Behind the veil
WOMEN IN ULTRA-STRICT SAUDI ARABIA ARE ‘MANNING’ SHOP FLOORS FOR THE FIRST TIME. WHAT DOES THIS NEW FREEDOM MEAN FOR THEM?
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.