If you ask me, underwear shopping is an exasperating experience which involves traipsing trough department stores for a day looking for the holy grail of bras, and is occasionally punctuated by a snarky salesperson who find it necessary to point out that the girls department might have something more my size. If you ask Reem Assad, lingerie shopping is an uncomfortable and embarrassing encounter between a woman who needs a new bra and an overzealous salesman who wants to know too many intimate details. But not anymore. The New York Times reports that a 2006 Saudi Arabian law which banned men from working in women’s clothing and cosmetics stores that fell by the wayside will finally be put into effect by the Ministry of Labor starting this month.
In 2009, Assad, an investment analyst at Saudi Fransi Capital, created a Facebook group that urged women to boycott lingerie shops in hopes that the Ministry would have no choice but to enforce the new law. When a royal decree was finally issued last summer, Assad was thrilled.
“The Royal Decree…means that 44,000 Saudi women will have jobs instead of staying at home and living on whatever their husbands or fathers can offer. Through this initiative, we have turned passive members of society into active contributors and we have given them the independence they need in a soaring economy.”
While it seems illogical that men would sell women’s underwear in a place with such strict division between the sexes, it’s also a major change for women to join the work force or even the public sphere in Saudi Arabia. But it would appear that even in a country that’s averse to changes that bring women into the public sphere, both conservatives and progressives are at ease knowing that women will no longer face harassment or unwanted attention from male sales assistants.
Women’s rights proponents like Assad hope that the decree will help empower women to find an active role in their society. Saudi women — who, regardless of age, are appointed a male guardian, are forbidden from driving, and are banned from working in 24 industries — already face more than a few barriers to equality. Law, religion, and custom hold women back from possibilities and help explain why only 15% of the labor market is female. Like most countries, though, the majority of university students are women. This largely untapped resource has been sitting dormant, but it looks like now might be the time when Saudi women start to gain power. With the Saudi economy booming and families needing more money to afford living in an increasingly expensive country, more and more of these highly-educated women are joining the workforce.
Lippman, the author of the New York Times opinion piece, believes that economic forces will eventually win out against traditionalist beliefs. The political power that comes with employment will bring the “farthest-reaching transformation in Saudi society.” Earlier this year, King Abdullah extended the right to vote and run in municipal elections to women, a reform that will give them more visibility in Saudi society.
While it may be easy to scoff at the notion of women selling underwear as progress from our comfy Western couches, we should challenge ourselves to remember that our norms aren’t measuring sticks against which we should measure everyone else’s. Assad hopes that “what [she] has worked for meets with [her] expectations, brings economic balance, gives opportunities to those who need them and provides women with the protection of their modesty that they deserve.” In that delicate balance between imperialism and empowerment, let’s continue to support women like Assad who fight with the strength of an insider.