Hello boys: lingerie leads the fight for Saudi women's rights

An awkward exchange is taking place at the till of a lingerie shop in the hyper-modern Al Faisaliah shopping mall in downtown Riyadh. A male sales assistant is advising a veiled woman on the benefits of buying a pink, lacy under-wear set, as she listens with her head bowed.

Half a mile down the road, in the women-only section of the Kingdom Tower mall, one of the few places in which a woman can work on the shop floor, things are distinctly more relaxed.

Fardos, a Palestinian shop assistant, stands smiling in a sharp suit and a T-shirt with the word "Babe" emblazoned across her chest, and points to the sexy negligees in the boutique, "Boudoir". "Women come in here and try on these wonderful things. They ask me what looks good on them and what doesn't. Do you think they feel as comfortable when a man serves them?" she asked.

Her question is one that is dividing Saudi society, after a government edict broke with tradition and ordered lingerie shops in mixed-sex shopping areas to replace salesmen with women across the kingdom, as part of the drive to provide more jobs for females.

From 22 June, women such as Fardos will no longer be restricted to finding work in small, women- only shopping zones but will become employable in lingerie stores across the kingdom, at least in principle.

The Saudi labour ministry has warned that it will begin inspections to ensure men are not serving customers and those who fail to comply will face fines.

In reality, the edict could be difficult to implement. A survey in Jeddah found that of 247 shops selling lingerie and beauty products, only three employed women.

Once enough women are trained for the shop floor, windows will be blacked out and men will be barred from entering the premises, moves that consumer experts say are not conducive to boosting sales.

The salesmen who risk losing their jobs certainly see no benefits in having women on the shop floor. Samar Masri, a Syrian working in Lailaky Lingerie store in a Jeddah shopping mall, said 70 per cent of his customers were men buying for their wives.

"I think it's good for a woman to get advice from a salesman. We know what looks good on them," he said.

But working women such as Fardos say the presence of women on perfume, make-up and lingerie counters would strengthen the economy by encouraging women - as well as their husbands - to spend.

"Of course it's embarrassing to speak to a man about intimate things. I don't like it when I go to a lingerie shop and the salesman tells me what cup size I should buy, or when a man touches my face because he is putting make-up on me," she said.

In a country in which religious police still roam the cities' malls to track illicit interaction between men and women - they have been known to raid restaurants to catch out couples who are not married or related - the law could be difficult to implement.

To some, the lingerie debate encapsulates the ideological clash between government reformists pushing for freedoms and mullahs who fear where this may take Saudisociety. While the latter hasresisted change, sometimes with violence, it is the reformers who appear to be winning.

The country's National Society of Human Rights helped to create the first shelter for victims of domestic violence a year ago, and more are on the way.

For the first time in the past two decades, the country has a burgeoning cinema industry, and the importation of Western culture is regarded less suspiciously: a British Council photographic exhibition , in which British and Saudi artists explored the diversity of Muslim identities, was launched with great fanfare in Riyadh last week.

The exhibition included an image by the artist Manal Al Dowayan of a woman with her arm draped across a steering wheel, alluding to the custom which prohibits women from driving.

A ban on a Sex and the City- style novel, The Girls of Riyadh, written by a Saudi student, Rajaa al-Sanie, which features a gay teenager and Muslim girls getting drunk at weddings, is to be lifted, according to Iyad Madani, the Minister of Culture and Information.

Although critics have accused Saudi society of not liberalising at the swifter pace of its Gulf neighbours, women have gained a toehold in business, banking and media. In December last year, Jeddah's Chamber of Commerce elected its first two female board members, with a further two appointed some months later.

Some argue it is also the kingdom's demographic problems that are nudging women into the workplace. Saudi Arabia's growth rate is one of the highest in the world - 60 per cent of the population is under 21. King Abdullah's push for "Saudisation", a policy which prepares the indigenous population for work to counter the high level of foreign employees in the country, may also have triggered women's integration. Technology has made the concept of the female entrepreneur more palatable. A woman can circumvent the potential problems of a segregated office by running her own internet enterprise from home.

Princess Noura Bint Turki Al-Faisal, from Al-Nahda, a philanthropic society for women, said there was no debate over whether change was occurring, but the pace at which it was taking place. "We are a segregated society so we have to find a way for men to work with women without mixing with them," she said.

There is little doubt over the newconfidence of the modern Saudi women. As young teenagers enter the segregated lift in the Kingdom Tower mall, they discard their headscarves and traditional abayas to reveal jeans and kitten heels.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Analyst - 12 Month FTC - Entry Level

£23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Analyst is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Chefs - All Levels

£16000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To succeed, you will need to ha...

Recruitment Genius: Maintenance Engineer

£8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join an award winni...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive & Customer Service - Call Centre Jobs!

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Day In a Page

Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

Heavy weather

What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

World Bodypainting Festival 2015

Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

Don't call us nerds

Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high
How to find gold: The Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge

How to find gold

Steve Boggan finds himself in the Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge
Singing accents: From Herman's Hermits and David Bowie to Alesha Dixon

Not born in the USA

Lay off Alesha Dixon: songs sound better in US accents, even our national anthem
10 best balsamic vinegars

10 best balsamic vinegars

Drizzle it over salad, enjoy it with ciabatta, marinate vegetables, or use it to add depth to a sauce - this versatile staple is a cook's best friend
Wimbledon 2015: Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

Serena dispatched her elder sister 6-4, 6-3 in eight minutes more than an hour
Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

Greece referendum

Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

7/7 bombings anniversary

Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

Versace haute couture review

Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

No hope and no jobs in Gaza

So the young risk their lives and run for it
Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

Fashion apps

Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy