Opinion and Editorial

Why Don’t We Get Women Shopkeepers, Please!

Abeer Mishkhas (ARAB ANGLE)
Filed on March 2, 2009

Maybe it has become an old subject, but I find myself drawn again to look at it, and maybe even get enraged by it, upon reading an interview with Saudi academic Reem As’ad.

She is leading a Facebook campaign to boycott lingerie shops that employ men. Thus far she’s aiming this at the whole lingerie business in Saudi, as women are not allowed to work in any such shops.

As’ad hopes that her campaign will force storeowners to rethink the option of hiring women, hoping to revive a suspended Labour law that would allow women to be employed in lingerie stores. The law has been dormant in a drawer somewhere for two years now. As’ad’s campaign started a few months ago with posts on websites and through e-mails to ask people to show their objection to employing males to sell lingerie.

But it is interesting, for the sake of argument at least, to wonder about the delay in implementing the law. Logistical explanations aside, we all know that the decision was not popular with many religious scholars, and they have not kept their views a secret. Although the former Commission chief has said that he does not object to the mere idea, he nevertheless insisted on the complete segregation between men and women in the workplace.

The situation as it is today is like this: huge and glossy shopping centres are crowded with shoppers from both sexes. They can go to any store they want to purchase items. The lingerie stores are not different here, they are open to all, the only difference being that they have male employees, and this is what women find difficult. Asking the help of a shop assistant in any other department is fine, but when it comes to private pieces of clothing, it is only logical and acceptable to have women selling those items. This is of course not new, it has been the case for ages.

Years pass and things stay the way they are. They had to live with it and accept it as one more breach of their rights, or let’s say they accepted it as a fact of life. The difference now is that women are voicing their unhappiness with the situation. But in a society that counters any changes to its lifestyle with an insistence on “privacy”, we have to wonder if the situation in the lingerie shops is preserving that “privacy”. Why on earth would someone object to having women selling lingerie?

Why would anyone insist on having a man explain to women what shape or size they should buy? As Ms As’ad stated, quite rightly, in an interview with Arab News last November, “It’s really strange that Saudi Arabia is the only country where you see men selling women’s lingerie.

Women walk around covered from head to toe, and yet they have to discuss the size and material of their undergarments with strange men. Isn’t this odd?” It certainly is. There are situations where, dressed in an abaya, a woman will be advised by a man on the size she requires. “I think this is your size,” or “This suits you best, madam.” Not only can he not provide useful advice, but any woman would be keen to end the embarrassment as swiftly as possible.

In the same article a source in the Labour Ministry said, “the ban comes from a strict interpretation of the Islamic principle that women should not mix with men outside their immediate family”. This is not surprising really, as this logic is quite active in Saudi Arabia, but it is usually overlooked. Just one look at the shopping centres proves that women are not staying home and they are mingling with men in the street or the shops or cafes and, in parts of the Kingdom, in the work place as well.That really tells us that the “strict” point of view is out of touch, yet it still dominates, and we can see the result in the suspension of the law allowing women to work in those stores.

Ms As’ad’s campaign might end without a result, as she is not fighting a concrete law or body. She and her supporters are up against a way of thinking that insists that women stay at home. But that way of thinking is being challenged everyday, and the appointment of a woman as deputy minister just few days ago gives us hope that change is on its way.

Abeer Mishkhas is an Arab writerbased in London. She can be reachedat abeermishkhas@yahoo.co.uk

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