Page last updated at 04:59 GMT, Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Saudi lingerie trade in a twist

Reem Asaad
Reem Asaad's campaign has been gaining pace on a social networking site

By Stephanie Hancock
BBC News, Jeddah

It would be bizarre in any country to find that its lingerie shops are staffed entirely by men.

But in Saudi Arabia - an ultra-conservative nation where unmarried men and women cannot even be alone in a room together if they are not related - it is strange in the extreme.

Women, forced to negotiate their most intimate of purchases with male strangers, call the situation appalling and are demanding the system be changed.

Girls feel uncomfortable when males are selling them lingerie, telling them what size they need... he's totally checking the girls out!
Rana Jad
"The way that underwear is being sold in Saudi Arabia is simply not acceptable to any population living anywhere in the modern world," says Reem Asaad, a finance lecturer at Dar al-Hikma Women's College in Jeddah, who is leading a campaign to get women working in lingerie shops rather than men.

"This is a sensitive part of women's bodies," adds Ms Asaad. "You need to have some discussions regarding size, colour and attractive choices and you definitely don't want to get into such a discussion with a stranger, let alone a male stranger. I mean this is something I wouldn't even talk to my friends about."

In theory, it should be easy enough to get women to staff lingerie shops, but parts of Saudi society are still very traditional and don't like the idea of women working - even if it's just to sell underwear to each other.


Rana Jad is a 20-year-old student at Dar al-Hikma Women's College, and one of Reem Asaad's pupils and campaign supporters.

"Girls don't feel very comfortable when males are selling them lingerie, telling them what size they need, and saying 'I think this is small on you, I think this is large on you'," she says.

"He's totally checking the girls out! It's just not appropriate, especially here in our culture."

Embarrassing experience

Nura, an administrative clerk at the same college, says she never buys lingerie in Saudi Arabia anymore.

"It's really embarrassing. They try to give comments -'this might suit you better than that' - it's really not ethical."

Saudi shopper
Saudi women must buy all garments untried, as fitting rooms are banned
To be fair to the male shop workers, many of them find the experience just as embarrassing as their women customers.

They are torn, says Ms Asaad, between trying to do their job as salespeople and not stepping on any toes by doing something inappropriate, that could land them in hot water.

"Since we do have the option of replacing male salespeople with female salespeople I don't see why this situation should continue."

Because physical contact between unmarried men and women in Saudi Arabia is forbidden under strict segregation laws, women can also not be properly measured for their underwear.

Worse still, the kingdom's religious police forbid lingerie shops even to have fitting rooms.

So if a customer wants to try an item on, she first has to pay for it, and then traipse to a public toilet to see if it fits.

If it doesn't, she can easily get a refund, but most women find the experience so humiliating they buy items without trying them on, only to get them home and find they don't fit and their money is wasted.


Ms Asaad's campaign began on the social networking website Facebook and is gradually getting larger.

Even Saudi Arabia's male-dominated press is starting to take note, with several newspapers reporting on her fight.

We the consumers are the final decision makers
Reem Asaad
The situation is all the more frustrating because the relevant legislation is already in place.

In 2006, the Saudi government passed a law stating that women should be allowed to staff any shops that sell women's items, be it clothing, accessories or underwear.

But the law has still not been properly implemented.

No official reason is given for this, but one probable cause is that hiring female staff would put a lot of men out of work - not a popular move in a country where 13% of men are unemployed.

There are also Saudi Arabia's Muslim clerics to contend with.

They wield a great deal of power in the kingdom and still believe a woman's natural environment is in the home.

The result is an uneasy stand off between those who want Saudi Arabia to modernise and others who want to preserve conservative traditions - and currently, the traditionalists are winning.

Ms Asaad and her campaigners have now decided to sidestep both the government and the religious establishment, and put pressure directly on retailers.

Campaigners are calling for a boycott of all lingerie stores that are staffed by men.

"We the consumers are the final decision makers," says Ms Asaad. "It's we who decide what to buy or not to buy, and that's where it will hit the most - in the pocket."

Campaigners stress they still want customers' male family members to be able to enter shops, but insist all staff selling products must be women.

"The concept is flawless," says Ms Asaad. "The concept of women selling women's underwear to other women is so natural that any other option is just invalid."

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