Be­hind the veil



One af­ter­noon in Oc­to­ber 2013, at the Sa­hara Mall in cen­tral Riyadh, the Asr prayer was just end­ing. The lights were still dimmed in the mall’s mar­ble cor­ri­dor, but the Nay­omi lin­gerie store had been un­locked. Six sales­women filed out of a store­room, pre­par­ing to re­sume their shift. All the em­ploy­ees wore long black abayas and niqabs, which re­vealed noth­ing but their eyes. They po­si­tioned them­selves among the racks of bras, un­der­pants, night­gowns and foun­da­tion gar­ments – black-cloaked fig­ures mov­ing against a back­drop of pur­ples, reds, and in­nu­mer­able shades of pink…

A women’s revo­lu­tion has be­gun in Saudi Ara­bia, although it may not be widely ev­i­dent. Ev­ery fe­male Saudi still has a male guardian – usu­ally a fa­ther or hus­band – and few openly ques­tion the need for one. Adult women must have their guardian’s per­mis­sion to study, to travel and to marry, which ef­fec­tively ren­ders them le­gal mi­nors. It took a de­cree from King Ab­dul­lah in June 2011 to put thou­sands of them into the work­force. Since then, for the first time, women have been in­ter­act­ing daily with men who are not fam­ily mem­bers – as cashiers in su­per­mar­kets and as sales clerks sell­ing cos­met­ics and un­der­wear.

Ner­min is one of the Nay­omi chain’s long­est-serv­ing fe­male em­ploy­ees. She started work­ing there two years ago, as a sales­clerk, and was re­cently pro­moted to a po­si­tion in which she over­sees hir­ing and staff train­ing for Nay­omi stores across four Saudi prov­inces. Af­ter King Ab­dul­lah is­sued that mo­men­tous de­cree, that women were to re­place all men work­ing in lin­gerie shops, she saw a poster ad­ver­tis­ing po­si­tions for sales­women. There were al­most no jobs for women with­out a col­lege de­gree or spe­cial skills. Ner­min and her younger sis­ter, Ruby, spent their days watch­ing TV, ex­er­cis­ing and surf­ing the in­ter­net. In a blis­ter­ingly hot city with few parks, the mall was one of the only places they could go for a walk. They filled out ap­pli­ca­tions on the spot, and their fam­ily en­cour­aged the idea. ‘I was sur­prised to find that I like to work,’ Ner­min says. Ruby, who got a job at the same store, is now the man­ager. Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from high school, she had spent four years feel­ing in­creas­ingly trapped at home. ‘Nay­omi gave me the chance to go on with life.’

Many store own­ers quickly dis­cov­ered that the sales­women needed coach­ing on even the most ba­sic in­ter­ac­tions with cus­tomers. Un­nec­es­sary con­tact among men and women who aren’t close rel­a­tives is for­bid­den in the King­dom, and the govern­ment de­votes vast re­sources to main­tain­ing strict sep­a­ra­tion be­tween the sexes. There are women-only shop­ping malls, womenonly travel agen­cies, and womenonly sec­tions of banks and govern­ment of­fices. In some Saudi restau­rants, ta­bles for fam­i­lies are of­ten sur­rounded by cur­tains or screens, so that women wear­ing niqabs may un­cover their faces and eat. Women, in­clud­ing Western­ers, are re­quired to wear abayas and head scarves in pub­lic, but the niqab is usu­ally a mat­ter of per­sonal pref­er­ence. Var­i­ous sales­women told me that they wear it to pro­tect them­selves from ha­rass­ment. Ner­min wears it only at work, but she doesn’t think it’s an im­ped­i­ment to com­mu­ni­cat­ing with cus­tomers.

At Nay­omi, most cus­tomers re­main fully cov­ered even while be­ing fit­ted for bras and body shapers. Ner­min shows me how sales clerks take mea­sure­ments over the lay­ers of a woman’s abaya and other cloth­ing. This is one of the skills she teaches em­ploy­ees, along with how to pro­mote new prod­ucts and how to be solic­i­tous but not in­tru­sive. ‘You have to squeeze her a lit­tle,’ Ner­min says, demon­strat­ing on her own bust line. Her trainees some­times balk at that kind of in­ti­macy with a stranger. ‘It’s nor­mal,’ she says, of their re­serve. ‘It’s their first time out of the house.’

