In June 2009, a group of 26 women completed a course in how to fit, stock, and sell lingerie. It was the first course of its kind ever offered in the Saudi Kingdom. Trained by an Australian woman using colorful bras donated by Victoria Secret, the women engaged in a ten day course culminating in a small graduation ceremony at a college in Jeddah on June 23, 2009. However, the graduates might have celebrated pre-maturely, as they are forbidden to put their new skills into practice.
Saudi Arabia is an Islamic theocracy, governed by Wahabbi ideology which is implemented through strict Sharia (Koranic) law. The society operates under rules of gender apartheid by segregating men and women who are not close relatives or married to each other. The two sexes are not permitted to stand in the same fast food lines together, be in a room alone together, travel in the same car, or meet at Starbucks for a cup of coffee. Violations of these rules are punishable by law.
Additionally, women’s rights are drastically lagging behind those of men. Women are forbidden to vote or drive. They cannot go to college or have surgery without permission from a male relative. And in courtroom trials, the testimony of a woman counts one half that of a man’s. In accordance with their country’s religion, women must be covered in black abbayas from head to toe whenever they are in public.
It seems ironic that in this environment women would be forced to discuss the details of their intimate apparel purchases with male strangers. Yet, this is the case.
Traditionally, women in Saudi Arabia were not permitted to own businesses of any kind, including lingerie shops. Until recently, all the lingerie shops were staffed 100% by men. In keeping with the notion that accurate depictions of women should not be publicly displayed, the lingerie shops showcased headless mannequins dressed in pajamas. Inside the stores were racks of racy lingerie, sexy bras, lacy teddies and thongs. But there was nowhere to try on lingerie before buying it, as the religious police banned dressing rooms in women’s apparel stores. They consider it is morally wrong for a woman to undress in a public place…..even when nobody can see her.
To make matters worse, because unmarried men and women are forbidden by law to touch each other, male staffers cannot measure women for their proper bra size. Women are left in a position where they must guess what size they wear. Sometimes they are subjected to the scrutiny of male staffers who size them up, looking them up and down, perhaps in disagreement with their request. “No, I think you need a smaller cup size” or “You should get a larger cup size” are common comments made by the salesmen.
Although refunds are readily available if women go home and discover their undergarments are the wrong size, the hassle and the embarrassment often result in women keeping what they purchased. Many own a collection of mis-sized bras and underwear. And, although women are permitted to shop for their clothes alone, many of them insist that their husbands accompany them to ensure that the salesmen keep in-line and act respectfully. Otherwise, when salesmen act inappropriately, women cannot speak up for fear that they will be punished, often by their own families.
In 2006 a law was enacted stating that only females can be employed at women’s lingerie shops. However, the law was never implemented. Approximately a year ago, a few all-female lingerie shops opened. They are primarily stand-alone boutiques or stores placed in the women’s-only section of shopping centers. Unlike the male-run shops, these stores allow buyers to try on garments prior to making a purchase. In order to ensure that men cannot see inside, the stores have no windows.
Many women are tired of the ordeal posed by purchasing intimate apparel from men. Heba al-Akki, a business woman, stated that she buys items quickly and runs out of the store as fast as possible, as though she were making an illegal purchase. Others have sworn off lingerie shopping in Saudi Arabia altogether, and instead shop for their undergarments in Dubai.
In March 2009, fifty women gathered together and decided to boycott all lingerie stores staffed by men. They urged other women to limit their lingerie shopping to stores that employ females. Boycott organizers decided that rather than working through the government, they would put pressure where it counts - - by hitting retailers in the pocketbook. The boycott was launched at a women’s center near the Red Sea Port of Jeddah. Additionally, almost 1700 people have signed a Facebook petition protesting the all-male staffing practices. Some Saudi newspapers have written about the boycott, but it is picking up steam predominantly through word-of-mouth.
Hoping to expedite the hiring of women, Suhair al-Qurashi, head of the private Dar al-Hekma College, got the idea to hold the training course teaching women to fit and sell lingerie, and deal with customer complaints. That way, if the opportunity for female employment in lingerie shops arose, there would be qualified saleswomen to accept the positions.
Some salesmen hint that they too support female employment in lingerie shops, explaining that the current situation is often embarrassing to salesmen as well. Nevertheless, there are large segments of Saudi society that still resist the idea. Traditional and religious women are somewhat suspicious of female-run stores…..even if they are merely selling lingerie. And, both men and women are concerned that employing women in lingerie shops will take away jobs from men in a country that already suffers a 10 to13 percent unemployment rate of the male population.
To date, though the graduates have completed 40 hours of intense instruction over a ten day period, they are unable to implement their knowledge, as stores still aren’t hiring women.
The boycott continues.