Thursday, January 5, 2012
A Victory for Saudi Women
It was one of those head-scratching confusions about Saudi society that was impossible to wrap one's head around - a strictly religious and gender-segregated society forcing its black-cloaked women to purchase bras and panties and cosmetics from a men-only sales force. It was common for the salesmen to size up their customers, telling the women things like, "You need a 36C not a 34B." The whole situation was distasteful, undignified, embarrassing and shameful for a country that claims its women are not oppressed and are protected and insulated from the morally corrupt West.
Since the passage of a law in 2006 banning men from selling lingerie and cosmetics to women in Saudi Arabia, it was "business as usual" for the last five years as business owners chose to ignore the law in hopes that it would just be forgotten. But the women of the country would not allow it to just fade away.
What it finally took for the law to be enforced was a Royal Decree and threats of penalties and loss of business.
So finally, after years of protests, boycotting lingerie shops, and outcries about the absurdity of it all, a significant change has come to the holy land of Islam. One may not think that employing women in sales positions is a big deal, but in a place like Saudi Arabia, it presented major headaches and additional expenses for business owners. In typical Saudi fashion, it's much more complicated than it needs to be. The interior of female-only shops must not be visible to anyone from the outside. There must be a minimum of at least three women working each shift. Keeping men and women separated in a working environment, providing security for female employees, and other extra measures are required to employ women in sales positions.
I remember in 2010 as the Saudi religious police objected vehemently when Hyper Panda (a mega-supermaket chain in Saudi Arabia) hired female cashiers on the basis that the move was an effort to "westernize" Saudi society. And now, apparently, the religious police have done a complete about face, cooperating with the Labor Ministry to ensure the success of this new measure which champions women's rights.
This is indeed a huge victory for Saudi women, who increasingly seem to yearn for more rights and a more active role in their society despite opposition. While gaining every inch is a hard-fought uphill battle, Saudi women should be proud of this achievement.