In 2005, the Min­is­ter of Labour, Ghazi al-Go­saibi, an­nounced a pol­icy of staffing lin­gerie shops with women.The coun­try has one of the world’s low­est rates of fe­male par­tic­i­pa­tion in the labour force. At that time, ac­cord­ing to the World Bank, it was 18 per cent. Nearly all the Saudi women who worked had col­lege and grad­u­ate de­grees, and were em­ployed in girls’ schools (where men are not al­lowed to teach girls), or in hos­pi­tals, be­cause con­ser­va­tive fam­i­lies pre­fer fe­male doc­tors and nurses to treat their wives and

There were al­most no jobs for women with­out a col­lege de­gree or spe­cial skills

daugh­ters. Lin­gerie shops seemed an un­con­tro­ver­sial place to start ex­pand­ing work­place op­por­tu­ni­ties for women, and Go­saibi gave the stores a year to re­place their all-male staffs. Three lin­gerie shops in Jeddah, Saudi Ara­bia’s most lib­eral city, did hire women, but were quickly closed by the re­li­gious po­lice (Hai’a). Con­ser­va­tives ar­gued that even if the shops spe­cialised in women’s prod­ucts, the pres­ence of fe­male em­ploy­ees would en­cour­age ikhti­lat – mix­ing of the sexes in pub­lic. Go­saibi’s pol­icy was not im­ple­mented.

Three years later, Reem Asaad, a lec­turer at Dar al-Hekma, a women’s col­lege in Jeddah, had a mor­ti­fy­ing ex­pe­ri­ence when she was shop­ping for un­der­wear. A male clerk loudly scolded her for ex­am­in­ing the mer­chan­dise with­out his help. She later heard about Go­saibi’s ini­tia­tive and or­gan­ised a boy­cott of lin­gerie shops un­til they be­gan hir­ing women. Asaad be­lieves in fe­male em­pow­er­ment through work but did not em­pha­sise women’s rights in her cam­paign. She says,‘ You don’t use the word “rights”.’ In­stead, she dis­armed her op­po­nents by de­ploy­ing the no­tion of shame, which has great res­o­nance in Saudi so­ci­ety.On her Face­book page and in leaflets dis­trib­uted by her stu­dents, she ar­gued that no de­cent Saudi woman should have to talk about bras and panties with a man. Within months, she had thou­sands of sup­port­ers, who said, on e-mail and on Face­book, ‘We’re be­hind you, this is shame­ful.’

Fa­had al-Fa­had, a mar­ket­ing con­sul­tant who worked with the Min­istry of Labour on the re­cent di­rec­tives, cred­ited Reem Asaad’s cam­paign with push­ing the is­sue for­ward again. In March 2011, King Ab­dul­lah an­nounced that for the first time un­em­ploy­ment ben­e­fits would be made avail­able to Saudis who could demon­strate that they were seek­ing work; more than 80 per cent of those who reg­is­tered were women. By De­cem­ber 2012, the num­ber of peo­ple reg­is­ter­ing for un­em­ploy­ment had risen to two-mil­lion, out of

a Saudi work­ing age pop­u­la­tion es­ti­mated at around 14-mil­lion. Fa­had said, ‘It was an in­cred­i­ble num­ber.’

Af­ter the King’s de­cree, the Min­istry of Labour or­dered shops spe­cial­is­ing in cos­met­ics, abayas and wed­ding dresses, along with the women’s sec­tions of de­part­ment stores, to be­gin hir­ing allfe­male Saudi sales staff. The process was called ‘fem­i­ni­sa­tion’. Each type of store was given a dead­line; any store that failed to meet it would be forced to close. By Novem­ber last year, 514 lin­gerie and cos­met­ics stores had been shut down.

The Min­istry also is­sued moral-stan­dards guide­lines for busi­nesses that em­ployed both sexes. This year, su­per­mar­kets be­gan hir­ing fe­male cashiers for the first time, and fe­male ap­pli­cants no longer of­fi­cially need per­mis­sion from their guardians (although many em­ploy­ers still re­quest it).

Alanood, a sales­woman at a cos­met­ics counter, tells me she had strug­gled for years with de­pres­sion. She mar­ried at 15, and has two daugh­ters who are now univer­sity stu­dents. She closely fol­lowed the de­bate over fem­i­ni­sa­tion, and fi­nally per­suaded her hus­band and his fam­ily to al­low her to ap­ply for a job. Con­cerned about her de­pres­sion, they had agreed. Since start­ing work, she’d be­gun to feel hap­pier.‘This gives a sort of dis­ci­pline to my day,’ she re­ports.‘I go out. I have goals. At first, I was afraid to talk to any­one. But then I started to open up to peo­ple, and I’ve started to feel bet­ter.’ The themes of de­pres­sion, iso­la­tion and bore­dom crop up re­peat­edly when work­ing women talk about their for­mer lives. Ner­min says of her old rou­tines,‘I watched TV. I helped my mother.’

