Saudi Arabia: Women Can Relax When Purchasing Lingerie

King Abdullah passed a historic ruling on Monday, 06 June, stating that men will no longer be allowed to work in women’s lingerie stores.  At first blush this may not seem like a big or historic ruling but when factored in to the bigger picture this ruling has resounding implications.

Saudi Arabia is a country known for its conservatism and where segregation of sexes is viewed as normal rather than abnormal.  For example, in a Saudi family which observes the custom of segregation, a woman is only allowed to freely mingle and speak with her father, grandfather, uncle, sons, husband and brothers.  Yet in spite of the cultural tradition of segregation, it was legally acceptable for unknown male sales clerks to sell intimate undergarments to women where women had to reveal details about themselves such as body measurements or cup sizes.   

Some of the male sales clerks would be professional and respectful while serving the needs of a female client.  Many, sadly, were not.  I never encountered a Saudi male lingerie sales clerk and I’m not sure if there were any.  The majority of these lingerie sales clerks were expatriate men on “single” status job contracts meaning that even if they were married their visa made them ineligible to bring their family to the Kingdom with them.  Now selling lingerie in a segregated society to both Saudi and expatriate women was viewed by some men deprived of contact with women as the ideal dream job.  Rather than being a professional they would approach their client (victim?) with a lewd grin and seem to have eyes which were able to see through the opaque fabric of an abaya to the most intimate details of a woman’s body.  How could they discern from an over-the-head shrouding and billowing abaya that she was a size 6 or a size 16?  Somehow they just knew.  Whether she wished to be served or browse randomly through a store, the sales clerk would be trailing behind her with offerings of what HE felt was appropriate for her.

Yes; it is a historic ruling that men will no longer be allowed to work in women’s lingerie stores.  Finally a woman will not be forced or pressured to shop at the more exclusive and expensive ladies only malls.  She’ll have more choices.  Better yet, this further means ADDITIONAL JOB OPPORTUNITIES for women!  King Abdullah’s ruling will create several thousands of jobs for Saudi women and reduce the growing rate of unemployment among women in the Kingdom which is currently at 30 per cent.

Replacing male lingerie clerks with female Saudi clerks is a clever and strategic part of implementing “Saudiazation” where Saudi nationals replace expatriate workers in the local job force. Saudi women gain countrywide employment opportunities and female expatriates or expatriates with family in the Kingdom are winners with this ruling. 

Another factor with more jobs opened for Saudi women is the issue of transportation. Is providing more opportunities for women which have them out of the homes be a logical segue for allowing women the right to drive?



22 Responses

  1. “Yet in spite of the cultural tradition of segregation…” WRONG

    Prior to the Saudi/Wahhabi rule and until the 1950s there was no gender segregation in most parts of Arabia, especially in the Southwest, the West and the East. Read below:

    Women imprisoned by Saudi fundamentalists’ false claims of ‘tradition’

    By Saad Sowayan—Saturday, 11 November 2006

    When you see your dear aunt or sister after a long absence you expect them to run to you with overt joy and open arms to kiss you and hug you with her bare hands and uncovered head. Now, she meets you coolly with her head tightly wrapped in a scarf and hands tucked in black gloves and she barely shakes hands with you. Funny jokes and joyful laughs have completely disappeared, replaced by austere religious formulas and clichés, as if every minute of our lives should be used solely and exclusively preparing our souls for the grave and life after death.

    You no longer see women walking down the streets, only moving bodies completely draped in black. You call your friend on the phone and if one of his women folk answer you on the other end you no longer hear the polite niceties and sweat utterances used by ladies in the past – only harsh barking and rough answers because it is no longer permissible for women to be nice and polite with men.

    What is happening to us?

    Why are we becoming so obsessively uptight about gender relations?

    Why are we getting so anxious to hide and conceal our women, as if we were trying to deny that they ever exist?

    If we look at old travel books and ethnographies on the parts of Arabia constituting what is now called Saudi Arabia (from H. R. P. Dickson to Alois Musil to C Snouck Hurgrornje) we find that in most areas – especially in the desert and in the southern region of Saudi Arabia bordering Yemen – women only partly cover their faces or do not cover them at all, especially married women, and they rarely wear the black cloak.

    It used to be a common sight to see men and women mingling together in the village market and engage in haggling and joking. A woman with a suckling baby meets no objection whatsoever to baring her breast to feed her hungry baby in public and in the presence of other men.

