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Lingerie shops in Riyadh fear fresh Haia raids

Wednesday, 13 July 2011
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July 13:

Riyadh, July 13: Several owners and operators of lingerie shops in Riyadh have expressed concern that the Kingdom's plans to replace male clerks with women employees at shops catering to women, most notably lingerie shops, may fall in the doldrums following reports of raids of such shops by religious police over the past few months.

The Ministry of Labor has vowed to implement a plan to replace male clerks at various types of shops, preferably with Saudi women, as well as to offer job opportunities at grocery checkout lanes. But it is unclear if the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (Haia) would stand idle when it comes to women working in any commercial service that isn't explicitly for women only.

The ministry has targeted lingerie and cosmetic shops in particular, but many of these businesses allow both men and women inside, especially husbands with their wives. The Haia is opposed to women sales clerks interacting with male customers, as it is considered illegal mingling of women with unrelated men.

The ministry has issued a 12-month deadline for expelling male sales clerks at lingerie and cosmetics shops, viewing it as the obvious first step toward offering more job opportunities for women.

Women themselves have said they feel uncomfortable discussing intimate apparel and beauty products with unrelated men. Virtually all of these clerks are foreign workers.

“But, the fears of shop owners are also genuine because the Ministry of Labor has issued no official permit or instruction to the shops, which may face fresh crackdowns by the religious police,” said Al-Sharif, a Saudi businessman who did not want his business's name or his full name published out of concern for undue attention. “Some hypermarkets and stores in Riyadh have segregated certain areas for lingerie sales, but it will be practically difficult to ban entry of families or men with their wives to visit the restricted areas.”

The move to employ Saudi women in lingerie shops is not new. The Ministry of Labor asked lingerie shops to recruit women starting in 2005.

“But the commission members, who can set policy separately from the government, have resisted the move,” said Al-Sharif. “Now, it is the need of the hour. Our women walk around covered from head to toe and yet they have to discuss the size and material of their undergarments with unrelated men, mostly expatriates.”

The regional director of a major hypermarket chain said they implemented a policy “a few months back” to hire women to work as sales clerks, but then the religious police ordered them to relieve the women of their duties.

To hire women in accordance with the demands of the Haia, areas of stores that employ women must be sectioned off with dividers.

And some shop owners are confused over the rules and are wondering whether they will need to convert their business into a women-only commercial establishment with blinders to prevent passers by from peering inside.

Another problem faced by owners is financial in nature. A women-only retail space, especially in hypermarkets, require renovations and security staff manning entrances of these sections of the stores.

The decision, which has been approved by the Council of Ministers, followed a campaign by local women early this year demanding male sales clerks be removed from all lingerie shops in the Kingdom, and to boycott shops that do not comply. 

The campaign, which was launched in the local media and Facebook, was dubbed “Enough Embarrassment” received wide support from women and Islamic scholars.

-Courtesy: Arab News

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