In May, the conservative Saudi writer Abdullah Muhammad al-Dawood sparked a controversy when he encouraged his nearly 100,000 Twitter followers to sexually harass Saudi women working as supermarket cashiers. Dawood used a story ascribed to the prophet Muhammad to argue that the harassment was morally justified since the aim was to discourage inappropriate behavior.
Dawood was responding to the sight of thousands of Saudi women taking retail jobs for the first time. Though a few privileged Saudi women have distinguished careers, until recently, there weren’t many opportunities for others. Most jobs in Saudi Arabia aren’t open to female applicants, and even highly educated women struggle to find work (60 percent of Saudi women with PhDs are unemployed). Jobs for Saudi women without degrees have been practically non-existent, and unskilled service jobs have traditionally been considered shameful.
But a group of Saudi women turned around the notion of shame, using it to make a case for a new group of working women. In 2008, Reem Asaad, a women’s college lecturer, argued that it was humiliating for women to buy underwear from male shop assistants. In 2011, King Abdullah banned men from working in lingerie shops, ordering that the jobs be opened to Saudi women. More recently, women have begun to work in other retail jobs, including supermarkets.