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Story Publication logo December 16, 2013

Letter from Riyadh: Shopgirls

A Saudi employee helps a customer at a dress shop in Al Faisaliah Mall. Image by Kate Brooks. Saudi Arabia, 2013.

An emerging class of female retail workers is raising new questions about the direction of the Saudi...

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In June 2011, King Abdullah banned men from working in lingerie and cosmetics shops, and ordered that the jobs be opened to Saudi women. Nearly 30,000 Saudi women immediately applied for roughly 6,000 positions. Over the last year, Saudi women have begun to work in other retail jobs as well, particularly in businesses that serve mainly female customers, but including supermarkets. Nermin Abdulaziz Molhim, 27, interviews and trains new Nayomi hires. Nayomi is a popular lingerie shop. Image by Kate Brooks. Saudi Arabia, 2013.

A women's revolution has begun in Saudi Arabia, although it may not be immediately evident. This fall, only a few dozen women got behind the wheel to demand the right to drive. Every female Saudi still has a male guardian—usually a father or husband—and few openly question the need for one. Adult women must have their guardians' permission to study, to travel, and to marry, which effectively renders them legal minors. It took a decree from King Abdullah to put tens of thousands of them into the workforce. For the first time, they are interacting daily with men who are not family members, as cashiers in supermarkets and as salesclerks selling abayas and cosmetics and underwear.

One afternoon in late October, at the Sahara Mall, in central Riyadh, the Asr prayer was just ending. The lights were still dimmed in the mall's marble corridor, but the Nayomi lingerie store had been unlocked. The rattle of steel and aluminum could be heard as security grilles were raised over nearby storefronts. Twenty-seven-year-old Nermin adjusted a box of perfume on a tiered display near the entrance, then turned to greet six saleswomen as they filed out of a storeroom, preparing to resume their shift. Nermin started working at Nayomi eighteen months ago, as a salesclerk herself. She was warm and engaging with customers, and was recently promoted to a position in which she oversees hiring and staff training for Nayomi stores across four Saudi provinces. All the employees wore long black abayas and niqabs, which revealed nothing but their eyes. They positioned themselves among the racks of bras, underpants, nightgowns, and foundation garments—black-cloaked figures moving against a backdrop of purples, reds, and innumerable shades of pink.

Nermin is one of the Nayomi chain's longest-serving female employees. She was hired nearly a year after King Abdullah issued a decree, in June of 2011, that women were to replace all men working in lingerie shops. Early in 2012, on a visit to the Nayomi store in a mall near her house with her younger sister, Ruby, Nermin noticed a poster advertising positions for saleswomen. The sisters had never considered working, since there were virtually no jobs for women without a college degree or special skills. Nermin and Ruby mostly spent their days watching television, exercising, and surfing the Internet. In a blisteringly hot city with few parks, the mall was one of the only places to go for a walk. They filled out applications on the spot, and their family encouraged the idea. "I was surprised to find that I like to work," Nermin said. Ruby, who got a job at the same store, is now the manager there. She wore its key on a yellow lanyard around her neck; pink-trimmed platform sneakers were visible beneath the hem of her abaya. After graduating from high school, she had spent four years feeling increasingly trapped at home, she said. "Nayomi gave me the chance to go on with life."

Many store owners quickly discovered that the saleswomen needed coaching on even the most basic interactions with customers. Unnecessary contact among men and women who aren't close relatives is forbidden in the Kingdom, and the government devotes vast resources to maintaining strict separation between the sexes. There are women-only shopping malls, women-only travel agencies, and women-only sections of banks and government offices. Even in modest Saudi restaurants, tables for families are often surrounded by curtains or screens, so that women wearing niqabs may uncover their faces and eat.

All women—including Westerners—are required to wear abayas and head scarves in public, but the niqab is usually a matter of personal preference. Various saleswomen told me that they wear it to protect themselves from harassment. Nermin wears it only at work, but she doesn't think it's an impediment to communicating with customers. She pointed to two women who were welcoming shoppers. I could tell from their eyes that they were smiling.

At Nayomi, most customers remain fully covered even while being fitted for bras and body shapers. Nermin showed me how salesclerks take measurements over the layers of a woman's abaya and other clothing. This is one of the skills she teaches employees, along with how to promote new products and how to be solicitous but not intrusive. "You have to squeeze her a little," Nermin said, demonstrating on her own bust line. Her trainees sometimes balk at that kind of intimacy with a stranger. "It's normal," she said, of their reserve. "It's their first time out of the house." The following week, at a vocational training center run by a women's charitable society called Al Nahda, I watched as the instructor in a course for prospective saleswomen showed her students a wide smile, appropriate for female customers, and a split-second, perfunctory smile for men.

