Though I learned about many cultural differences writing my recent piece on the lingerie economy in the Middle East, one of the most fascinating was that women couldn’t work behind store counters. In Saudi Arabia, a deeply conservative country where La Vie en Rose, the company I profiled, has the most stores, a strict adherence to the country’s Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam means men and women are strictly segregated in public. As a result, less than 15% of the 10 million women in the country are part of the workforce.
Luckily, times are a-changin’. The battle to have female clerks in lingerie stores (so that, as Foreign Policy journalist Ellen Knickmeyer eloquently puts it, “Saudi women wouldn’t have to talk to male clerks about cup sizes and overflowing muffin tops”) has been long and, until now, fruitless. Despite a change in the labour law back in 2006, a boycott, and online campaigns by Saudi female activists, nothing tangible had happened in the past five years. Nothing, that is, until this June, when King Abdullah, known for being somewhat progressive about women’s rights, intervened and proclaimed female clerks must be the ones to sell “women’s necessities,” even in malls where men are present. Ghaith Assam, the brand manager for Fawaz Alhokair Group, the company that owns La Vie en Rose and Quebec-based La Senza in Saudi Arabia, told Bloomberg this month that all the stores (75 between the two brands) should have made the male-to-female switch by the end of September.
Though for westerners selling underwear is no rite of passage, this marks big progress in the country where unmarried men and woman avoid eye contact. Activists aren’t too quick to celebrate, however, and are already worried what will happen when Abdullah, who the Saudi government says was born in 1924, passes the torch.