Lingerie sales: it's still a man's world in Saudi Arabia

Attempts to employ female staff to sell underwear face hurdles in the form of religious conservatives, business owners who would rather hire cheaper male expatriate labour.

RIYADH // Most female shoppers would rather discuss their underwear preferences with another woman. But there is little chance of that in Saudi Arabia, where lingerie stores are overwhelmingly staffed by men.

It is one of this country's biggest contradictions, given that the kingdom has the world's strictest gender segregation. It is also a situation that irritates Reem Asaad, a 38-year-old banking and finance professor in Jeddah. On a recent mall outing, Ms Asaad watched as women covered head to toe in black, with fully veiled faces, held up delicate nothings and discussed underwear purchases with male sales assistants.

"I felt furious," Ms Asaad said. "It defies all logic, and everything that Saudi Arabia is calling for: modesty, privacy, propriety. How could these women be completely covered up and discuss intimate details with male strangers?" Ms Asaad, who is Saudi, was so annoyed by this long-time situation that in 2008 she launched a public campaign to force lingerie store owners to replace male sales staff with females.

"Women need to know they have a right to a more appropriate setting," she said. Using e-mail, Facebook and her contacts with local businessmen, she pushed the issue. And she is still at it. On February 13, she called for a two-week boycott of lingerie stores employing men, asking women to instead patronise the tiny minority of stores - mostly in the more liberal city of Jeddah - that do have female sales staff.

Despite her perseverance, however, the campaign has not managed to budge the vast majority of lingerie store owners. As such, it offers a case study into why unemployment among Saudi women remains stubbornly at 25 per cent, despite government claims that it is trying to fix the problem. In most countries, retail is a major source of jobs for young people. For women especially, it provides numerous opportunities for employment and advancement as sales staff, buyers, interior designers, store managers and more.

But in Saudi Arabia, these opportunities are ambushed by conservative social attitudes - among both clerics and ordinary folk - that oppose women working outside the home. Even when Saudi women land jobs, such attitudes among male relatives hinder them from developing a strong work ethic. Also bucking change are restrictions imposed on retailers who do hire women, as well as apathy among businessmen who prefer to stick with expatriate male employees. Dependent upon their employers for visas, these foreigners are a cheap, dependable and uncomplaining labour force.

Ms Asaad's lingerie campaign has its roots in regulation No 120 of the ministry of labour. Issued in 2006, it said that only female sales staff should be employed in stores selling women's products. A major aim was to reduce unemployment among women. The order provoked an outcry. First, from religious clerics and conservative Saudis who reject the idea of women working in a place where they might be seen by men.

"They are against anything that will open more opportunities for women," Ms Asaad said of the opposition. At the same time, businessmen were unhappy, and not just because they like docile expatriate workers. They would also have to make costly alterations to the layout of stores so that men outside could not see female staff inside, including installing opaque glass windows, and a closed, sometimes locked, front door.

Security guards would have to be hired to prevent men from entering the store. (In male-staffed shops, men may accompany their wives or sisters into a store.) These requirements make stores "a little intimidating" and "not as inviting", said Kamal Jamjoom, whose Dubai-based retail firm has about 90 stores selling the Nayomi brand in Saudi Arabia. "Your storefront is your advertisement for your business," Mr Jamjoom added. "You need people to be able to see inside the store. If it's attractive, they'll come in."

Basmah al Omair, the executive director of the Khadijah Bint Khuwailid Businesswomen Centre in Jeddah, said: "What we are asking for is that the doors be open, that men and women can come in as a family, and that windows not be obstructed." The private sector, she added, "cares about profit and at the end of the day if you're going to lose profit by hiring female staff, you're not going to do it".

Ms Asaad said the outcry forced the government to back down and it quietly let it be known that regulation No 120 was not compulsory. Mr Jamjoom is among the few businessmen who have dipped their toes into the water, hiring saleswomen in about 10 per cent of his firm's shops - none of them in the conservative heartland of the kingdom. "We believe that lingerie ideally and normally should be sold women-to-women," he said. "But we have to follow the laws of the land and also the cultural desires of the country we work in."

Al Sawani Group, which sells the LaPerla brand, has also hired a few women. Currently, it employs 11 women in five shops in Jeddah, a tiny minority of the firm's total sales force of 2,500. Even this small advance was not easy, according to William Kinzel, the director of the firm's in-house centre of creativity and talent development. After Al Sawani decided to fill 10 openings with women, it telephoned scores of women who had applied for jobs at Jeddah's chamber of commerce.

"We interviewed 30 to 40 of them and hired 10," Mr Kinzel said. "In less than two months, all had left." Transportation was a problem for some, the split shifts were an inconvenience, too, and for others, Mr Kinzel said, "maybe they weren't ready for the work load - they were not prepared to stand on their feet all this time and be a saleswoman. It was discouraging, to be honest." Mr Kinzel said his company would like to hire more women, but attitudes needed to catch up. "The idea of women going out of their house and working, it's something new here."

Ms Asaad, who has an MBA from Boston's Northeastern University, said it was still too early to know the effect of the latest boycott call that began February 13. But she said she was heartened by two things. First, the boycott call drew more Saudi media attention than her previous efforts. Second, an analysis of 500 reader comments posted between February 13 and 17 on the websites of two Saudi newspapers and Al Arabiya television showed this breakdown: more than half (54 per cent) favoured hiring females to sell lingerie; 33 per cent favoured it only in all-women shopping malls; seven per cent oppose female sales staff, and six per cent said it is not an issue for them.

"We're hoping that this sample of readers' views is representative," Ms Asaad said.