In 2005, the Saudi Minister of Labor, Ghazi al-Gosaibi, first announced a policy of staffing lingerie shops with women. The country has one of the world's lowest rates of female participation in the labor force. At that time, according to the World Bank, it was eighteen per cent. Virtually all the Saudi women who worked had college and graduate degrees, and were employed in schools, where men were not permitted to teach girls, or in hospitals, because conservative families prefer that female doctors and nurses treat their wives, sisters, and daughters. Lingerie shops seemed a relatively uncontroversial place to start expanding workplace opportunities for women, and Gosaibi gave the stores a year to replace their all-male staffs. Three lingerie shops in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia's most liberal city, did hire women, but they were quickly closed by the religious police. Conservatives argued that even if the shops specialized in women's products the presence of female employees would encourage ikhtilat—mixing of the sexes in public. Gosaibi's policy was not implemented.

Three years later, Reem Asaad, a lecturer in finance at Dar al-Hekma, a women's college in Jeddah, had a mortifying experience when she was shopping for underpants. A male clerk loudly scolded her for examining the merchandise without his help. Afterward, she heard about Gosaibi's initiative, and decided to organize a boycott of lingerie shops until they began hiring women.

Asaad, who has three young daughters, believes in female empowerment through work, but she did not emphasize women's rights in her campaign. She told me, "You don't use the word 'rights.' " Instead, she disarmed her opponents by deploying the notion of shame, which has great resonance in Saudi society. On her Facebook page and in leaflets distributed by her students, she argued that no decent Saudi woman should have to talk about bras and panties with a man. Within months, Asaad had thousands of supporters, who said, on e-mail and on Facebook, "We're behind you, this is shameful." Some men told her they didn't like their wives and daughters discussing such intimate matters with strangers.

Almost every Saudi woman appears to have had an experience like Reem Asaad's. A young academic told me with wry indignation about a lingerie salesman who eyed the outline of her breasts under her abaya, then told her that she'd need a larger bra size than the one she had requested. Nermin mimed the furtive way that women shopped for underwear: heads ducked, grabbing whatever was easily accessible. "You'd take anything," she said. Several women told me that badly fitting underwear, purchased in haste, is a long-standing joke among Saudi women.

Fahad al-Fahad, a marketing consultant who worked with the Ministry of Labor on the recent directives, credited Reem Asaad's campaign with pushing the issue forward again. In March, 2011, King Abdullah announced that for the first time unemployment benefits would be made available to Saudis who could demonstrate that they were seeking work; more than eighty per cent of those who registered were women. By December, 2012, the number of people registering for unemployment had risen to two million, out of a Saudi working-age population currently estimated at around fourteen million. (About eight million foreign workers live in Saudi Arabia, but they aren't eligible either for unemployment benefits or for the jobs created for women in the retail sector.) Fahad said, "It was an incredible number."

After the King's decree on lingerie shops, in June, 2011, the Ministry of Labor ordered shops specializing in cosmetics, abayas, and wedding dresses, along with the women's sections of department stores, to begin shifting to all-female Saudi sales staffs as well. The process was called "feminization." Each type of store was given a deadline; any store that failed to meet it would be forced to close. By November of this year, five hundred and fourteen lingerie and cosmetics stores had been shut down. The Ministry of Labor also issued guidelines about moral standards for businesses that employed both sexes. This year, hundreds of supermarkets began hiring female cashiers for the first time, and female applicants no longer officially need permission from their guardians, although many employers still request it.

The feminization policy was announced at the height of the Arab Spring, and it was widely interpreted by Saudi activists as an attempt to forestall pro-democracy protests. Saudi liberals were pleased, but in December, 2011, Saudi Arabia's highest religious authority, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Sheikh, called the employment of women in lingerie shops a "crime."

A year later, a video of a meeting between a group of clerics and the current Minister of Labor, Adel Fakeih, was posted on YouTube; in it, the clerics tell Fakeih that they will pray for him to get cancer unless the decision about women working in retail stores is reversed. (Fakeih's predecessor, Gosaibi, died of cancer.) In May, the conservative writer Abdullah Mohammad al-Dawood seemed to urge his nearly one hundred thousand Twitter followers to molest female supermarket cashiers, to make them consider the dangers of leaving home. Conservatives in the Shura Council, which advises King Abdullah, have repeatedly quashed a proposed law against sexual harassment. They argue that criminalizing such behavior would remove a deterrent to ikhtilat.