The in­tro­duc­tion of women into the Har­vey Ni­chols sales force got off to a slow start. The chief ex­ec­u­tive of the store’s hold­ing com­pany, Princess Reema Bint Ban­dar al-Saud, is a woman in her late 30s. She grew up in Wash­ing­ton, DC, where her fa­ther, Prince Ban­dar bin Sul­tan, served for 22 years as the Saudi Am­bas­sador. She says her cus­tomers in Riyadh were used to a very high level of ser­vice, and many didn’t like mak­ing pur­chases from fe­male em­ploy­ees – who were ner­vous in their new roles.

Princess Reema then com­mis­sioned a Le­banese com­pany to de­sign a train­ing pro­gramme for the Har­vey Ni­chols sales­women. It in­cluded lessons on in­ter­ac­tions be­tween male and fe­male work­ers, and on how to deal with crit­i­cism. At her in­sis­tence, there were also dis­cus­sions of ba­sic per­sonal fi­nance. ‘The money that you make is yours, so the bank ac­count you should be giv­ing us – the re­cip­i­ent of your salary – should be yours,’ she says, imag­in­ing a con­ver­sa­tion with a new em­ployee. ‘I needed to know that she knew she had the right to her salary.’

In ar­eas of the store where both sexes work, she ex­plains, three women must work in the vicin­ity of each man, in order to re­duce the pos­si­bil­ity of a one-on-one in­ter­ac­tion. She also makes sure that in­ter­ac­tions with the re­li­gious po­lice are re­spect­ful. If Har­vey Ni­chols is less likely to be sum­mar­ily closed for vi­o­la­tions of Sharia than one of the lin­gerie stores in Al Faisaliyah mall next door, that has more to do with its size and its poli­cies, she says, than with any le­niency she might re­ceive as a mem­ber of the royal fam­ily. Har­vey Ni­chols has a govern­ment-re­la­tions de­part­ment, whose em­ploy­ees, with mem­bers of the store’s se­cu­rity staff, ac­com­pany mem­bers of the Hai’a when they pa­trol. The store’s man­agers also take into ac­count the opinion of the Hai’a men. ‘Is it that you think our makeup girls are wear­ing too much make-up? Great, we’ll deal with that. Thank you so much for your opinion.’ ‘Ladies, please, this might not be the time to be us­ing Shim­mer and Shine in bright green.’ Many sales­women say that their fam­i­lies treat them dif­fer­ently now. ‘Hus­bands re­spect women who are work­ing,’ says 27-year-old Sara, who works at the Dior counter at Har­vey Ni­chols. Now, her hus­band doesn’t have an au­to­matic ad­van­tage. Sara has her own bank ac­count and ATM card. ‘I’m fi­nan­cially in­de­pen­dent, so he feels that now I could leave him if I wanted to,’ she says. Reema, 42 and di­vorced, works as a cashier at Har­vey Ni­chols. She con­sid­ers her­self con­ser­va­tive, but has be­gun to take an in­ter­est in women’s rights. She says that when the el­der of her two sons, who live with her, turns 12, he could be­come her guardian.‘ My sons are go­ing to be dif­fer­ent,’ she says. ‘They have to be dif­fer­ent. They have to treat women with re­spect.’

Reema be­lieves that the re­li­gious po­lice have an im­por­tant role to play in safe­guard­ing moral val­ues, but that they mis­un­der­stand why women are work­ing. ‘I would like to send a mes­sage to them … that there are con­ser­va­tive women, who are re­li­gious, who leave our houses only to work, and not to do any­thing else,’ she said.‘I fear God greatly, and so do many other women. We are in a de­cent pro­fes­sion, earn­ing de­cent money, to sup­port de­cent fam­i­lies.’

‘This gives a sort of dis­ci­pline to my day. I go out. I have goals’

A cashier at Nay­omi, a lin­gerie store in Saudi. Op­po­site Ner­min Ab­du­laziz Mol­him in­ter­views and trains new staff. The heart-shaped sign is one that all Nay­omi em­ploy­ees learn.

TAK­ING A BREAK Sales­women at Har­vey Ni­chols in Riyadh take a break and pray be­fore go­ing back to work.

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