This will surely suit you, Madam!

Abeer Mishkhas I Arab News
Publication Date: 
Tue, 2009-03-03 03:00

MAYBE it is an old subject, but I find myself drawn again to examine it. And, after reading an interview with Saudi academic Reem As’ad, maybe even getting enraged by it. As’ad is leading a Facebook campaign to boycott lingerie shops that employ men and she is aiming at the whole lingerie business in Saudi Arabia since women are not allowed to work in such shops. (Lingerie, by the way, is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “women’s underwear and nightclothes.”)

As’ad hopes that her campaign will force storeowners to rethink the option of hiring women; she hopes to breathe life into a never-enforced law that allows women to be employed in lingerie shops. The law has been lying 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 asking people to show their objections to employing men to sell women’s 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 chief of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice has said that he does not object to the 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, glossy shopping centers are crowded with shoppers of both sexes. They can go to any store they want and buy whatever they like. The lingerie stores are no different; they are open to every shopper with the only difference being that they have only men working in them. And this is what women find difficult. Asking the help of a male shop assistant in any other department is fine, but when it comes to women’s lingerie, it is only logical and acceptable to have women selling to women. This situation is of course not new; it has been the case for ages. Years pass and things stay the way they are. Women had to live with it and accept it as one more infringement on their rights — or, let us say, they simply accepted it as a fact of life. The difference now is that women are voicing their unhappiness and dissatisfaction 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 As’ad stated, quite rightly, in an interview with Arab News last October, “It is 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 Labor 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 and this way of thinking is very common in Saudi Arabia — but it is also usually overlooked. The most cursory glance at the shopping centers proves that women are not staying home and that they are mingling with men in the streets or 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 nonimplementation of the law allowing women to work in the lingerie shops.

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 every day, and the appointment of a woman as a deputy minister a few days ago gives us hope that change is on its way.

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