In 2008, during my first visit to Saudi Arabia, I travelled to Dammam, a large port city on the Persian Gulf, to interview a former Al Qaeda fighter who had recently been released from detention at Guantánamo Bay. At lunchtime, I left the men's majlis at the front of the house, with its brocade sofas and shiny synthetic carpets, where I'd been talking to the man and his brothers, and joined their mother, three sisters-in-law, and several small children in a bare concrete room off the kitchen. The mother served lamb and rice as we sat on plastic mats spread on the floor. I quickly exhausted my stock of Arabic pleasantries, but one of the women, twenty-eight-year-old Nayla, spoke some English, and she told me that she envied my freedom to work. She had young children, and even if she could find a job her husband probably wouldn't allow her to take it. She had considered becoming a dietician, and at night she sometimes tried to study nutrition online, but, without any hope of putting her skills to use, she found it hard to concentrate.

Nayla asked me eagerly about what I'd seen in Saudi Arabia. She was especially interested in what the men in the family had talked about, a world away in their majlis at the front of the house. She rarely saw anyone outside the extended family, and relied on television and the Internet for news. She left the house once a week, after Friday prayers, when her husband took the family for a stroll in the nearby mall.

In October, as I prepared to return to Saudi Arabia, I thought about Nayla and her dreams of employment. She and her sisters-in-law had been concerned that I was unmarried and childless. This time, I was also packing for my two-month-old son, William. I wondered whether Nayla, now that her children were older and there were more jobs available, would be allowed to work. I didn't anticipate that reporting about women would be far more sensitive than asking questions about jihadists.

One morning in Riyadh, I was with a female photographer from the States and a male Saudi translator at Granada Center, another shopping mall. We were preparing to interview managers at a supermarket that had recently begun hiring women, and we'd stopped to buy breakfast at a Krispy Kreme stand. In the food court's family section, frosted-glass partitions separate women and their male escorts from the section for single men. (Customers who don't find this arrangement private enough sit at tables inside the family section, which are entirely surrounded by frosted-glass partitions.) We'd chosen a table next to windows overlooking a parking lot fringed by desiccated palm trees. I had spilled half a cup of coffee down the front of my abaya, and had shaken off my head scarf for a moment to dry myself with a wad of paper napkins. Our translator suddenly stopped talking, and I looked up to see two young men with long, untidy beards hovering over our table. They wore white thobe robes above their ankles, several inches shorter than is typical, and red-and-white checked ghutra headdresses without bands of black cord—styles favored by deeply religious Muslims and meant to indicate a rejection of vanity. They appeared to be in their early twenties, and it took me a moment to recognize them as members of the religious police. Our translator stood up. "If you could cover your hair," he murmured, without looking at me.

The Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, the Saudi government group responsible for enforcing Sharia, is known as the Hai'a (the Arabic word means "committee"). Six years ago, Hai'a members were ordered to stop carrying canes, and they can no longer publicly strike miscreants, but they can detain and humiliate people and shut down businesses. Although the committee technically does not allow individual members to decide whether something is an affront to Sharia, they usually act as they see fit.

More than four thousand members of the Hai'a patrol in public places, making sure, among other things, that all women and girls past puberty are properly covered, and that men and women who are spotted together are either spouses or close relatives. We had violated both of these rules. The Hai'a men took our translator a few paces away and began rebuking him. He returned to our table to say that the men had asked for our passports. "You may need to call your embassy," he whispered.

About twenty minutes later, the Hai'a men returned our passports, but took our translator away. As he was led out of the food court, I noticed other shoppers sneaking glances at us. A few of them had an expression that I recognized from elementary school—the sly, intent look of children enjoying the spectacle of schoolmates being disciplined by a teacher. An hour later, after our translator was released, he told us that he'd been taken to the Hai'a members' S.U.V., and made to sign a "confession." He laughed off our concern—forced confessions are something that young Saudi men take in stride.

In one of the most patriarchal societies in the world, a devout Saudi man avoids even mentioning the names of his wife and daughters in public, and his friends never meet them, no matter how often they visit him at home. In most families, opposite-sex first cousins who grow up playing together are separated as adolescents. Adult male cousins might never again see their female cousins' faces, unless they marry, as around fifty per cent of first and second cousins do. Most marriages are arranged, and Saudis who fall in love and marry outside the family try to conceal this socially embarrassing fact. Last December, the marriage of two young employees who met at a Carrefour supermarket in Jeddah was widely discussed as an example of the scandalous behavior that the Labor Ministry's feminization policy has brought about.

