Saudi Arabia is on the cusp of great social change: women are for the first time being permitted to work outside the home as sales clerks in shops that serve a female clientele. Women in Saudi Arabia have long been barred from working in retail, lest they have to interact with male customers who are not relatives, which is forbidden. But in practice, the rule insured that women who wanted to buy things like clothing, makeup, and especially lingerie had to seek help from male sales clerks, whom the Times reports were mostly South Asian immigrants.
Activists who have been campaigning to change the law seized upon the idea of women being too embarrassed to talk about underwear with male sales clerks. So now women are allowed to work in stores that sell woman-y stuff to women. (Public spaces in Saudi Arabia, including stores and restaurants, are segregated by gender.) The Times traces the history of the campaign:
The campaign to change the rules began several years ago, and was led by Reem Asaad, a fashion-conscious financial adviser who speaks flawless English and is comfortable with the Western media. It appeared to have succeeded in 2006 when the government ordered that the sales jobs be transferred to women. But social conservatives and the religious establishment objected, arguing that Islam prohibited women from working outside the home and that putting women in retail shops would expose them to the view of any passing stranger. If the sales clerks were female, the shop windows would have to be covered, the opponents said.
The 2006 decree ended up never being enforced, in part because shop owners argued there was a shortage of women trained and qualified to take sales assistant jobs. Asaad organized a boycott of stores for added pressure, and last summer, King Abdullah decreed that the law change would go into effect this month. He also directed the so-called religious police not to hinder the implementation of the new rule.
This may seem like a small victory, given the many other freedoms women in Saudi Arabia are still denied — like the right to drive a car or vote (although women will apparently be granted the franchise in 2015). Realistically, in a country with little public transit, where all women must live under the supervision of a male guardian, and where women can be charged with prostitution for socializing with men who aren't relatives, this law will allow only those women who are wealthy enough to have drivers who can take them to and from work and lucky enough to have guardians who will tolerate their working in retail to take the available jobs. Still, over 28,000 women applied. And as the Middle Eastern scholar Thomas Lippman points out, this seemingly small change virtually ensures that a wider range of freedoms will be granted to women in future:
Over the coming generation, this is likely to be the farthest-reaching transformation in Saudi society. While women are still constrained by law, religion and custom, more and more are likely to enter the work force. They will be better educated than their predecessors, will marry later and will have fewer children. The range of jobs and professions open to them will expand. The Ministry of Labor is already compiling a list of jobs women will be permitted to hold. It won't include all jobs — no female miners or construction workers here — but it will be a much longer list than in the past, including some positions in law enforcement.
Once a country begins to permit women to pursue their educations and to choose to work outside the home, for a variety of structural reasons it becomes increasingly difficult for that country to deny them other basic rights.
Saudi Women Shatter The Lingerie Ceiling [NYTimes]