ministry of Labour said in March.

More than 28,000 women applied for jobs at lingerie stores across the Gulf state, according to the Ministry of Labour. While the exact number of jobs created hasn’t been documented, local media reports in the kingdom reported that women would replace salesmen in 7,353 stores across the country.

The ripple effect of employing so many women is even more significant, adds Asaad. “It’s not just about one key change; it’s about women being at the forefront of policy, women going backwards and forwards to work every day, having medical coverage for the first time in their lives and daring to dream of retirement benefits.

“It does not stop at one level, it is a continuous development but we had to lay the groundwork and this is one of the things that the campaign did. I cannot take all of the credit; the credit goes to the people that sent their daughters and sisters to work and supported the campaign. It might have been for financial reasons… the middle class is dwindling and gradually falling into the lower income classes so we have to push them back into the workplace,” she adds.

Much of the success of Asaad’s campaign stems from her decision to focus her attentions on existing legislation that is simply not implemented. The 2011 ruling was the government’s second stab at enforcing a ruling originally rolled out in 2006, but not enforced in part due to the hardliners in the religious establishment who opposed the idea of women working where men and women congregate together.

“Having the government issue [new] policies is almost impossible so you do things that are already there. There are many loopholes in work guidelines that are not properly implemented so we create actionable steps [to enforce them],” explains Asaad.

“Because the law was already there, I didn’t need to alter anything, I just ignite and stir public opinion and demand. That was one of the key successes of the lingerie campaign.”

Asaad adds that she is keeping this in mind as she steps up her campaigning to target rising youth unemployment in the kingdom. Top of her list of priorities is targeting the areas of the private sector that do not provide childcare facilities for their female employers. Legislation, she adds, is already in place, but like the lingerie employee issue, simply not enforced at a government level.

“My next target is to make the workplace a better place for working women. It seems small but it is huge in Saudi,” she explains.

“The approach I take is that I target unimplemented laws and regulations by the Ministry of Labour in the private sector. For instance, every organisation that employs X number of women must have some kind of daycare facility but 95 percent of them don’t abide by that rule because women didn’t use to work in the mixed-private sector but now they do,” she adds.

Like the lingerie campaign, Asaad believes that providing daycare facilities would have a significant economic impact on everyday households in the Saudi Arabia. Around 130,000 Saudi students are currently enrolled at universities outside the country as part of a scholarship programme for young nationals to study abroad but many will return back to a country unable to find employment.

“More and more people are coming into the workplace… from abroad having acquired an education through government scholarships but the government is no longer a provider of jobs. There is a saturation [of public sector jobs] so we need to take down barriers to job creation,” she adds.

Asaad might not take sole credit for banning men in lingerie shops but if her achievements in the past are anything to go by, it won’t be long before every private sector organisation offers its female employees childcare facilities.

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