Business owners often find themselves caught between the Labor Ministry and the Hai'a. The heads of both organizations report to King Abdullah, and he has not intervened. In an absolute monarchy, it can be useful to keep government factions pitted against each other. Fahad, the Labor Ministry consultant, told me that Hai'a members have threatened to arrest some women simply for working in sales jobs. "They tell them, 'If I see you here working tomorrow, I will take you back to a cell.' "

Last year, there were so many confrontations between Hai'a men and customers and employees at female-staffed stores that the Minister of Labor and the Hai'a leadership met to negotiate new terms. In January, the Ministry announced a decision to install partitions, at least five feet high, in all stores that employ both sexes. In some, these are relatively unobtrusive screens; in others, departments employing women are walled off into giant mazes. In any case, the partitions appear to have done little to appease conservatives.

In early November, two hundred members of the Hai'a sent a letter to their president, complaining that the presence of Saudi women in retail jobs had so drastically increased instances of ikhtilat, as well as of the far more serious crime of khilwa—the "seclusion" of a man and woman together, in an enclosed space—that their job had become impossible. The letter, leaked to the public on Twitter, described a "decrease in modesty, cases of seclusion between salesmen and saleswomen, and instances of flirting, harassment, unlawful relationships, and blackmailing."

Saudi friends had told me that the religious police rarely bothered women with children, so, to avoid further trouble, I began bringing William with me when I was reporting in malls. One evening, two Hai'a members paused outside the cosmetics store where I was interviewing salesclerks. William, on the edge of sleep, was being passed back and forth among three Saudi women, who kept poking him awake so that they could exclaim over his blue eyes. The Hai'a men walked on.

At Harvey Nichols, the British luxury department store in Riyadh's Olaya District, the partitions are made of glass. The store was designed by Norman Foster, and the sight lines across the airy, light-filled floors are clear. Alanood, a saleswoman at a counter offering French cosmetics, remarked, "They don't trap women here." A soft-spoken thirty-eight-year-old, she was sitting with me in one of the store's corporate conference rooms during a break. She wore a full face cover over her niqab, but in the conference room she flipped back the veil so that, inside the frame of her niqab, I could see her eyes, the lashes thickly coated with mascara. She wore shoes made of soft navy leather, and held a Louis Vuitton wallet in immaculately manicured hands.

Alanood said that she had struggled for years with depression. She had married when she was fifteen, leaving school after eighth grade to start a family. She has two daughters who are now university students. She closely followed the debate over feminization, and, finally, a year after stores began recruiting women, she persuaded her husband and his family to allow her to apply for a job. Alanood explained that her family "didn't accept this job initially, because it's socially inappropriate." But, concerned about her depression, they had eventually agreed. She added, "I'd been in the house for such a long time."

Since starting work, five months earlier, she'd begun to feel happier and more energetic. "This gives a sort of discipline to my day," she said. "I go out. I have goals I need to achieve. At the beginning, I was afraid to talk to anyone. But then I started to open up to people, and I've started to feel better."

The themes of depression, isolation, and boredom cropped up repeatedly when working women talked about their former lives. Nermin said of her old routines, "I watched television. I helped my mother." Pascal Menoret, an assistant professor at New York University who has studied urbanism in Saudi Arabia, told me that women today tend to be more socially isolated than their grandmothers were. Previous generations lived within strong networks of female relatives and neighbors, and they routinely visited each other and prepared meals together. Now women are more likely to live in single-family homes in sprawling cities and suburbs, often removed from daily contact with their extended families.

Saleswomen spoke enthusiastically about the friendships they'd made with new colleagues. There was a girlish note in their excitement about the snacks they brought from home to share during prayer times, when they can also take a few minutes to have a cup of tea. Nermin showed me a gesture she'd learned from a Korean television drama popular in the Kingdom—a heart shape created by placing both hands together, with the fingers cupped and the thumbs pointing downward. She'd taught it to Nayomi saleswomen, "because we love each other." There was a great deal of squealing and hugging as the young women demonstrated this gesture, again and again.

Most urban Saudis now expect their daughters to finish high school, and forty-two per cent of Saudi women attend college. Women in well-to-do families socialize at all-female parties, and at all-female gyms, spas, and private clubs. But in conservative and less wealthy families women may have trouble getting permission to leave the house unless there's a compelling reason. Some of the saleswomen told me that they have more freedom now for occasional socializing, although the more conservative of them work simply because they need the money.