    On weddings and festive occasions when young girls don their best, it was considered accepted practice for young boys on such occasions to flirt with young girls and to steal a look, or even a kiss. Young girls were encouraged to exhibit their feminine charms. Women were supposed to appear and look and behave like women in their apparel, gestures, body language, and the way they walk and talk.

    Values of honor, decency and decorum have always been upheld very highly and observed very strictly in Arabia. But such observance has never reached the point of turning into almost complete denial of any contact between the two sexes. Until quite recently, it was common among the nomads for young boys and young girls to graze their flocks together in the empty desert and no one suspected any foul play. Among farmers, men and women worked together in the fields and no one raised a brow.

    Al-Qusaybi, Madani: victims of slander

    Nowadays Dr. Ghazi al-Qusaybi, the Minister of Labour in Saudi Arabia, and Iyad Amin Madani, the Minister of Culture and Information, are turned into targets of slanderous attacks by the fundamentalists only because the two ministers are trying to find respectable work outlets for unemployed women.

    The ministers are keen to find suitable employment opportunities for women that do not violate either the religious dogma or the cultural codes of Saudi Arabia. Yet the very fact that they entertained the idea of finding jobs for women outside the home – in roles other than the raising of children and gratifying their husbands sexually – was considered blasphemy and a good reason for the fundamentalists to tarnish the reputation of the two ministers and to subject them to a severe and unfair campaign of character assassination.

    The sin committed by al-Qusaybi was that he wanted women to work as sales ladies in women’s cloth shops to sell women’s garments to other women, instead of men doing the sale. As for Madani, he wanted to employ Saudi women in Saudi TV to present programmes related to women, children and the family.

    Perfect bodies

    Of course, not all women accept this demeaning status to which they have been reduced.

    Now and then one hears voices raised and complaints lodged, and we are hearing more and more of such voices lately. But the majority of women seem to go along either out of real conviction or out of fear or as a defence mechanism and a form of denial of the other alternative. I mean by that – and here I am only surmising – that maybe when Saudi women look at television and see movie stars and singers and really beautiful women with their make-up, they might get the wrong impression; that is that what they are seeing really does represent all the women of the outside world. They may not even be aware that what they are seeing is not real at all and that it is heavily manicured and synthesized.

    Many women in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Region are not aware of or familiar with physical fitness, body makeup, and all the gadgets used by women to make themselves look beautiful even if they are not. It goes almost without saying that certain skin colours, body shapes and hairstyles are pushed by the media and advertising agencies as the ‘standard’ of feminine beauty.

    The best defense mechanism against such an onslaught is to reject it altogether, and instead of working on your body you deny it completely and cover every bit of it. The problem becomes acute when the woman is reduced to merely a body to be enjoyed and not a mind to be appreciated and a human being to be respected.

    Fundamentalists: an obsession with sex

    The irony of it all is that the fundamentalists (government paid religious police) keep insisting that the oppression they practice on women and their imprisonment in the home is takreem for them, that is ‘difference’ and ‘honour’.

    This is actually not as far-fetched as it sounds, since in traditional Arab culture – and in most nomadic cultures, and cultures with an aristocratic outlook – work especially manual labour, is considered demeaning and degrading. This conforms with the conservative and reactionary thinking of the fundamentalists.

    Lust occupies a central place in the thinking of the fundamentalists. The greatest reward they expect to get in the hereafter for the ‘good work’ of persecuting others in this world is unabated sexual drive and unlimited gratification by unlimited number of huris in paradise. A woman for the fundamentalists is but a body in which resides only lust and the devil.

    Therefore, when a man and a woman come together the only thing that could happen between the two of them is sex – no intellectual exchange, no professional association, no friendship, no human camaraderie or common interests: only sex. Al-ikhtilat – that is, the mixing or coming together of a man and woman (or men and women) is the catch word for the fundamentalists these days. No man is allowed to be seen sitting or talking with another woman, not even in a public place such as a restaurant or cafe, unless she is his first-degree relative. The fundamentalists could easily stop your car on the highway to make sure that the woman riding next to you is really your wife. You have to show them the marriage certificate.

    This is exactly what was happening in the old days of the al-ikhwan of ibn Saud. But in those days there were no marriage certificates. So to prove that the lady with you is your wife they asked you to kiss her, under the premise that you would not dare do it unless she is really your wife. Many illicit kisses were exchanged gratis between unwed couples in this way just to avoid the harassment of those stern ikhwan.

