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.

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