The “feminization” of Saudi employment across shops that came into effect on Thursday, has ended decades of awkward discussions with salesmen about undergarment sizes and styles.
The royal decree issued by King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz in June stated that women would replace men as employees in stores that catered to women-specific products was implemented on Jan. 5 despite objections by senior clerics.
More than 28,000 Saudi women have come forward to take up jobs at shops selling lingerie and women’s necessities, including perfume, cosmetics, clothes, and child-care products throughout the kingdom, according to a senior official at the Ministry of Labor.
Fahd al-Tukhaifi, assistant undersecretary for development at the ministry, told Arab News that women would replace salesmen in 7,353 stores across the Kingdom. Tukhaifi added that Riyadh province tops the list with the most number of Saudi women as 5,621 are ready to work as saleswomen at lingerie shops. Makkah province follows with 5,086 and Eastern Province with 3,183 women wanting to work. The remaining women who have registered for the job are spread over 10 other provinces.
The Labour Ministry’s order to allow women to work in undergarment shops sparked wide criticism from the kingdom’s top clerics three years ago. Several fatwa “religious decree” were issued at that time to exclude women from working in such field.
Women activists demanding their rights to have a safe shopping environment responded back by creating a campaign on Facebook called '”Enough Embarrassment”.
The webpage has gathered more than 11,000 supporters and in 2009 they called for a two-week boycott of all lingerie shops. The group called for creation for outlets where women could buy products in women-only stores. Many women would boycott women’s clothing shops that hired only men only while others would fly to neighboring Gulf nations just to be able to shop.
The boycott was aimed to bring into force the directive of the former Minister of Labor Dr. Ghazi Al-Gosaibi to replace salesmen with women. This directive was supposed to be effective in 2006, but was never implemented.
It was only on Thursday that the activists page proudly proclaimed in its status update that they had reached “the end of embarrassment”.
The campaign’s founder, Fatima Garoub, told AFP that despite initial hesitation among retailers on implementing the law, “They are now responding positively, especially since they have no choice.”
Another activist, Reem Assad, who works as an investment analyst at Saudi Fransi Capital told Saudi Gazette on Friday, “That the contradiction is in the fact that we are supposedly the most conservative nation in the world and yet women here are required to buy undergarments from shops manned by men.
“Social media should be thanked for resolving so many of the issues we face today because, it spreads everywhere and cannot be ignored,” she added.
Meanwhile, the Kingdom’s Grand Mufti and senior cleric Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al-Asheikh has warned shop owners and traders of consequences if they fail to comply with the principles of Shariah while employing women. He said that employing women at shops where they have to interact with men is a crime and against Islamic law.
He warned that making women interact with men in sales and cash counters would result in lots of “harm”. Asheikh warned against being deceived by propaganda toward such forbidden things.
The labor ministry has asked 400 inspectors to ensure scompliance to the new law by all of the kingdom’s 4,300 lingerie stores.