    Back to the future

    The social havoc caused by those fundamentalists is unbelievably grotesque. It verges on the surrealistic. We are entering the twenty first century, yet they want us to go back and live according to the norms and standards of the sixth century: the time of the Prophet and his companions. They seem to confuse religion with culture and social customs. Even if we grant that religion is eternal and timeless, cultures do change. But they have a very static view of the world and a very comprehensive view of religion, which covers all aspects of life.

    These fundamentalists believe neither in change nor in diversity. The only truth for them is the revealed truth – a truth which only they have the right to understand and interpret to others. They keep saying that Islam is suitable for every time and place, but instead of adapting their concept of Islam to different times and different places they only want to straitjacket every time and place to their extremely narrow understanding of Islam.

  2. This truly is a historic ruling and somewhat surprising given the slow pace of change in SA. I went for my first visit this past April and was taken aback by many business practices. One was the lack of fitting rooms in stores. My first experience was at an abaya store where an abaya lined with pearls (not genuine of course!) caught my fancy. I asked the sales associate where I could try it on and he gave me an embarrassed smile saying I could try it in the restroom, or on top of my abaya if I wanted to!! I just put it back since it looked a bit small and I didn’t want to do the restroom thing. I have to say I didn’t understand what the guy was saying at first when he suggested the restroom. I was just looking at him and then turned to my sister-in-law and she explained. I turned back to the guy and asked ‘why?’ And he said that’s the way it is, the religious police would shut down the store if they had fitting rooms. I really was slow and still hadn’t understood why they would did that and asked why again and he went on to explain that the store owner could fit cameras in there and watch the women getting undressed!!!

    I didn’t know if I had to laugh or cry. I just stood there, shook my head and left. Using the same logic, or lack thereof, couldn’t there be cameras in the restrooms?! Ok, fine, the stores are privately owned and yes some men (or dare I say most), especially in that culture, may incline toward the perverse, so could they, (the same management overseeing the restrooms) in the spirit of having a normal shopping mall install various fitting rooms in different places in the mall so as to accommodate those who would want to try their clothes on before making a purchase? Some would say that these rooms exist in the restrooms, I did see one when I made an inspectional visit to the restroom, a long line of women waiting for 2 very small rooms. No thanks, but this is not the way. If they choose to create such a problem for whatever demented reason, then they should at least provide a reasonable alternative.


    How do italicize a word? I’ll see if this [i]works[/i].

    And do I even need to complain about the stores closing with every prayer time? No, it’s done before.


    No single men allowed in some malls? Is this that sick of a culture? Give me a break, the women are all clad in long, flowy black!

    I don’t know really. Every time we went shopping I would greatly get bothered by all this nonsense but I learned to live with it and I suppose that is why people have not challenged them. Kudos to the law banning men from working in lingerie shops. Elsewhere I would not have necessarily encouraged this even though I’m Muslim and would naturally feel more comfortable buying lingerie from women but I would not go around complaining in the states that there are men working at a Victoria’s Secret let’s say, but I do have major qualms with sleazy men working at La Senza in Saudi. It was just too weird. I did not buy any lingerie while in Saudi but did see the men working at a store that sold them and wondered how in the world was it possible, in a place so conservative, with anything and everything under the sun somehow tied to the erotic, how in the world did they have men working there?

  3. I grew up in the west and enjoy being in the west and there is no way I would be comfortable with a male stranger helping me to buy lingerie. This seems a sound move to me.

  4. Subhan’Allaah! It’s about time. As to trying clothing on in ANY restroom in the Middle East – no! Can you imagine dragging clothing on those bathroom floors while taking them on and off? Ewwwwww

  5. No one deserves more credit for promoting and publicizing (domestically and globally) the irony of men selling women’s underwear in a society where gender segregation is a state policy, than Professor Reem Asaad. Read below and you can Google her too.

    Saudi lingerie blues
    Posted on 31/03/2009 – 17:14
    Appalled with always having to deal with male sales staff when purchasing intimate clothing items such as bras or panties, and other exquisite lingerie, Saudi women are campaigning to implement a policy of “women only” sales staff in the country’s lingerie stores. MENASSAT met with Reem Asaad, one of the pioneers of the initiative, whose Facebook campaign has been gaining ground on the twist in Saudi’s lingerie trade.


