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Story Publication logo June 28, 2011

In Saudi Arabia, an Undercover Revolution

Image by Ellen Knickmeyer. Tunisia, 2011.

Ellen Knickmeyer has been traveling the Arab world from the first weeks of the revolutions to tell...

The Saudi government says it plans to remake employment regulations so female clerks can assist other women in lingerie shops.

On the "ladies' level" at the Kingdom Centre shopping mall in the Saudi capital, winds of change for Saudi women are blowing among the racks of bras. Gender barriers are falling among the body-shapers and panties. In what Saudi activists argue is one of several potentially momentous moves this spring and summer to ease some of the toughest strictures in the world upon women, Saudi Arabia says that it is remaking employment regulations -- so that women clerks can wait upon female customers in lingerie stores.

Never mind that it took changes in the labor law in 2005-2006, a boycott and online campaigns by Saudi female activists, and, ultimately, personal intervention by King Abdullah himself this month to counter fatwas regarding lingerie clerks, simply so that Saudi women wouldn't have to talk to male clerks about cup sizes and overflowing muffin tops.

In deeply conservative Saudi Arabia, where King Abdullah's government moved this year to further open jobs and education for women and responded surprisingly leniently last week to the most significant protest in decades against the kingdom's ban on women driving, this summer is what amounts to hopeful times for supporters of greater freedom for Saudi women.

"This is something great! A huge change," says 18-year-old Latifa al-Fahed, scanning the racks in the lingerie section at the Kingdom Centre's Debenhams department store.

(King Abdullah's edict, yet to be implemented, requires that female clerks sell what the king called "women's necessities," even in malls where men are present. Currently, most stores in Saudi Arabia, and the majority of workplaces overall, are staffed by men -- Saudi women make up less than 15 percent of Saudi nationals in the workforce. The exceptions include female education and health care, and segregated women-only malls and "ladies' levels," where women can shop alone among other women, at a price premium.)

Even conservative women who oppose other moves, such as allowing women to drive, are applauding the lingerie measure. "I'm married, so I wanted to buy something a little sexy," Fatima, a 22-year-old in niqab that covers all but her eyes, explains to me after buying something lacy and floral on the ladies' level. "These are sensitive issues, and I definitely would not buy from a man. I support this change."

While on the surface quite small, each of the pending changes, Saudi activists argue, should be viewed as a chipping away at the gender segregation that crushes the employment prospects of most of the kingdom's more than 10 million Saudi women and drains fortunes from Saudi women and their families.

Reem Asaad, a banker and analyst in Jeddah who was one of the leaders of the campaign for female lingerie clerks, started the lingerie effort after receiving one-too-many unwelcome bits of advice from a male clerk about her underwear, she says. Ultimately, though, Asaad told me in a phone call, her campaign has been about economic justice, starting with what activists say is the more than $1 billion annual lingerie trade in Saudi.

Thanks to the single promised change regarding lingerie stores, "thousands of women can now set foot in the working pool of people," Asaad says. "This cannot be bad."

Smashing one of the first of many barriers to mixing genders in the workplace may lead to breakthroughs in other professional and trade fields, says Princess Ameerah al-Taweel. The wife of a Saudi prince who is one of the world's wealthiest men, Taweel, at 28, has emerged as an outspoken advocate of women's driving, employment, and education.

"This step will lead to other steps, and people will get used to the sight of women working," the princess told me. "This is a big step for us."

"Things are happening, but we want them to happen faster," she said. "Everything we're asking for is extremely good for our society."

In general, most of the restrictions on Saudi women are meant to block mingling of the sexes in shops, workplaces, and schools, which many in the country's Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam say is immoral. The government's own permanent committee on religious edicts underscored the perceived prohibition in a statement this month, citing a line from the Quran: "When you ask them [wives of the Prophet Mohammed] for any goods, ask them from behind a curtain. This is purer for your hearts and for theirs."

Advocates of more freedoms for Saudi women say this interpretation of the Quran is extreme. Even the Prophet Mohammed's own first wife was a shrewd businesswoman and, according to tradition, rode into battle on a camel, they say.

Efforts to apply 18th-century tribal customs and interpretations of Islamic law to 21st-century Islamic life lead to some awkward contortions. The prohibition on women's driving compels millions of Saudi women to share an enclosed vehicle with a hired driver. The prohibition on women working in mixed environments means that overly aggressive all-male cosmetic clerks yell across the store that they have just the thing for your dry skin, while lingerie salesman hawk push-up bras with all the discretion of a used-car salesman with a lot full of Ford Tauruses.

In most civil affairs, whether a matter of business permits, dowries, or inheritance, women must work through male guardians, or -- on small issues -- through comparatively powerless female clerks.

The financial impact upon Saudi women can be devastating. The ban on women driving alone amounts to a $10,000 annual tax on women -- the yearly salary of a hired driver, blogger Eman Fahad Al Nafjan says.

Nafjan, talking to me one day last week, also cited cases of divorced or widowed mothers of grown daughters forced to live off charity even though they are fully employable.

While 60 percent of Saudis pursuing higher education are women, the restrictions contribute to a stunning estimated unemployment rate of 75 percent for Saudi women with college degrees.

Ultimately, economics should force some of the barriers to fall, says John Sfakianakis, chief economist at Banque Saudi Fransi in Riyadh. As elsewhere, "it's becoming an economic necessity in Saudi Arabia" for households to have more than one wage earner. "We're going to see more and more women who will look for jobs."

So far, though, Saudi Arabia still is moving slowly on women's issues -- inasmuch as it is moving at all. In Riyadh, 22-year-old Noufi al-Sheikh was one of many women who said they might take a drive themselves -- in four or five years. "Now, the country itself is refusing the idea," Sheikh said.

As activists young and old glumly pointed out, news archives show Saudis have been giving that any-year-now time frame since at least 1975.

King Abdullah typically casts his measures for women as economic and employment opportunities rather than as rights issues. Saudis who support his changes believe he has managed, six years into his reign, to come to terms with more conservative elements both in his family and in the country's religious establishment. Some say they see exposure to the Internet, and to dialogue on Facebook and Twitter, as broadening Saudis' points of view, and that the king needs to push harder.

Activists say they expect more improvements for women under King Abdullah, but they privately worry about what comes after the king, who the Saudi government says was born in 1924.

Women's issues often have strained Saudi society, and at times threatened even the al-Saud monarchy. King Faisal deployed troops in the 1960s to keep open one of the country's first schools for girls. The religious extremists who took over the Grand Mosque at Mecca in 1979 were motivated in part by anger over newly arriving satellite dishes that were streaming images of unveiled women into Saudi homes.

In 1990, when 47 women staged the last significant demonstration over driving in Saudi Arabia, angry crowds of religious conservatives mobbed government buildings in protest.

Fawziah al-Bakr and the other 46 women drove on a Tuesday, in 1990, she recalls. By Friday of that week, mosque speakers were calling the names of Bakr, her husband, and the others from minarets, and urging that they be killed.

This time, the response to a June 17 driving protest by a new generation of women has been more muted, she acknowledges -- a few traffic tickets from police, some sputtering in Internet chat rooms.

Then Bakr, now a university professor, stops herself. She slaps her hand to her forehead.

"Oh, my God," she moans. "I can't believe it's 20 years later and we're still talking about women driving."

*This article was also featured in NPR.



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