In Saudi Arabia, A Dilemma Over Lingerie Stores

In Saudi Arabia, men and women are barred from mingling in public. That ban extends to stores — even all-male ones that sell lingerie.

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In the conservative, Islamic kingdom of Saudi Arabia, women and men are barred from mingling in public. That rule has unraveled a bit in recent years, and now banks, government offices and hospitals all allow women and men to work together, but the retail industry has been slow to follow. Now a group of women who first met online are urging a boycott of clothing stores that refuse to employ women. As Kelly McEvers reports from the Saudi city of Jeddah, the battle begins with lingerie.

KELLY McEVERS: It's around five o'clock on a Wednesday night. Saudis are getting off work and heading to the mall. Whoa, that is an intense red thong that's going on over there.

My interpreter, Sheika(ph) and I, are hanging out in Naomi, a popular lingerie store. It's a red, one-piece teddy, I guess, and like the thong, is so thin it's like string.

As we walk over, a customer takes the red thong to a male cashier and asks him what size she should buy.

How would she feel differently if it was a woman?

Unidentified Woman: (Speaking foreign language)

McEVERS: Of course I would feel more comfortable if I were dealing with a woman, the customer says. This is the irony of retail in Saudi Arabia. If women worked in shops, they would have to mingle with male customers, say husbands buying gifts for their wives. That's technically forbidden by Saudi Arabia's version of Islamic law, but as it stands now, women customers still have to mingle with male salesmen, when asking about a bra size or the cut of a pair of underwear. So how is that any better?

This question first struck Ream Assad(ph) in a lingerie shop one day last year. She was trying to open a package to see if it was bikinis or hip-huggers but was stopped by a salesman.

Ms. REAM ASSAD: So the guy comes running to me saying, don't do that. You will cause me trouble with mutawa, the religious police. So, well, how can I examine the product? He goes, like, you should not examine the product. You should ask me. And then I said, okay, that's it.

McEVERS: Assad started a group on Facebook, urging women to boycott lingerie stores until they start employing women. The group now has nearly 2,000 members.

Because political parties and protests are illegal here, the group has to be careful. They meet in places like this breastfeeding center and call their events lectures on the economic rights of women.

Ms. NASHWA TAHAR(ph) (Board Member, Jeddah Chamber of Commerce): (Speaking foreign language).

McEVERS: Nashwa Tahar is a board member of the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce, one of the few positions to which a woman can be elected in Saudi Arabia.

Ms. TAHAR: (Speaking foreign language).

McEVERS: She says the government passed a law in 2006 requiring shops that cater to women to employ women, but then when shops tried to comply, they were stormed by religious police and ordered to be shut down.

Ms. TAHAR: (Speaking foreign language).

McEVERS: So the government compromised with the religious establishment and said, okay, if a shop does employ a woman, it must have frosted glass. Merchants said that would cost too much money and too much business, and they stopped hiring women.

Abdul Wahid al-Hameed is the deputy minister of labor, which drafted the law in the first place. He says this tension between those who want reform and those who resist it is actually not about Islam.

Mr. ABDUL WAHID AL-HAMEED (Deputy Minister of Labor, Saudi Arabia): It has to do with the customs, with some traditions, and some regions of the country. People mix this with religion, and actually it has nothing to do with religion.

McEVERS: Which points to a striking reality in Saudi Arabia. In many ways, the government is more progressive than society itself. Officials are willing to say that Islam has many interpretations, not just one, but still the government is reluctant to push too hard.

Mr.AL-HAMEED: When you push things, you go back actually. Sometimes the resistance becomes stronger, and then all the gains that you make, you will lose them and start right from the beginning.

Unidentified Man: (Speaking foreign language).

McEVERS: At a recent debate on women's rights, an Islamic scholar said women should work at home or in the company of other women to protect them from crimes like sexual harassment and rape. His comments were piped in via video link to the women's section of the venue, where audience members clicked their tongues in disagreement.

At least we're debating this, one woman leaned over and whispered to me. At least we can question what was before unquestionable.

For NPR News, I'm Kelly McEvers, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

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