Saudi lingerie blues



 
Appalled with always having to deal with male sales staff when purchasing intimate clothing items such as bras or panties, and other exquisite lingerie, Saudi women are campaigning to implement a policy of "women only" sales staff in the country's lingerie stores. MENASSAT met with Reem Asaad, one of the pioneers of the initiative, whose Facebook campaign has been gaining ground on the twist in Saudi’s lingerie trade.
 
By ALEXANDRA SANDELS
 
SAUDI LINGERIE
Window shopping for lingerie in Saudi Arabia. © Robert Bonnett from his blog (robertbonnett.wordpress.com)

JEDDAH, March 31, 2009 (MENASSAT)-  In Saudi Arabia, a man and a woman sipping a latte together at the local Starbucks risk getting into trouble with the Kingdom’s feared religious police, the “Muttawa”,  if they are not either spouses or related to each other.

That was recently the case when a 37-year old mother of three was detained by the religious police earlier this year for sitting with a male colleague at a Starbucks coffee shop in Riyadh.

Given Saudi Arabia’s strict public morality code, it comes perhaps as a bit of a surprise that Saudi women are forced to deal with men only when purchasing their most intimate and personal clothing apparel. Because in the Kingdom, all lingerie shops are staffed entirely by men.

So here in ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia, men are providing advice on bras and thongs to female clients, eyeing them up and down in order to figure out their cup size.

Expectedly, many female shoppers find buying lingerie in Saudi Arabia a daunting task and Saudi women are now embarking on campaigns that call for the system to be changed and for women to be employed in lingerie stores.

Most recently, a group of 50 women in the Red Sea Port city Jeddah launched a public boycott of lingerie shops last week, that will end when they start employing women.

Facebook initiative

One of the pioneers in the lingerie initiative is Reem Asaad, a finance teacher at Dar al-Hikma Women's College in Jeddah.

Fed up after facing several “inconvenient” situations with the sales staff in lingerie shops, Asaad started a group a few months ago on the social networking site Facebook that calls for the staffing of lingerie stores by women only. 

“This is an initiative by women consumers in Saudi society. I myself teach portfolio management far away from the lingerie business. I did this from a female perspective,” Asaad told MENASSAT.

Asaad’s Facebook group “El Malabis Lilniswan Dakhiliyan”, or “Women’s Undergarments,” quickly grew in size with nearly 1,700 people signing an online petition posted by Asaad. 

Press coverage of the issue has also increased with both international media outlets and Saudi newspapers covering the lingerie trade twist.

Asaad said that she chose the social media site as launching pad for her initiative because it is “the fastest and cheapest way” to get information out in her society.

Law “already in existence”

Although lingerie stores in Saudi are currently only staffed by men, Asaad emphasizes that a law stipulating that only women work in stores that sell women’s products has been on the books since 2006.

Her Facebook initiative, says Asaad, aims to push for the implementation of that legislation. 

“According to (Saudi Arabia’s) Labor Law 120: 8, all stores that sell products tailoring to women need to be staffed by women only. We’re trying to sort out the delay of the implementation by the authorities,” she said. 

The Saudi government has given little reason as to why the legislation has gone unenforced, but it is believed that the delay is partly due to religious hard-liners who oppose employing women in mixed environments such as shopping malls.

For Assad’s part, she says her initiative has received “tremendous support” from the public and only the odd negative remark.

Harassment and embarrassment

When asked about harassment in lingerie shops, Asaad said that provocative remarks from the employees are common, using the examples of female clients being told by the sales clerks that a specific color “would look nice on them” or that they should pick a bigger sized panty - an apparent reference to their weight.

Twenty-three year old Jeddah-resident Hana who has the privilege of often traveling abroad says she would never buy lingerie in Saudi Arabia under the current conditions unless there is an “emergency”.

“I wait to buy my lingerie until I travel abroad. It’s just too embarrassing here. A random man giving me advice on panties and bra cup sizes? I don’t think so,” Hana told MENASSAT.

Finding the right sized lingerie is another issue since changing rooms are banned in Kingdom.  So like other Saudi women, Hana would not be sure whether she’s chosen the right size until she tries the product on at home.

Lingerie training program

Unlike Asaad and Hana, Khaled, a young Yemeni employed in a lingerie store in a Jeddah mall claims his female customers actually prefer buying their lingerie from men, although he admitted being a bit uncomfortable with his job at first.

In response to Khaled’s claim, Assad emphasized the lack of trained saleswomen in the lingerie market.

“Those lingerie stores who have changed their male sales staff to women have lost seventy percent of their revenues. But we are trying to correct the problem,” she said.

In a bid to bring trained sales women into Saudi lingerie shops, Asaad says that the dean at her university, Dar El-Hekma, has offered to provide training to 200 women in Jeddah with the help of “international lingerie experts” who will be flown in for the training program.

Asaad said that the application process for the program has already begun.