    Saudi women learning how to sell lingerie
    Published: 6/24/09, 12:45 PM EDT
    RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) – Using colorful bras donated by employees at Victoria’s Secret, a group of 26 mostly Saudi women completed the first course of its kind to be offered in the kingdom – how to fit, stock and sell underwear – a training organizers hope will help boost a campaign to lift the ban on women selling underwear in the kingdom.
    The graduates held a small ceremony at a college in the western seaport of Jiddah on Tuesday, capping 40 hours of instruction during which they learned to overcome their embarrassment at doing bra fittings, deal with customer complaints and display the stock in an appealing manner.
    “It was a beautiful experience,” said Faten Abdo, a 32-year-old coordinator in the offices of a lingerie company.
    “The most shocking thing for me was the bra sizes,” she added. “We didn’t know how to get proper measurements before.”
    The 10-day course comes three months after a group of Saudi women launched a campaign to boycott lingerie stores until they employ women. Almost all the stores in the kingdom are staffed by men. The only exceptions are a few women-only boutiques, some of them inside popular shopping centers.
    The restrictions are ironic in a country that goes to great lengths to segregate the sexes. Men and women, for instance, who are not close relatives cannot stand in the same line at fast-food outlets or even be in the same car together. Conservative clerics have strong influence on government and society, and they ban anything they believe might lead to women’s emancipation, such as driving or voting.
    But those pushing for saleswomen in lingerie stores say they were tired of discussing intimate details with male staff and enduring their scrutiny when they ask for a particular cup size.
    Their aim is to push for implementation of a law that has been on the books since 2006 which says only female staff can be employed in women’s apparel stores. The law has never been put into effect, partly due to hard-liners in the religious establishment who oppose employing women in mixed environments like malls.
    Because of the mortification many women feel ordering bras, thongs and negligees, the lack of trained sales staff and the absence of fitting rooms – they’re banned because the idea of a woman undressing in a public place is unthinkable – many women end up with the wrong underwear size.
    The training was the idea of Suhair al-Qurashi, head of the private Dar al-Hekma College, according to Reem Asaad, a finance lecturer at the college and the main force behind the boycott campaign.
    “She wanted the training to be a part of the solution because the industry was complaining that there’s a lack of qualified (women) in the market who can run and manage lingerie stores,” said Asaad. “So we covered fitting and technical issues, we covered selling and handling customer complaints.”
    The trainer was an Australian woman who had heard about the boycott campaign online and then offered to give the course.
    A group of Victoria’s Secret employees who also heard about the campaign on Facebook sent a box filled with colorful cotton bras to be used in the training, according to Asaad.
    Suzanne al-Hindi, 33, one of 26 graduates, said she and the other women were “shy at first to play-role and do fittings on each other, but we got over it.”
    British consul-general in Jiddah Kate Rudd said she attended Tuesday’s ceremony to show support for the idea that women should be allowed to play a more active role. “It was a small step, but perhaps from this little drop there will be bigger ripples,” said Rudd.

  6. That’s awesome!! Maybe they’ll make a ruling about women being allowed to drive for similar reasons next! 😉 I would most definitely be uncomfortable giving my bra size to a guy I didn’t know, unless it was purely for research purposes, etc. Having met expatriates that were a bit lewd in a non-segregated society, I can only imagine what some of the ones selling lingerie in KSA might be like! Therefore, I can only rejoice. This is so very cool! 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 Plus, it means more jobs for women. Do you think this will result in more local women being employed, then, or do you think they will be looking for expat women to manage/work in such stores?

    Traditional bra fitting may not be the best method of measuring for bra size, but it is one of the best, least intrusive methods out there. It would actually be better to measure using a mathematical formula that takes into consideration variations in breast shapes. However, this involves measuring the circumference and diameter/radius of the breast- which is quite a bit more intrusive. Bra technology has definitely come a long ways in the past century. I can’t wait to see where it goes from here! ❤

  7. I wish they would pass this law in Kuwait. I am VERY uncomfortable with male sales clerks in the lingerie sections and stores. Most of them here teeter on the lecherous and stink of cigarettes. I would rather buy online than to have to deal with them.

    Kudos to the King! 🙂

  8. Salaamalaikhoum. I think this new rule is a very large step in the right direction. I do see a problem however about this saudi isation of work fields. What happens if the families prevent their daughters from working, even though the girls want to and are prepared to train etc.! Maasalaama Amelia

  9. That’s great to hear! This might be one of the top stories of 2011! 🙂

  10. Ali is correct that prior to ‘modern day Saudi Arabia’ the women did not cover as they do now. Even my own Mother-in-Law told me her stories about growing up as a young joyful girl in Najran. She was not clad from head to toe nor were the other women… then.

