JEDDAH: More than four years after the Labor Ministry requested lingerie shops replace male sales clerks with women, a regional chain has started experimenting with this policy.
“We immediately hired women after the Labor Ministry’s request (in 2005), but we encountered some issues,” said Sarah bint Sahal, area retail manager for the Nayomi lingerie chain.
Nayomi operates more than 30 lingerie outlets, about a third of the stores are “women-only” shops, meaning that men cannot enter.
The two experimental branches — both in Jeddah — employ women in “family only” stores, meaning only men and women who are married or related can enter. The rest of the Nayomi stores use male sales clerks like most lingerie shops.
In 2005, the Ministry of Labor asked lingerie shops to begin moving toward women-only staff, giving them a two-year deadline, that has long since lapsed.
Four years later, only a few shops have attempted to adhere to the ministry’s noncompulsory order and try out female sales staff in places where men can enter.
Confusion among lingerie shop owners lingers. If they employ women sales staff, especially Saudi women, do their establishments need to be converted into “women-only” stores or can men enter them if accompanied by a female relative? Will they have problems with the religious police if they go for the latter and have Saudi women sales clerks attending male customers? Nayomi will be the first lingerie outlet to find the answers to these questions after trying the “women-only” model and encountered problems. Having a “women-only” retail space requires investment in structural alterations to the premises including eliminating one of the most important elements: An attractive storefront display that invites customers inside. Stores that cater only to women cannot have windows where people on the outside can see in.
“We found it really hard to attract costumers in an ‘women-only’ shop since we couldn’t display our merchandise on the storefront,” she said.
These “women-only” establishments also require a security guard to keep men out...Such a kerfuffle over a few bits of elastic and lace. You can understand, though, why lingerie would be such a big deal for Saudi women. After all, they have to spend their public lives wearing these horribly unflattering things, which make them all look the same. Lingerie, it seems to me, is the one outlet in this most repressive of societies through which they can express their individuality.
In North America, women once made a feminist statement by burning their bras. In Saudi Arabia, by contrast, lingerie is Women's Lib--or as liberating as it gets for Wahhabi chicks.