Women On the Cups of Change in Saudi Arabia

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.

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Laura is a tiny girl who wishes she were a superhero. She likes talking to her grandma on the phone and making things with her hands. Strengths include an impressive knowledge of Harry Potter, the ability to apply sociology to everything under the sun, and a knack for haggling for groceries in Spanish. Weaknesses: Chick-fil-a, her triceps, girls in glasses, and the subjunctive mood. Follow the vagabond adventures of Laura and her bike on twitter [@laurrrrita].

Laura has written 325 articles for us.

15 Comments

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    I’m going to ignore the grammar and focus on the content of the article which is brilliant, any step towards gender equality is something to be celebrated!
    It’s sad that in the end it is often economics that forces change to happen rather than it just being the right thing to do.

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    What a wonderful article and a great fresh new angle for woman’s rights in the gulf. I’m afraid though of what will happen when the king dies and his even more fundamentalist successor takes over.

    But in the mean time you have answered one of my age long questions; what is it that woman wear under their burkas. Hot pink underwear (;

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    First, I totally thought “cusp” was misspelled and was all “UM WHAT” but then I read the article, and I think it was wonderful. I wish more people were made aware of the positives in countries that we in the Western world like to demonize. Seriously, this is so unexpectedly and pleasantly progressive, so mad props.

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    Yeah, I’m not completely sold on the merits of this. Obviously I support women in the workforce whole-heartedly. A woman can do just as much as a man, especially in a store where knowledge of womens bodies is important. But I feel like banning all men from working in lingerie stores so that women can take their places is the wrong approach. Doing so fails to target inequality within the hiring process because it continues to be based on gender. Wouldn’t it be better to pass legislation which completely restricts the consideration of gender?

    For example, say you had a highly racist society with a mix of Indians and Chinese people. Previously, only the Chinese people were allowed to work in a certain area. Now suppose a law were to be passed banning all the Chinese people simply because of their ethnicity. Should we celebrate because the Indians will finally have jobs? A system that is based on devaluing people to promote other people is still unequal. It’s just unequal in a different way.

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    Not to mention that it does nothing to eradicate the “division between sexes”. I think true equality would allow women to work as engineers and men to work in underwear stores, if that’s what they wanted to do with their lives. Not because of their gender, but because they know how to sell a really good fucking bra.

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    Sorry guys but given all the horrors that are going on in the Arab world right now I have to assume that this article was created by and disseminated by those who want Western feminists to continue to buy into the lie that nothing is at all wrong with a certain religion we’re not allowed to talk about and which is spreading its “values” throughout the world. Forcing girls into marriage (aka child rape) and female genital mutilation is practiced wherever there are those-certain-people-we-cannot-name, it is estimated that about 100,000 girls in Britain have been victims of the horrific practice of fgm … but Saudi Arabia might allow women to work in women’s clothing stores! hurray!! what a momentous improvement!!! the world is changing for the better!!!! maybe in 15,000 years Saudi women will be allowed to drive their own cars to their own jobs! In the mean time, thanks to the Arab Spring, the M—- Brotherhood is becoming more powerful and seeking, among other wonderful things, to legalize female genital mutilation in Egypt. But don’t bother actually trying to understand what is going on in the world … just keep lying to yourself, fight to keep our borders wide open and start picking out the color of your hijab now, you’ve clearly already accepted an invisible form of subjugation in the form of silence and willful stupidity, it is only a matter of time before you are willing to accept more overt forms.

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