Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Sandstorm in an A, B, C, or is that a D-cup madam?

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With apologies to Sydney's infamous beachside surf gang, let's call them "the other bra boys".

Turkish daily newspaper Hurriyet has reported on how the Saudi Arabian de facto ban on female participation in the workforce requires the hiring of men to sell intimate apparel to women, making the buying of lingerie both embarrassing and difficult:

This causes much embarrassment for women customers seeking advice on cup sizes in lingerie stores. The shops are also not allowed to have fitting rooms. And the biggest complaint is that male clerks in general try to guess customers' bra sizes by staring at their abayas.

Blogging on the story, analyst Michael Rubin summarises the status quo for Saudi women perfectly:

It is tough to be a woman in Saudi Arabia: Women cannot go outside their home without a husband or a male family member to escort them and famously cannot drive. They have no vote although, again, pretty much no one in Saudi Arabia does. The State Department advises women traveling unescorted that restaurants may refuse them service. Because of the myriad restrictions, most Saudi women cannot work in public places. A 2005 law which would have allowed women to work in public shops remains unimplemented.

But as the Hurriyet story explains, the strict intricacy of Saudi moral etiquette, which regulates how men and women interact, complicates hiring women in this line of work:

Shops may hire females. But then again, they must train them and bear the cost of that. They are expected to cover their display windows in order to block the view into the stores. And should pay $930 a month to hire a male security guard. This is all to keep men from entering the shop.

As a result, female sales clerks remain non-existent in Saudi Arabia, even if theoretically permitted.

Yet, pressure for change is coming from both the top (no pun intended) and from frustrated suffragettes.

Women's intimate apparel represents 17 percent of the $2.3 billion Saudi women's clothing market. The owners of lingerie stores resist replacing male sales clerks with women because they argue that this change will result with them losing customers.

The resistance continues even though the Labor Ministry threatened to close all lingerie shops that failed to replace male staff. They believe the change will not be as fast as the government expects, because the women have to be trained from scratch.

Last year, in February, activists boycotted lingerie shops that employ men. Twenty-six women attended a 10-day course on selling women's underwear held by activist Reem Assad, a lecturer in banking and finance at Jeddah's liberal Dar Al Hekma Women's College.

The campaign, which began on Facebook and was dubbed "Enough Embarrassment," received wide support from women and Islamic scholars. It aimed to get rid of men who work as sales clerks in these shops. The campaigners' argument was that nothing has been done to employ women clerks since the announcement in 2005.

Despite the seeming levity of the story, it clearly highlights the benighted state of women's rights in the Saudi kingdom, something that is clearly more than just a "smalls" problem.

Allon Lee