Some Saudi women get jobs only after a divorce. Hana, a thirty-year-old saleswoman at the Chanel cosmetics counter in Harvey Nichols, told me that, since the breakup of her marriage, five years ago, she had been living with a sister and a brother. Money was scarce, and she wanted to be independent. Her three children lived with her ex-husband, who rarely allowed her to see them. Nearly twenty per cent of Saudi marriages end in divorce, and although Islamic law grants mothers custody of young children, Saudi judges often award custody to fathers, arguing that they'll be better able to provide for the children. Hana had been admitted to college, but she had married at nineteen, and her husband had refused to allow her to attend. She spoke fervently about her happiness at work and about her hope that her salary would one day allow her to buy a house and get her children back. "I found myself through working," Hana told me. "I think all the time now about how to develop myself, how to improve."

I asked her how her family and their friends had reacted to her decision to take the job. Her sister and brother knew that she worked as a saleswoman, but, fearing gossip, they had not told anyone else. "My job is a private thing," she said. In time, she hoped that the idea of Saudi women working in stores would become no more scandalous than the idea of a female doctor. "In shops, people say, 'No, this is mixing between men and women. It's not allowed. It's not ethical.' " She'd been practicing ways to increase her self-confidence, but, for now, she found it deeply upsetting that her job selling makeup might raise questions about her morals.

The introduction of women into the Harvey Nichols sales force got off to a poor start. The chief executive of the store's holding company, Princess Reema bint Bandar al-Saud, is a tall woman in her late thirties with a broad, attractive face and a warm manner. She grew up in Washington, D.C., where her father, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, served for twenty-two years as the Saudi Ambassador. She told me that her customers were used to a very high level of service, and many didn't like making purchases from female employees. Also, the saleswomen were nervous in their new roles, often selling products that they could never afford. This past May, Princess Reema commissioned a Lebanese company, Phi Management Group, to design a training program for the Harvey Nichols saleswomen. The program included lessons on interactions between male and female workers, and on dealing with customers who criticized them. At the Princess's insistence, there were also discussions of basic personal finance. " 'The money that you make is yours, so the bank account you should be giving us that is the recipient of your salary should be yours,' " she said, imagining a conversation with a new employee. "I needed to know that she knew she had the right to her salary."

Princess Reema spoke in the practiced tones of a woman born to diplomacy. In areas of the store where both sexes work, she explained, three women must work in the vicinity of each man, in order to reduce the possibility of a one-on-one interaction. "You know what—that's our culture," she said. "That's our society. I'm going to go with it, and I see no problem with it."

She makes sure that interactions with the religious police are respectful. If Harvey Nichols is less likely to be summarily closed for violations of Sharia than one of the lingerie stores in Al Faisaliyah mall, next door, that has more to do with its size and its policies, she said, than with any leniency she might receive as a member of the royal family. Harvey Nichols has a government-relations department, whose employees, along with members of the store's security staff, accompany members of the Hai'a when they patrol. The store's managers might also take into account the opinion of the Hai'a men. " 'Is it that you think our makeup girls are wearing too much makeup? Great, we'll deal with that. Thank you so much for your opinion.' 'Ladies, please, this might not be the time to be using Shimmer and Shine in bright green.' "

Many saleswomen told me that their families treat them differently now. "Husbands respect women who are working," twenty-seven-year-old Sara, who works at the Dior cosmetics counter at Harvey Nichols, explained. Now, when she and her husband fight, he doesn't have an automatic advantage. Sara has her own bank account and A.T.M. card. "I'm financially independent, so he feels that now I could leave him if I wanted to," she told me.

Aisha, a thirty-four-year-old accessories saleswoman, told me that her husband had died after they divorced, but her children had remained with his extended family, who wouldn't allow her to see them. When she began working, she learned that other divorced women were allowed to see their children. She called her children's uncle and threatened to take him to court. He knew that Aisha was earning enough money to make good on her threat, and he began allowing the children to visit her.

Reema, forty-two years old and divorced, works as a cashier at Harvey Nichols. She considers herself conservative, but has begun to take an interest in women's rights. She told me that when the older of her two young sons, who live with her, turns twelve he could become her guardian. "My sons are going to be different," she said. "They have to be different. They have to treat women with respect."

Many of Reema's colleagues have been harangued by members of the Hai'a. She believes that the religious police have an important role to play in safeguarding moral values, but that they misunderstand why women like her are working. "I would like to send a message to them if I could, to tell them that there are conservative women, who are religious, who leave our houses only to work, and not to do anything else," she said. "I fear God greatly, and so do many other women in this field. We are in a decent profession, earning decent money, to support decent families."


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Gender Equality

Gender Equality
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