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Sat 14 Jan 2012 01:06 PM

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Smalls victory: lingerie stores boost Saudi’s working women

Ruling on women-only sales team in underwear stores marks social shift for Saudi

Smalls victory: lingerie stores boost Saudi’s working women
Saudi women shop at a lingerie store in the Saudi Red Sea port of Jeddah

For customers of the La Senza lingerie shop at one of
Riyadh's glitziest malls, the introduction of women-only sales teams this week
ended years of embarrassment.

No longer will female clients have to endure male shop
assistants trying to size them up for underwear by sight through their voluminous,
Islamically-approved robes.

For the women who stand behind the till, King Abdullah's
order last year to make lingerie shops an exclusively female domain also marks
a more profound social shift: a step forward for female employment.

"I feel happy and independent. I no longer need anyone
to support me financially, plus the job itself makes me strong," said
Amani, a young woman wearing a face-covering veil who was serving customers at
La Senza.

Women account for only 7 percent of Saudis employed by
private companies but make up almost half of all Saudis listed as looking for
work, according to 2009 government figures.

In this conservative Islamic kingdom, where gender
segregation is strictly enforced, paid employment has traditionally been seen
as an all-male preserve. The fact that even lingerie shops were mostly staffed
by men until this week had for years been seen by many Saudi women as an

By denouncing all forms of female employment as opening the
door to immoral interaction between the sexes, clerics and their enforcers, the
religious police, in this case ended up forcing women to reveal intimate
details of their body shape to men they did not know.

"It is very comfortable now. The shop is full of women
and one can move freely and ask about anything without feeling
embarrassed," said Heba, a La Senza customer.

In a country where women are banned from driving and need
the permission of a close male relative to work, travel and even have certain
kinds of surgery, female employment is another battleground between traditionalists
and those who want change.

While the ruling al-Saud family has always had a close
relationship with the influential and deeply conservative Wahhabi clerics, the
government has cautiously pushed for reforms that give women more rights.

"Ninety-nine percent of the society around me are
accepting the situation," said Amani.

"My family supports me a lot. They tell me to do
whatever you like as it is your life," she said, nevertheless declining to
give her surname to avoid causing her family embarrassment.

The clerical establishment remains unmoved, however. The
Grand Mufti, the kingdom's highest religious official, said in a recent sermon
in Riyadh that allowing women to work in shops was a crime that violates
Islamic laws.

Saudi political watchers say King Abdullah has tried to push
cautious change, but powerful conservatives have pushed him towards the middle

While he disappointed women's rights activists last year by
not granting women the right to drive, he said women could vote and run in
future municipal council elections and serve in the appointed Shura Council
that advises the monarchy.

"I think that 2012 will be an extension of government
efforts [to empower women] and even scaling up and building on those
efforts," Princess Amirah al-Taweel, wife of Saudi billionaire Prince
Alwaleed bin Talal, said in December.

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Social opposition is far from the only obstacle in the way of
Saudi women who want to work.

Not only do they need the permission of a father, elder
brother or husband, but given the ban on women driving and lack of good public
transport they need to hire a driver or rely on a male relative who can drop
them off.

For employers the situation is just as difficult. They have
to conform to strict segregation requirements that ensure unmarried men and
women will not be placed in the sort of unchaperoned proximity that could incur
the wrath of the religious police.

That need for segregated facilities helps explain the huge
disparity between the 56,000 Saudi women working for private companies and the
295,000 in government posts: girls' schools and other all-female environments make
it much easier to obey the rules.

But for all the difficulties, private companies want to
employ Saudi women, who are perceived by some as particularly keen to work
hard, said Khaled al-Khudair, the founder of a women's online employment agency
that started up last year.

His company, Glowork, advertises nearly 2,000 jobs pitched
specifically at Saudi women. He said 7,500 female job applicants have signed up
for his site.

More women than men graduated from higher education
institutions last year, but the labour market has so far failed to catch up.

Jarmo Kotilaine, chief economist of National Commercial Bank
in Jeddah, said Western countries went through a similar process in the 1960s,
before which time educated women frequently did not expect to parlay their
degrees into careers.

"Later the economic necessities changed this," he

But overall change is slow.

"My family does not accept the idea that I work in a
shop at all," said Sarah, a sales clerk in another Riyadh lingerie store.

"My husband supports me, but on condition that this
would be a temporary move till I find a better job in an all-female
environment, like a school," she said.

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