Saudi Decree Bans Men From Selling Lingerie

Melissa Block interviews Reem Asaad, a Saudi writer and women's rights advocate, who launched a campaign in 2008 to boycott lingerie shops that only employ men. A new royal decree in Saudi Arabia now bans men from selling lingerie.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. Now, to a story about lace, spandex and women in Saudi Arabia. We're talking about a law that takes effect today. It's a royal decree requiring that only women be allowed to work in lingerie shops. Until now, the stores were staffed exclusively by men, which led to complaints by women and even a Facebook campaign called Enough Embarrassment.

Well, Saudi writer and women's rights advocate, Reem Asaad, launched a campaign to boycott lingerie shops staffed by men. Speaking from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, she explained why.

REEM ASAAD: Traditionally, in Saudi Arabia, men sold everything from children toys to makeup to tires and cars, but the things have been changing and this could open, you know, doors for more women to join the industry and for better working opportunities for women themselves.

BLOCK: How many jobs do you think that this might create to allow women now to work in lingerie shops?

ASAAD: Unfortunately, we're not blessed with a very good statistical (unintelligible), but I'm assuming no less than 20,000 jobs.

BLOCK: Wow. That's a lot of lingerie shops.

ASAAD: Not just lingerie. If you notice, the decree and the law stated that women are to be employed in stores that sell everything that is related to women, from lingerie to makeup to cosmetics to clothing and so on.

BLOCK: I want to ask you about a critique that I read in The Guardian newspaper, which says that now, by having women only as selling in lingerie shops, it creates sort of more of the same separatism, segregation of the sexes and that that's a bad thing, that if anything, there should be more interplay, more contact. What do you think?

ASAAD: Well, I really don't think so. If you just think about a scenario of one lady going to work in the morning, naturally speaking, she will be walking into a shopping mall, so she'll be meeting more people all around, both men and women, from security guards to other cashiers and store owners and so on. So there will be a lot of interaction, whether she likes it or doesn't.

BLOCK: I've read that the law was strongly opposed by clerics. They say that employing women is a crime and prohibited by Islamic Sharia law and I gather, also, there was at least one store in Mecca that was raided by religious police. Are you concerned about a backlash here?

ASAAD: Well, I was just discussing this with a couple of informed women, as well, this evening and we were not worried because we knew there will be people who don't like it very much, but what matters here is the government strategy and the government will. The policymakers decided to go forward and that's what matters at this point in time.

BLOCK: Have you gone into lingerie shops since the law has gone into effect? Does it seem like a different venture now?

ASAAD: I've seen so many good things. I've seen happy women. I've seen women busy at work, productivity, people feeling more connected. Those women are empowered; therefore, these women have better spending power themselves. They will probably lead happier lives than their ancestors.

BLOCK: That's Reem Asaad, talking with me from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia about the new law that says only women can work in lingerie shops. Reem Asaad, thanks very much.

ASAAD: Thank you very much.

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