JEDDAH (Reuters Life!) - The first thing Dalya does when entering a lingerie shop in Saudi Arabia is scan the area for men after an embarrassing encounter a year ago.
With colorful lace, cotton and sheer bras on display, the 26-year-old vividly remembers when she randomly picked one up to examine it only to be surprised by a male voice saying: “That bra is not your size, you need one two sizes bigger.”
It was a salesman trying to be helpful, she discovered, though she was further unnerved when she realized he had correctly estimated her size.
In the ultra conservative Saudi Arabia — where women have long been discouraged from taking up work in public places that allow male access — even lingerie shops are still mostly staffed by male employees.
Religious police patrol the streets to ensure adherence to the country’s strict segregation laws and to make sure that women, who are also not allowed to drive, are covered in loose black garments (abayas) when they are out in public.
“I was shocked because I realized that the salesman actually scanned my body, even though I was covered in my abaya, and he actually got the right size,” said Dalya, whose last name has been withheld to protect her privacy.
“That made me very uncomfortable.”
Dalya’s discomfort with the state of affairs is a growing concern among Saudi women who are forced to buy their intimate clothing from men in a conservative society where female modesty is paramount.
“Imagine, a (strange) man looking at your underwear. This is very embarrassing... We grew up on modesty and religion. Our private things should not be visible to strangers,” said Fatima Qaroob, who launched a campaign last month calling for such salesmen to be replaced by women.
“I felt like I was being stripped naked,” she said, recalling an incident when a cashier at a lingerie shop rummaged through items she had selected in search of the price ticket.
However, change in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia does not come easily and Qaroob’s “Enough Embarrassment” campaign is not the first attempt to replace salesmen in the country.
Saudi businesses resisted a 2006 government decree urging them to hire only women employees for shops selling intimate female products on the grounds that such a change would bring a rise in costs related to the country’s strict rules on segregation.
A boycott by a group of Saudi women against lingerie shops failed to pressure businesses into implementing the 2006 decree because there were no alternative ways of buying underwear.
“If we as women boycotted these stores, what is our alternative? Where are we going to buy from?” Qaroob said.
She has decided that her campaign — which was launched from Saudi Arabia’s second biggest city of Jeddah and has gathered more than 6,300 supporters so far — will focus on making the changes for businesses easier.
Females make up 9.2 million of Saudi Arabia’s 18.5 million people. The Jeddah Chamber of Commerce estimates that women in Saudi Arabia have spent 10 billion Saudi riyals ($2.67 billion) in the past four years on clothing, 17 percent of which was spent on lingerie.
Women of all ages are subject to a male “guardianship” system which requires that she show written permission from her guardian — father, brother, or husband — in order to travel and, in some areas, in order to work.
Many women work as teachers in female-only schools, a profession sanctioned by the clerics, but there is a growing number of businesswomen, female doctors and young professional women who are trying to break down the barriers.
The country’s powerful religious establishment spoke out against a recent labor ministry attempt to hire women as cashiers in some supermarkets, saying the strictures on segregation prohibited women from working in areas in the supermarket that were accessible to men.
Even though the women were stationed in the “family only” sections of the supermarkets, the council of Senior Ulama endorsed a religious edict which objected to the idea on the grounds that the women might have come into contact with some males.
“It is forbidden for a Muslim woman to work in a place that allows mixing with men. They must stay away from places where men congregate and look for other jobs that don’t put them in a position for them to be seduced or to cause seduction,” the General Presidency of Scholarly Research and Ifta said.
In addition to the challenge of finding qualified female candidates, employers who hire women must also cover their shop display windows to block the view into their stores and hire security during work hours to keep men from entering.
Municipal representatives and the religious police check shop-owners to ensure they adhere to the regulations.
One lingerie store chain, Nayomi, decided to adopt the campaign to hire women. They made all the required changes and opened 20 stores around the kingdom, all staffed by women.
But poor sales owing to a lack of male customers, the high cost of ensuring security, the inability to lure customers with a window display and the reluctance of some women employees to work on late shifts led to financial losses and closure.
Nayomi Sales Manager Homaida Diab also said that in some parts of the country the employment of women was not accepted at all, which lowered sales while adding costs of about 3,000 riyals ($800) a month for each store to hire male security guards.
Diab estimates that Saudis spend over 500 million riyals a year on lingerie and said that despite their eagerness for employment, transportation and social issues in Saudi Arabia made it harder for women to work in the retail environment.
“The circumstances for women to work two shifts were difficult in terms of transportation and there were also social issues that made women less dedicated,” he said.
Other managers complained about the decline in the number of customers after men were not allowed entry into the stores and after the display window was blocked.
“We had stores that were staffed by men and when we changed it to women, sales went down significantly. I think the main reason is that they blocked the view into the store,” said a brand manager at another shop that adopted the campaign, declining to be named.
Despite the challenges, change is still happening, although at a snail’s pace. Nayomi stores in Saudi Arabia are still committed to the campaign of hiring women although they are taking more timid steps.
The Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry (JCCI), on the west coast of Saudi Arabia, estimates that there are 260 lingerie shops in Jeddah, only five of which are staffed by women, and that is believed to be more than in other cities.
“If you look at the women-only shops they are mostly in Jeddah which is more liberal and people are much more educated about labor,” Diab said.
He added that, with time, there will be more lingerie shops staffed by women.
“We have a plan to open more female stores. We have a belief that these products are especially for women so it is best to let women deal with them, like the rest of the world does,” Diab said.
“We are convinced about the idea and we want to make it succeed but we are implementing it in a limited manner — this will not happen quickly.”
Editing by Paul Casciato