    Ali is right on another point that much credit and kudos should go to Reem Asaad for her drive and determination on this issue.

    @Zoe, you may enjoy an article I wrote several years ago about the challenge of shopping for clothes sans fitting rooms in Saudi:

    @StrangeOne – I don’t know how easy it would be to get a proper bra fitting in Saudi Arabia. I had a terrible time finding a decent sports bra in Saudi after my mastectomy. My daughter-in-law finally expressed mailed some to me from the States!

  11. I am so very happy to hear this. As a foreigner here in Saudi, I have been harassed numerous times while buying undergarments so I cannot fathom what the Saudi women must go through everyday of their lives.

    I sincerely hope this new law (?) is implemented soon but something tells me the government will drag it’s feet on this issue just as they have done with the driving issue. Both issues have “been on the books” for some time now but nothing has ever been solved. I read in another article that the shop owners have one month to replace their male employees at these shops. This seems a bit impractical (if true) and I wonder if this will inevitably take years before we see its fruition.

    Here’s to the Saudi ladies though for trying their best to make changes, one step at a time! I wish them the best.

  12. By the way, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Ali’s above comment and was left a bit tearful when I read this:

    “The problem becomes acute when the woman is reduced to merely a body to be enjoyed and not a mind to be appreciated and a human being to be respected.”

    May the Saudi women become braver each passing day to speak out against their own oppression. Hats off to them!

  13. Well earlier it was right that Saudis were not so conservative like nowadays beside that people were innocent comparing to the material life nowadays.
    People say A man is known by the company he keeps… so Ali as you are from Najran and especially from Sheeaa belief, I ignored your comments because your loyalty is to other country and restricted and different ideology.

    As the issues is about women so they speak better than us. Its their right to wether drive or not but we catch Not at the shadow and we lose the substance!!! Hence, its better to focus first to arrange and build the infrastructure like police women etc

    Its bad to keep this discussion for long time while there are more things need to be improved for them and the society.

    As a Saudi man living in Sweden, I will vote to have better transportation public sector especially metro, speed train network between cities and busses.
    Carol, I extend my greetings and wishes to success in your battle. I hope to read one article about the right of handicap people and give them more facilities and services.

  14. The Saudi segregation regime has only worked because they have allowed foreign men to drive or sell things to women. How anyone can justify that today is beyond my comprehension.

  15. Jerry,

    I’d just like to add that there are some Saudi men who are drivers and that many do sell things to women. I personally though have never experienced or seen a Saudi salesman in a lingerie store — thank goodness!

  16. When does this new law begin implementation?

  17. @robinrcks,

    It’s a royal decree not a law. There are no legislative assemblies in Saudi Arabia only the king and his ministers get together at the king’s convenience and issue an order, decree or statement which never get implemented most of the time.

  18. I hope they carry out this ruling because i dislike and get very embarrassed buying intimates from strange men and I avoid buying underwear here. good news

  19. @Saudi in Sweden,
    I don’t always agree with Ali, but your statement that he is not worth listening to- because he is from Najran and a Shiaa is part of Saudi’s problem. Why do you deserve any rights if you discount others? Saudi’s have to learn to accept others. The others within and the others without, if they hope to have a more effective, unoppressive society.

    If people are known by the company they keep that would mean the people near you are all prejudiced and bigoted, I guess.

  20. @Saudi_in_Sweden, on June 10, 2011 at 3:16 am said:

    This is news to me. But this nameless Saudi in Sweden agrees with those who expose the Saudi government’s discriminatory policies against non-Sunni/Wahhabi Muslims-minorities and otherwise. This person is a victim of the regimes educational system which teaches hate against minorities, women, non-Muslims and even the overwhelming majority of Muslims who do not adhere to the un-Islamic brand of Saudi Islam.

    May be this Saudi in Sweden will learn one or two things from the Christian, Jewish and non-believing Swedes that religion is personal and should be left to the individual.

    The courageous and decent people of Najran are not the only victims of this person and those who taught and armed him/her with hate for those who believe differently. Read below.

    I welcome a phone conversation with Saudi in Sweden. My contact information can be found on our webpage:

  21. @AB,
    I had read that before, I think, but thanks again for the link. 🙂 I am half curious if there would ever be managerial, training, etc. positions available for expats because that would actually be a lot of fun for me! Of course, I’d rather that Saudi women apply and get such positions, granted that they are properly trained.

  22. I’m sure there will always be some other kind of opportunities available for expats too.

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